The Scarborough Cricket Festival is one of the sport’s great traditions, a golden four days in which Yorkshire, one of the two traditionally dominant counties, leaves its home in Leeds to play a championship game in the coastal resort. The ground on North Marine Drive seems not to have changed in half a century, perhaps more, and neither has the crowd. Platform 5b at York Station last Monday, waiting for the 0845 to Scarborough, was packed with aging men, most wearing tweed and many in flat caps. And yet the front page of the sports section of the Yorkshire Post was devoted not to cricket but to football, and in this most insular of regions (until 1992, only those born within Yorkshire could play cricket for the county), not to a local but to an eccentric Argentinian who speaks barely a word of English.
On the train and in the stands, the conversation kept circling around the same subject: Marcelo Bielsa.
Yorkshire prides itself on its bluntness. It is not easily carried away. It is dour and skeptical and it calls out hypocrisy wherever it sees it. And yet Bielsa, after a little more than a month in charge of Leeds United, already feels like a folk hero. As play on one of the festival's drew to a close, a group of 70-odd-year-olds, enthused by the previous weekend's victory over Rotherham United, sought instruction in how they could use the “red button” on their remotes to watch Leeds’s match at Swansea that evening.
There are two immediate reactions, of course. One is to wonder at the sheer weirdness of globalization, and the fact that a manager regarded as one of the most influential tactical thinkers in the modern game should go from leading Argentina against England at a World Cup to being celebrated for a victory over Rotherham in a span of 16 years. The other is to point out that Bielsa often does this: a flying start, followed by late-season exhaustion and disappointment is a familiar arc.
But then there is a third response, a gladness that this is happening at all. Leeds United is a strange club, one that has twice had decades in which it seemed a giant of the English game, but has spent most of its history in the second flight, despite being the only club in a city of 500,000 population. It reached a Champions League semifinal in 2001, but it has endured relegation and a string of difficult owners who had drained the life from it ever since.
Bielsa has also had his fallow years. He hasn’t actually won anything since leading Argentina to Olympic gold 14 years ago to the day in 2004. He reinvigorated Chilean football and had promising starts at Athletic of Bilbao and Marseille, but at both his side ran out of steam before the end of the season. Stints at Lazio and Lille lasted two days and three months, respectively.
But five games into the season, Leeds sits atop of the Championship table, having dropped only two points so far in England's second tier despite a testing fixture list that has seen it play two of the sides relegated from the Premier League and Frank Lampard’s promotion hopeful, Derby County. Leeds has scored 14 goals and is already playing in a discernibly bielsista way, pressing ferociously high and swarming all over opponents. In preseason, Leeds had three training sessions a day, using sleeping areas Bielsa had installed at the training ground to relax.
He demands total immersion, which includes following his own ideas about respect, both for opponents–Leeds players now clean up the dressing room after away games–and for fans. Bielsa calculated it took the average fan three-and-a-half hours to earn enough money to pay for a ticket and had his players pick up litter for the same period.
All the quirks are there. Bielsa rarely speaks directly to players. He sends hours watching videos of opponents. His press conferences are laborious affairs as, to justify his refusal to do one-on-one interviews, Bielsa takes questions from anybody who wants to ask one and then, to help him learn English, he insists on repeating what his translator whispers to him. He sits on an upturned bucket in his technical area because his knees are no longer good enough to sustain the crouching position he believes gives him the best view during games.
Friday provides another major test as Leeds hosts Middlesbrough in a battle of two teams tied on 13 points atop the table. Tony Pulis against Marcelo Bielsa feels like another of globalization’s jokes, but if Leeds comes through this, it will be clear in first place. There is always the nagging doubt that fatigue may set in–and the Championship season is 46 games long, even before the playoffs–but for now, Bielsa has Leeds believing.
And even if it does go wrong, there is already the sense that this is a season that will be remembered, that cricket fans will still be talking about it at North Marine Drive in another half century.