On the touchline, a member of the coaching staff had leapt into the arms of defender Stuart Dallas and was hanging onto him for dear life. Andrea Radrizzani, the team owner, was standing by the tunnel, embracing every player who approached him. In the stands, Victor Orta, the technical director, was pumping his arms and screaming into the sky.
Leeds United was almost there. For 16 years, the club has been yearning to regain its place in the Premier League: a decade and a half of humiliation, chaos, false dawns and even falser prophets in the perpetual sunsets of English soccer's second and third tiers. And now, a fraught, narrow victory against Barnsley on Thursday had brought it to the cusp: not mathematically, not officially, not quite, not yet, but spiritually, nearly.
Amid all the emotion, the architect of its exodus from the wilderness, eccentric Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, walked across to his Barnsley counterpart, Gerhard Struber. Bielsa wanted to tell Struber, with that slightly awkward, studious air he has, how impressed he had been by his team, how much he admired his work. "He found the right words for me," Struber said.
Bielsa was not concerned with what came next. If either of Leeds' closest rivals, West Bromwich Albion and Brentford, dropped so much as a point over the weekend, that would be it, and Leeds would be promoted. Bielsa did not, he said, intend on watching either match.
He did not find daydreaming, hoping for others to stutter so that he might be a Premier League manager, "convenient." "The situation is not resolved," he said. He would instead do what he always does: pore over opposition analysis and scouting reports and prepare training programs.
Barely 24 hours later, the spiritual became mathematical. West Brom lost at Huddersfield. Leeds United, after 16 long years, was up. Thousands of fans quickly descended on Elland Road, congregating on Bremner Square, burning flares and setting off fireworks and draping scarves over the statue of Billy Bremner, the club's greatest idol.
In one of the stadium suites high above, the team — gathered together to watch their moment of ascension — danced and sang with them. Bielsa was at home in Wetherby, a quiet market town 20 minutes outside the city. A few of his neighbors turned up to congratulate him. "Thank you," he said. "I don't speak English, but thank you." They smiled. "You are God," one replied.
Doing a Leeds
As a teenager, in those long, hard years of training and sparring and hoping for a chance, featherweight world champion Josh Warrington looked on with envy at Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, northern cities with "a good tradition of boxing." Leeds, his hometown, was not like that. It would, he realized, be his responsibility to "put it on the map."
Leeds has plenty of sporting traditions. If anything, it has too many. In Warrington's eyes, it is first and foremost a football city. "If you read the back page of the paper, the football always dominates," he said. But it is also a rugby city: the sport predates soccer in Leeds by several decades. It is a cricket city, too: Headingley, the local stadium, has produced at least two of the finest moments in English cricket history.
In recent years, Leeds has won fame in a host of Olympic disciplines. In 2012, Yorkshire, the county in which the city sits, proudly boasted that, if it had been an independent nation, it would have finished 12th in the Olympic medals table. (It managed a respectable 17th in Rio de Janeiro four years later.)
Over the last decade, the well-heeled towns of Ilkley and Harrogate, on the city's fringes, where the urban bleeds seamlessly into the rural, have been at the heart of Britain's cycling boom. Leeds got a soccer team relatively late — the first incarnation arrived only in 1905 — and the sport has never quite defined the city's identity the way it does in Liverpool or Manchester.
It is a trait that extends beyond sport. Leeds, as a city, has toyed with countless visions of itself in the last century: a swath of attempts by civic leaders through the 20th century, most of which, according to writer Anthony Clavane, "failed to reverse the image of grimy, industrial mill-town, the eternal Victorian city."
Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Leeds variously rebranded itself as the "Barcelona of the north," based around a cafe culture and urban living; as a financial boomtown, complete with the first branch of luxury department store Harvey Nichols outside London; and, later, one of the twin poles of the Conservative government's promised Northern Powerhouse.
It is a city with a proud musical back catalog — Soft Cell, Sisters of Mercy, Utah Saints — that did not have a major music venue until 2013; a cultural hot spot — Alan Bennett, Keith Waterhouse, Northern Ballet, Opera North — that built its "cultural offer" around "passive mass-consumption experiences," according to a paper published in 2004 by academics at the University of Leeds.
It has long been a city in search of a defining identity, some sort of calling card. At times, the soccer team has provided it: in the 1960s and '70s, the title-winning era before "The Damned United" days of Brian Clough's disastrous (and brief) tenure; and again at the turn of the century, when its thrilling team, fueled by youth and debt, reached the semifinals of the Champions League.
