Speaking exclusively to The Leeds Press, Leeds United legend Eddie Gray has admitted he feels the club were justified to sack widely-adored manager Marcelo Bielsa. El Loco had ended the Whites’ 16-year exile from the Premier League and earned adulation from fans and media alike for his breakneck footballing style, as well as his gracious nature and humility away from the touchline.
He also brought a reminder of the glory days back to Leeds, playing the stylish football akin to the all-conquering Leeds side of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. That was a team Gray was part of, playing a major part in the most successful stint in the club’s history. Though the Bielsa era wasn’t the trophy-laden stint of that former Whites side who were challenging the best in Europe, the Argentine brought a feeling back to the club that has been lost for well over a decade.
Since retiring from playing, Gray has been heavily involved within the club still, both in a coaching capacity and more recently as part of the media. His close affiliation to the Whites has seen him watch the roller-coaster ride of the club during the 90’s and noughties, a spell that saw the club go from a European semi-final to the third-tier of English football, while petering on the edge of financial collapse several times. It is never boring with Leeds, but there had become a feeling that the club would never return to the division of English football’s elite. That was until Bielsa came along and Gray believes that the result over recent months shouldn’t overshadow his achievements in transforming and re-energising the club.
“His legacy will last a very long time, and so it should,” Gray said. “He brought us out of the doldrums and I know the fans just want to say thank you. It is not often a manager is sacked after a poor run of results and the fans are upset he is gone. In fact I think it is rare these days that a manager is sacked and the fans are upset full stop. Marcelo was a throwback to the days when managers and supporters actually say eye to eye and the manager actually held the power over the players, rather than the other way round.”
Bielsa took Leeds from mid-table in the Championship to ninth in the Premier League within three seasons, helping to change a group of underperforming Championship players to full-fledged international stars in the process. However, is open, expansive and all-out attack style of play always received criticism, especially once Leeds were promoted. Heavy defeats in their first season back in the top-flight were cancelled out with some hammerings handed out of their own, as Bielsa won the support of many neutrals with his attack, attack, attack attitude.
However, injuries this season have left a small Leeds squad short of bodies, and with El Loco refusing to change his tactics despite missing the likes of Liam Cooper, Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford for most of the season, the Whites have ended up in a relegation battle. Four successive defeats by an aggregate score of 17-2 resulted in the board calling time on the 66-year-old’s tenure to the dismay of many fans. Despite club owner Andrea Radrizzani receiving a backlash from the fanbase, Gray believes the right decision was made.
“I wasn’t too sure at the time but looking back now and stripping back the emotional attachment we all had, the club did the right thing,” said Gray. “The defeats just kept coming and they were drubbings. Marcelo never showed any emotion even when the team were six, seven-nil down. Every player looked dejected, but nobody got a pat on the back or any reassurance. That’s just how he was though and you cannot deny he was successful with it for the most. The players responded to him for most of his time in charge but when you are struggling and you don’t have that connection with the players, it becomes tough and by the end it was very visible things had gone a bit too far.”
Gray of course is no stranger to the pain of relegation having been placed in temporary charge when Leeds last dropped out of the top flight, which had started to become a real concern towards the end of Bielsa’s tenure. The 74-year-old however has liked what he’s seen so far from new boss Jesse Marsch, with the former Salzburg and Leipzig manager appointed days after Bielsa’s sacking. The American has said on numerous occasions he believes he is a good fit at Elland Road and Gray agrees with the new man in charge.
“Although Jesse’s style of play is not too dis-similar to the one Marcelo had, of course ignoring the fact he doesn’t use a man-marking system, the two managers really couldn’t be any more different. Jesse is very talkative, he communicates very well with the players and you can’t deny that so far things are looking a lot better than they did. I met Jesse at a fundraiser at Elland Road and he really appreciates the opportunity, that is huge because he won’t be taking anything for granted. He will do everything to keep Leeds in the Premier League, he knows this is a top-flight club and if he can continue to pick up results, this may turn out very well because there is no question he has landed on his feet, in the best league in the world at one of the biggest clubs, this is a massive chance for him.”
Looking ahead to the future, the owners at Elland Road have made no secret of their ambitions to push for Europe once the club has established itself in the Premier League for a few seasons. Although their league position remains precarious, Gray acknowledges that if Marsch can keep Leeds up, they will have a great opportunity to push on next season and believes West Ham’s run in the Europa League this season should be an inspiration to every one at the club.
“You only have to look at the end of last season, we finished ninth and the fans are wanting more. Leeds is a club that doesn’t want mid-table. The fans don’t want to be in relegation battles. Of course they are aware it is only the second season back and we are years behind some other clubs who have stayed in the Premier League ever since we were relegated in 2004. But, there is huge potential at this club and thinking three, four years ahead, we have to strive to be in the top six, challenging for places in Europe. If West Ham can do it, so can we. They were languishing around the bottom for years, then they got the right manager and players and proved it’s possible. The main thing is to stay up this season, keep our best players and let Jesse put his stamp on this team and squad.”