There aren’t many players in football who would knowingly turn down the opportunity to be coached by Marcelo Bielsa. The way he has improved almost every member of the Leeds United squad during his tenure speaks volumes of his coaching ability. One player who wishes he could have been coached by the Argentine is former midfielder Alex Mowatt.
Mowatt left Leeds in January 2017, a year and a half before Bielsa’s arrival. He missed the incredible journey under El Loco that saw the Whites transformed from a mid-table Championship team to a top-half Premier League outfit. In that three years he also transformed the careers of Mowatt’s good mates Kalvin Phillips, Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling – with all now regulars and holding their own in the top flight of English football. Speaking to The Leeds Press, Mowatt has opened up on how it felt to watch United’s rise just months after leaving Elland Road behind.
“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t have doubts about possibly leaving too early.” he said. “Bielsa is one of the best managers in the world which shows in the transformation on a lot of the players who are there. They are playing in the Premier League week in and week out and they don’t look phased. There are many players still there who I played alongside and they look revolutionised. They look so much more confident under him. He has improved every player in that team.
“Would he have improved me? I don’t think there is probably much doubt about it. I would like to think I have still improved playing at Barnsley and West Brom, but obviously things could have been very different. I love Leeds, I love the fans and I still support them when they play. I’m not the only one who left just before Marcelo came in and I know there is a sense of ‘what might have been’ among the few of us. But you can’t have regrets. I’m still playing professional football at a big club and I haven’t given up on playing in the Premier League. Somtimes you have to go the long way round.”
There aren’t many Leeds fans who don’t have positive memories of Mowatt. The Doncaster-born midfielder came through the Leeds academy and played 116 games for the Whites over four seasons, scoring 12 goals. He was undoubtedly part of a turbulent period in the club’s history under maverick Italian owner Massimo Cellino, as managers came and went and the team failed to mount a serious challenge for a return to the Premier League. But Mowatt was the shining light in an often underperforming team, with the playmaker consistently one of Leeds’ best performers, winning their 2014-15 player-of-the-year award at the age of 18. By the time he departed for Barnsley in January 2021, he was still only 21 and his exit was met with discontent by the Whites fans, but it was move that suited all parties with Mowatt’s contract running into it’s final few months.
“I’ll never forget playing and scoring in front of the Leeds fans at Elland Road,” said Mowatt. “It’s a feeling you can’t buy really and coming through the academy it was a moment I always dreamed of. I was obviously very young during my time at Leeds but I was playing every week and loving every moment of it. It’s a strange one really because I always felt we had the team to challenge, but for whatever reason it never quite happened. We struggled for consistency and had a lot of managers, but if you look at a lot of that team they are now playing in the Premier League, whether that’s for Leeds or other teams like Burnley and Norwich.
“If I’m honest I never thought I would leave Leeds, especially when I was that young, but things escalated very fast and before I knew it I had to make a decision. Barnsley wanted me and were prepared to make the main man. When I spoke to Paul Heckingbottom he made me feel valued, he laid out the future clearly with me and guaranteed me a future in the game at a good level, playing football every week in a team that was showing good potential and punching above their weight. Many Leeds fans still come up to me and ask me why I left. A lot of them are surprised I left but the honest truth is I didn’t feel valued and my contract was running down. Barnsley rekindled my passion and like I say, they made me feel valued again. I enjoyed my time there, became club captain and we got close to the Premier League in my last season.”
During his five years with the Tykes, Mowatt was a regular and scored 20 times in 146 games. Despite suffering relegation from the Championship in his second season, he ended his stint at Oakwell on a high as they bounced back to the second tier and after consolidating in their first season back, they excelled in the 2020-21 season to finish fifth. After losing to Swansea in the playoffs, club captain Mowatt turned down a new deal and joined relegated Premier League outfit West Brom on a free transfer prior to this season. He has featured in all their league games so far, with the Baggies bidding for an immediate return to the top flight, something the 27-year-old is eager to achieve.
“I’m still only 27 and I’m still hungry to reach the Premier League,” he said. “Every player wants to get there. It’s the best league in the world and I always watch and wonder ‘would I be good enough at that level?’. It hurt to get so close with Barnsley but I’m at another big club now who have just been there and we want to get back. I can definitely tell there is that little bit extra quality here in training from the players that have played in the Premier League. It’s a test I need at this stage of my career and I’m hopeful I can play a part in us getting there.
“I have obviously faced Leeds since I’ve left, but to go back to Elland Road for a Premier League fixture would be a dream. I did hope I could do that with Barnsley but it wasn’t to be, but I’m here at West Brom now. I’ve signed a three-year contract here and I’m confident that within that time I can play with this great club in the Prem. As I said, it will be the long way round if I do get there, but I’ll be happy just to get there. I’m still young, I’m playing professional football at a good level and I have something big still to aim for. I don’t want to lose perspective of everything I’ve been through and done.
“I have played pretty much all my career in the second tier, that’s almost a decade now and I know what it takes to compete in this division. I’m hopeful we have the right mix to go for promotion this season. It’s the first time I have lived outside Yorkshire but I’m settling in well here. The lads have been great with me and I’m really enjoying the area, living somewhere new and taking myself outside my comfort zone. I would like to think I have left Leeds and Barnsley fans with good memories of me playing and always giving my all. I hope I can do the same here and leave the club in a better position than when I joined.”