More recently, for much of the country, the association of Leeds and soccer has been a negative one. "Doing a Leeds" has entered the sport's lexicon, a cautionary tale about the dangers of spending more than you earn, of living beyond your means, of the hubris that comes from excess. For a decade and a half, that has been Leeds' sporting identity.
A couple of years ago, Warrington achieved his ambition. In 2018, nine years after turning professional, he fought Lee Selby for the IBF world featherweight title. The fight was scheduled for Elland Road. In front of a crowd of 25,000, the boyhood Leeds United fan won a split decision. It made him the first male world champion boxer the city had produced. It put Leeds, as he had always wanted, on the boxing map, creating another aspect of its identity.
"That season had been a disaster for Leeds United," Warrington remembered. "I had fans coming up to me saying I had given them something to cheer about. I had brought a bit of glory back to the city. They said they hoped it would push the team on a bit. A few weeks later, Bielsa joined. The phoenix started rising."
The Ballad of the 'Burley Banksy'
Andy McVeigh's accidental street art career started small: trees and flowers, that sort of thing. He had endured a devastating few months — a family tragedy, the suicide of a friend, his mother receiving a cancer diagnosis — and he found that simple act, painting something pretty over the mindless graffiti near his home in Headingley, soothing. "A bit like therapy, really," he said. "It made me feel better."
One day, he decided — for reasons that he cannot quite remember — to expand his repertoire. He had always been fascinated by design, and he had always been captivated by the bold colors of Leeds' uniform: stark white, a rich blue, sunshine yellow. Instead of an image, he painted the words "Until The World Stops Going Round," a line from the Leeds United club anthem, on a telephone box.
He hit upon a theme. "Leeds United has a lot of great design in its history," McVeigh said. He did another painting, of the club's former player Gary Speed, who had taken his own life in 2011. And then another. Word of his work spread through social media. He was nicknamed the Burley Banksy, a tribute to a neighborhood contiguous to Headingley and the far better-known hit-and-run street artist.
Encouraged, McVeigh started to think of a "pathway to the stadium, something for kids to ask their parents about to learn the history of the team." And then, twice, his works were vandalized. After the second attack, a letter appeared in the local newspaper, the Yorkshire Evening Post, from a group styling itself Leeds Residents Against Graffiti, claiming responsibility for painting over the murals.
The group said it represented "the 90% of the citizens of Leeds who are not obsessed with Leeds United and do not need to see public areas painted with these mindless slogans." Sheer black paint, they said, "looks much more dignified than the childish scrawl of a man who should be old enough to know better."
Although McVeigh believes the group was, essentially, "just one person," it seemed to cement the idea that Leeds' identity is not as bound up in soccer as, say, Liverpool's, where far larger murals of Jürgen Klopp and Trent Alexander-Arnold have appeared in recent years, despite the presence of two teams in the city.
And then, much to his surprise, McVeigh found himself at the center of a cause célèbre. "The reaction was amazing," he said. Strangers offered their support on the street. A raft of letters were written to the Post praising his work. The club, in conjunction with local authorities, commissioned him to repaint the murals (which would, as commissioned artwork, make defacing them a crime). "The whole city was behind me," he said.
McVeigh credits Bielsa with much of that. "He gave us hope," he said. "For a long time, supporting Leeds had been a chore, a duty. It was so farcical at times that it was embarrassing. And then he came, and on his first day he made the players pick up litter at the training ground, and you thought this was going to be different."
But there was something else, too. Amid all the discontent and despair, Leeds has found pride in the sheer mass of its support, so much so that the phrase "Leeds would have taken more" has become a meme.
In Leeds United's years in the wilderness, the support it has received has been focused on one thing: seeing the club return to the Premier League, its promised land.
"Getting back has become a bit of an obsession," McVeigh said. The club's time away from the elite has given the team a purpose, an identity, one that the whole city has bought into: Leeds not as the team and the city that fell, but the team and the place that rose again.
McVeigh did not watch the West Brom game that ended his team's wait; he followed it, instead, vicariously, through his son, Danny. "He's 17," McVeigh said. "He's never seen them in the Premier League." Danny spent Friday evening glued to his phone, waiting for updates. "He is holding his Leeds shirt in his hand," McVeigh said. "Like a comfort blanket."
Written by: Rory Smith
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