It takes a lot of guts to be a writer, to not only put yourself in the centre of any narrative but to claim that your perspective is something new, fresh and worth reading. Les Misérables was first published in 1862 and has had countless adaptations and interpretations since then so it would be naive to suggest I could offer something new and exciting however I doubt many have looked at Les Mis through a Leeds United lens.
The novel begins with Jean Valjean being released from 19 years imprisonment for stealing bread and few metaphors describe Leeds United’s 16 year exile from the Premier League. Leeds first season in the Championship brought a play-off final defeat so fans would be forgiven for thinking a swift return to the big-time was on the cards however relegation to League One followed the season after. Les Miserables the musical opens with the song “Look Down.”
On 26th February 2022 I watched Leeds United against Tottenham Hotspur on television from the comfort of my living room before traveling to London to watch Les Misérables the musical. Despite the 4-0 scoreline in favour of the North London side, Leeds had hit the woodwork twice and Stuart Dallas seemed certain to score when putting the ball past Hugo Lloris only for a combination of Dallas’ patience and some determined defending from Ben Davies ensured that didn’t happen. That was Marcelo Bielsa’s last game in charge of Leeds United and I found out that he had “parted company” during the interval of Les Mis.
Susan Boyle was laughed at in her Britain’s Got Talent audition when she stated she wanted to be a professional singer and when Bielsa named his first starting 11 against Stoke City there were similar howls of derision. How had he included only one new signing in this team that finished 14th in the league the season before? Unlike Susan Boyle, Leeds fans had seen the same players only months prior and knew that they weren’t good enough to go up. If Boyle and Bielsa proved anything in their first public outing in the UK it was that looks could be deceiving. Boyle’s song choice – I dreamed a dream from Les Mis.
Bielsa’s nickname is El Loco and his intense fitness demands and steadfast refusal to deviate from his attacking philosophy is what earned him that nickname but he lived by an honour code that made him human and in the world of professional football that is crazy. He lived in a small flat in Wetherby so he could walk to and from the training ground refusing the plush surroundings initially offered to him by Leeds United, he was often seen preparing for games in the local coffee shop, he reportedly spent hours every morning responding individually to fans messages, he didn’t give exclusive interviews because to do so would undermine his weekly
press conference that was available to all. It’s important to remember he was doing this with Leeds United, Dirty Leeds. The team that celebrated Norman “bite yer legs” Hunter and the ground that during the 80’s became a hotbed of support for the National Front and the associated hooliganism that blighted English football for that decade. Leeds have never been popular and sometimes with good reason.
Bielsa’s ability to get Leeds promoted is nothing compared to the achievement that is getting supporters of other teams to actively like Leeds United and causes us Leeds fans to question who we actually are – much like Jean Valjean does in Les Mis. The nadir of this honour code was undoubtedly allowing Aston Villa to score unopposed at Elland Road following what was a controversial but not illegal goal. The willingness to risk the ire of the vociferous crowd in order to do what he thought was right shows the El Loco nickname is warranted.
The last song before the interval is “One Day More” and before I had turned my phone off to enjoy the show there had been rumblings that Bielsa was gone. The song begins with Jean Valjean pondering “These men who seem to know my crime will surely come a second time.”
But more suitable for Bielsa’s relationship with Leeds is the line “I did not live until today, how can I live when we are parted?”