"You are God!" Marcelo Bielsa smiled, shook his head and waved his finger after hearing that remark. Leeds United's Argentine manager had just emerged from his small, one-bedroom apartment in Wetherby, on the outskirts of his adopted city, to thank the group of supporters that had gathered outside to celebrate the club's promotion to the Premier League.
Bielsa posed for photographs with children, elbow-bumped the older fans and offered a brief "thank you" in broken English. He seemed a touch embarrassed by the adulation as elderly women shouted "We love you! We love you!" at him, but being called God by one man, who was wearing a flat cap and an Argentina flag over his shoulders, seemed to be too much for Bielsa. After all, by securing promotion, he had merely done his job.
Leeds is a club, and a city, that does not really do romance. Actions speak louder than words and the less said about it, the better. That could even be their motto. But Bielsa has brought romance to Leeds. He has also secured vindication for his own approach to the game that, while earning the respect and praise from the great and the good, has often been a case of style over substance.
With Chile and Athletic Bilbao, in particular, Bielsa built innovative, eye-catching attacking teams, but no trophies. And Leeds really needed a winner. He is a football purist and, if things are not to his liking, Bielsa will walk away.
He resigned as Lazio manager after just two days in charge back in 2016. A year earlier, he quit as Marseille coach one game into the season and, prior to joining Leeds, Bielsa lasted just 13 games in charge of Lille. He's also the coach who was christened "El Loco" ("The Crazy One") in the early 1990s when he faced a gang of Newell's Old Boys fans while clutching a grenade and threatening to pull the pin after they turned up at his home, demanding he appear, after a 6-0 defeat against San Lorenzo in the Copa Libertadores.
Modesty and humility are two of Bielsa's greatest qualities, but getting Leeds back to the Premier League is no ordinary achievement. Perhaps it needed a man described as a genius by Pep Guardiola to pull off what had been mission impossible to so many others.
The story of Leeds United has been a rollercoaster, with many more scream-inducing falls than uplifting high points since the wheels came off in the early years of this century. Three years after being Champions League semifinalists in 2001, Leeds were relegated from the Premier League having spent recklessly beyond their means. Former chairman Peter Ridsdale infamously said Leeds were "living the dream," but it quickly became a nightmare of player sales, managerial sackings and lurching from one crisis to another.
Since relegation in 2004, Leeds have had 15 managers and five owners. They've been to the brink of financial oblivion, endured three seasons in League One, England's third tier, suffered FA Cup humiliation against a team from a village (Histon in 2008) and become the butt of jokes of rival supporters.
So back in June 2018, it seemed as though English football's craziest club had just hired the game's most unpredictable manager. What could possibly go wrong?
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Leeds -- and the phrase "doing a Leeds" -- became synonymous with messing things up. Opposition fans would delight in rewording the Joy Division song, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," by singing "Leeds are falling apart" whenever this famous old club stumbled in pursuit of a return to the promised land of the Premier League. When Leeds lost a crucial promotion clash against Sheffield United in March 2019, Bielsa gave his postmatch news conference with a fire alarm ringing in the background. It was a warning of what was to come; Leeds fell apart again in the run-in, missing out on promotion. Sheffield United went up instead.
This year, the story has a different ending. Leeds have been promoted as champions and their 16-year exile is over.
"When the manager first came in, I never thought I would be in this position two years down the line," Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips said. "He is the best manager in the world. There's no manager I would rather be under than Marcelo Bielsa right now."
Leeds United are an anomaly. In the all-time list of England's most successful football clubs, they sit in 15th place, in between Sheffield Wednesday and West Bromwich Albion, with only nine major trophies. By comparison, Manchester United and Liverpool occupy the top two spots with 66 and 65 trophies respectively.
In the 2011 UK Census, outside of London, only Birmingham was recorded as having a larger population than the city of Leeds (751,485). Leeds United have the city to themselves as the only professional football club, so they have underperformed like few others. But in terms of their fan base and global popularity, Leeds have a huge following. The Leeds United Supporters' Trust has members in Canada, Japan, Russia, Hong Kong, Malta, Venezuela and American Samoa. There are official supporters' clubs in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Johannesburg, Baghdad and New Zealand.
The Leeds phenomenon can be traced back to the 1960s. When Don Revie was appointed manager in 1961, the club was in the second tier and had never won a major trophy. Revie immediately ditched the club's traditional blue and yellow shirts and insisted they wore all-white. His ambition was to turn Leeds into England's Real Madrid and while they certainly became winners, admirers were few and far between.
