Last season ended on a bittersweet note for Leeds United as a brilliant first campaign back in the Premier League was followed up by the departure of club legend Pablo Hernandez. Hernandez will always be remembered as a Leeds great for the role he played in getting the club promoted; scoring arguably the most important goal away at Swansea as the Whites stormed to the Championship title.
It rounded off a memorable five years at Elland Road for ‘El Mago’, who had fallen in love with West Yorkshire while playing arguably the best football of his career, despite his aging years. In turn, Leeds fans had fallen in love with Hernandez whose masterful ability helped to provide some of the greatest football LS11 had seen in decades. It was a match made in heaven and there were tears aplenty from both sides when the Spaniard returned to his hometown club Castellon last summer.
Since then, Hernandez absence at Leeds has become glaringly obvious. Despite not featuring regularly in his final season, the lack of creativity in the Whites midfield has been there for all to see this campaign. There has also been a lack of leadership both on and off the pitch, with United now looking towards trying to survive rather than a top half finish. If it was possible, Leeds fans now appreciate their former playmaker even more, and the feeling is definitely mutual as Pablo spoke exclusively to The Leeds Press about his time at the club.
“I feel a special connection with the Leeds fans,” said Hernandez. “I continue to feel the love from the fans every day on social media. I had a great five years in which we had a strong connection. I get messages after every game from Leeds fans who have watched Castellon. I get messages even when we don’t play, when I don’t expect it, which for me brings me pride. I feel very loved by all the fans.”
Despite coming through the ranks at Valencia and playing in the Champions League, Hernandez does not hesitate to say that greatest achievement of his career was gaining promotion with Leeds. Arriving at Elland Road as a 31-year-old, the former Swansea man’s abilities were known to many in English football, but few could have predicted the impact he would have for the Whites given his age. But Hernandez lit up the Championship, becoming the division’s stand-out player as Leeds went from an average mid-table team to the best side in the league.
The arrival of Marcelo Bielsa also helped to bring out the best in Hernandez, who began to thrive in a much-improved team playing some of the most exciting football anywhere in the world. In Bielsa’s all-action, fast-flowing and expansive side, ‘El Mago’ became the choirmaster as he dictated games with his incredible football brain and ability, helping to create and score many of Leeds 77 goals on the way to the Championship title. Bielsa often spoke of Hernandez ‘teaching him new skills about football’, and the Spaniard says he and Bielsa struck up a special bond during their time together.
“Marcelo was the man that changed it all,” he said. “We as players were able to play much better under him. His style allowed us to be playing better football and he was always able to get his message across to us as the players. The plan was not clear until he came in, but he arrived and made us all aware again of how we should play football, and to believe we were always better than the opposition.
“For me, winning promotion to the Premier League was the greatest achievement I saw in my career. I think we worked so hard for it. It was not an easy task but we became focused on making it and achieving promotion. Since we have got to the Premier League we had the belief to play well against any team. I did not play as regular as I hoped, but I was still able to contribute to a season in which we ended on the table a position we deserved. My time ended on a high with the fans, which meant a lot.”
Pablo’s legacy at Leeds was perhaps heightened by his commitment to the club after Leeds suffered a heartbreaking playoff defeat to Derby County in the 2018/19 season. It was a campaign in which Leeds had spent the majority in the automatic promotion places, before falling out towards the end to the disappointment of everyone. Hernandez and his teammates were heavily fancied to overcome Derby in the semi-finals, but a second-half collapse in the second leg saw the Whites’ Premier League dream end in tears.
But to the delight of every Leeds fan, this story had a happy ending. Bielsa and Hernandez stayed on for another season as the club stormed to the Championship title and a return to the Premier League after a 16-year absence. There was a swansong year for Hernandez who played a bit-part role as United achieved a top-half finish in the top tier against the odds, with Pablo leaving his legacy on the final game of the season as he captained the side to a 3-1 win over West Brom to confirm a ninth-place finish and cap of his incredible time at the club.
“People will pick out moments like my goal against Swansea or the last match against West Brom, but to me it was already special. Those things I will remember, they will be good moments and the fans speak highly of them, it was a great achievement to get back to the Premier League. We had missed the season before to be promoted, so it was much better the way we did it in the end and that meant we were more ready to play against the teams of the Premier League.
“It was an emotional time in my final game because in that moment I remember all the good memories. The Leeds fans are special to me. I would say that few can say they have left a club and that fans have travelled abroad to see you play for someone else. Well that is the case with the Leeds support who have come to watch me play for Castellon. I notice them at my games and that makes me proud, gives me a lot of pride and is something I don’t try to take for granted, because I know this is not normal for other players.”