Under Revie, Leeds won six major trophies, but they finished as runners-up in the league five times in seven years and lost three of four FA Cup finals. By the time Revie left to take charge of England in 1974, Leeds had become a superpower after being built into an uncompromising team that was loved and loathed in unequal measure -- nicknamed "Dirty Leeds" by their detractors.
"It was brutal stuff, definitely win-at-all-costs," former Leeds winger Eddie Gray said. Defender Jack Charlton, who died earlier this month, admitted to having a "little black book" filled with names of opponents he planned to "get even with," while Norman Hunter was nicknamed "Bites Yer Legs" because of the ferocity of his tackling. Hunter was once sent off after a fist-fight with Derby County's Francis Lee.
Johnny Giles, an iconic figure in the Revie era, has always defended the Leeds approach. "When people talk about Leeds being dirty, they forget that was the culture back then," Giles said. "You had to look after yourself. We just made sure nobody ever managed to bully us."
Revie's successor, Brian Clough, was sacked after only 44 days in charge. Clough had previously described Leeds as "cheats" and the "dirtiest, most cynical team in the league." (The tumultuous spell was chronicled in the book and film "The Damned United.") His first speech to his new players after replacing Revie was remarkable. "The first thing you can do for me is throw your medals in the bin because you've never won anything fairly; you've done it by cheating," Clough said.
The Leeds backstory is why they trigger such divisive opinions and emotions -- people either love them or hate them. It's why many have relished the club's descent towards to the abyss since relegation from the Premier League in 2004, but in Leeds, being the team that everyone else loves to hate is regarded as a badge of honour.
"There has always been a 'them against us' attitude with Leeds," Simon Grayson, former Leeds player, manager and boyhood supporter, told ESPN. "Don Revie and Billy Bremner used to love to stick it to everybody else, and that attitude has been passed down through the generations.
"Nobody likes Leeds and even now, after almost 50 years, the 'Dirty Leeds' tag remains. Leeds have a really bitter rivalry with Chelsea, which defies logic because London is 200 miles away. But that's how it is with Leeds."
It's difficult to pinpoint the nadir of the past 16 years for Leeds United. There have been so many of them.
"Relegation to League One was a real low point," Daniel Chapman, the author of "100 years of Leeds United," told ESPN. "But in many ways, the three seasons down there were a lot of fun because we were winning most of the time. The lowest point was the second year of Massimo Cellino's three-year reign as owner [in 2015], when we were back in the Championship. This is the guy who imposed a £5 pie tax on fans because he objected to us telling him it was time to go!"
The pie tax -- Cellino raised ticket prices by £5 and issued a voucher to be exchanged for a pie and a drink at one of the club's food stalls -- proved to be one of the less bewildering actions taken by the Italian during his chaotic time at Elland Road.
Cellino, who had previously owned Italian club Cagliari, was initially blocked from buying Leeds in March 2014 after failing the Football League's Owners and Directors Test. Cellino had been found guilty by a Sardinian court of tax evasion, but despite the Football League ruling, he appealed and had the ban overturned. He would go on to sack six managers in less than three years; Dave Hockaday and Darko Milanic were both dismissed after only six games in charge.
"When Steve Evans was appointed manager [in October 2015], we hadn't won at home for 11 games," Chapman said. "Evans said his first objective was to put that right. We played Blackburn in his first home game and were 1-0 down after seven seconds. It was 2-0 after six minutes. It summed everything up."
Stephen Warnock, a former Liverpool defender, spent two years at Leeds and endured the worst of the Cellino experience.
"I've never witnessed anything like it," Warnock told ESPN. "Cellino had a complete disregard for the players and staff at the club. He would turn up at training in a golf buggy, smoking a cigar, and shouting all kinds of things at the players and coaches.
"When he appointed Milanic as manager, training was the weirdest thing you could imagine. We couldn't run -- everything had to be done while walking. Maybe that's why he only lasted six games. But it was just crazy under Cellino. The players paid for the food at the training ground, but he got rid of the kitchen staff and made us eat packed lunches."
Graham Bean, a former policeman and compliance officer at the Football Association, was hired by Cellino to help with club administration. Bean had developed a trusted reputation within the game having worked closely with Sir Alex Ferguson by advising the former Manchester United manager on disciplinary matters, but at Leeds, he lasted only four months in the job.
"The club was beyond help under Cellino," Bean told ESPN. "In his defence, he did inherit a club that was in a downwards spiral because of the mistakes of previous owners, but he went in and stripped everything back. He was also extremely superstitious. He regarded the number 17 and colour purple as being unlucky, so he got rid of the 17 shirt and every seat or hospitality box with the number 17 on it. He discovered a purple pennant in the West Stand one day, so we had to get rid of that too."
By the time Cellino sold his stake in Leeds to Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani in May 2017, the fans had lost all faith in the club being able to navigate a route back to the top.
"The fans had become so tired of it all," Chapman said. "We had been away from the Premier League for 13 years and we were going nowhere. Optimism was nonexistent."
When Bielsa was appointed Leeds manager in June 2018, at the suggestion of Victor Orta, the club's director of football, it was a high-risk strategy.
Make no mistake: the 65-year-old is a revolutionary coach who has always produced bold, attacking teams. His favoured 3-3-3-1 formation, which he has regularly used at Leeds, enables Bielsa's team to attack in waves, with opponents often unable to cope with the constant movement of the ball. But would his approach work in the EFL Championship -- a 46-game marathon which tests the physical strengths of players as much as their technical abilities?
Leeds wanted Bielsa to bring something different and prove that you don't have to slog your way out of the Championship, but there were no guarantees.
When Leeds were accused of spying on Derby County's training sessions prior to a Championship game last season, Bielsa's reputation risked being tarnished. Rather than dismissing the accusations, he not only admitted to instructing an associate to do it, but also confessed to spying on every other team too. The so-called "Spygate" affair resulted in Leeds being fined £200,000 by the Football League, but it only served to enhance Bielsa's standing among the club's fans.
"It doesn't take much for us in Leeds to harbour a persecution complex," Chapman said. "The world was against us after Spygate, but Bielsa was brilliant. He owned up to it and basically said, 'So what?' From that point on, we knew he was the man for us."
Bielsa is now revered by the club's success-starved supporters. Promotion will only elevate his status, but for some, he already has done more than restore the club to the place where many believe it belongs.
"Bielsa has brought the dignity back to Leeds," Andy McVeigh, aka street artist "Burley Banksy," told ESPN. "We were on our knees before he arrived because the club had become a circus. Everyone absolutely loves him."
To this point, Bielsa used his post-promotion press conference to thank a neighbour who had left soup on his doorstep every day during lockdown. The people of Leeds simply adore him.
McVeigh is a living embodiment of the Bielsa effect. The school teacher has become a cult figure around Leeds after starting to paint telephone transmission boxes in club colours, with artistic tributes to current and former players; his street art also resulted in a box bearing Bielsa's image alongside the words, "In Bielsa We Trust."
"I wouldn't have done the boxes 2-3 years ago," McVeigh said. "It's all been since Bielsa came. He has had an uplifting effect on me and the city itself."
Bielsa is a serious figure within the club, however, his attention to detail is extraordinary. When he was interviewed by Orta and Leeds chief executive Angus Kinnear in May 2018, he stunned the two men by detailing the formations used by all of the club's Championship rivals and how the players in the Leeds squad could adapt to his own demands. That level of detail has extended to the training ground: players are expected to arrive at 9 a.m. and regularly leave after 5 p.m. to undergo specific one-on-one coaching sessions as well as team drills. In just two years, he has transformed a team of mid-table players into champions simply by making each individual better.
"I would have loved to have played under Bielsa," Warnock said. "I hear so many good things about his coaching and management style. He is an enigma, but he has been perfect for Leeds."
Such is Bielsa's intensity, there were concerns that his physical demands on the players would prove too much over a 46-game Championship season. It was borne out last season as Leeds faltered late, losing five of their final 10 matches to slide out of the automatic promotion spots before losing to Derby County in the playoffs, but the three-month shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic resulted in Bielsa's players emerging fit and fresh for the run-in, which has ended with Leeds being promoted at long last.
"Marcelo is a tough taskmaster, the players haven't had it easy," Kinnear said after promotion was achieved by closest challengers West Brom losing at Huddersfield on Friday. "But if you see him embracing [the players], you get a sense of the unity we have in the team and that's been a strength this season."
Bielsa has led and everyone in Leeds has followed. He might not enjoy the "God" comparisons, but he will have to get used to them now.
For many in Leeds, he has been the club's saviour.