In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks back at how Howard Wilkinson got Leeds over the line, as Marcelo Bielsa's side now look for a similar feat.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, 2015 hit ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
It would be around this time of the season that Howard Wilkinson would say something profound and weighted in the unlikely philosophies of a blunt Yorkshireman and former PE teacher. Howard would often leave his players bamboozled, and he could spend 15 minutes trying to say what could be successfully conveyed in 30 seconds. But at other times he could ram home a point with the succinct and uncompromising sincerity of a sledgehammer. Either way, it would serve you well to listen to him.
In the run-in to the 1991/92 league title triumph he told his Leeds United players to “trust your swing”. It was a golfing analogy which effectively meant you should carry on doing what you have been doing, and it will bring its own rewards; trust in what you have practiced to the point that it comes naturally, and it won’t let you down; trust in what has got you to this point. Another way of saying it is that you should “trust the process” and this is where it starts to merge with the doctrine of one Marcelo Bielsa, and you begin to realise that the two almost-mythical demigods of Leeds United’s modern history might be very different characters, but they have an awful lot in common.
Howard talked about it being crucial that you “be yourself” as a coach and be brave. He was once quoted as saying a football manager needed “Authenticity, Respect and Trust, and that spells ‘ART’….. which is nice”. It is nice, and rather than the cheesy David Brent-ism it immediately strikes you as, it actually sounds like something that Marcelo could bless us with at his fabled gatherings we have come to know as ‘press conferences’. He would certainly approve of Wilko’s fundamentally thoughtful and reflective approach, and if they haven’t done so already, society needs both Howard Wilkinson and Marcelo Bielsa to share a room for the time it takes to make us all better people and the world a better place.
But the instruction to “trust your swing” has never felt more important and more appropriate to the situation Leeds United face today. The resumption of football after the disorientating maelstrom of a global pandemic has resulted in something of a mixed bag for the club; quite literally so if you consider we have lost, won and drawn our three games. Leeds are not alone in holding that kind of status after the re-start, and yet amongst that barrage of fluctuating emotions there have been moments of magnificence and plenty of reminders of the constants we have come to expect from this team; perhaps most maddeningly, that when we drop points, we really don’t deserve to.
Certainly you could say that each passing game is giving the players more in their tank, improving their match sharpness and empowering them with being more practiced in what came naturally before the break. Because, undoubtedly the cessation of the football season came at the wrong time for us. And this is where being brave, being true to yourself and trusting in what got you here is fundamental to how Leeds United come out of the other side of this smiling.
Playing the way we do has made Leeds an almost constant feature of the automatic promotion places for two whole seasons. Some fans might find statistics and the drilled-down analysis of every nth detail a tiresome by-product of the modern game, but you can’t escape the fact that playing the way Leeds do, and with the personnel they have, has resulted in them being six points clear at the top of the table with six games remaining; an enviable position that every one of our 23 opponents would rather be in than their own. They probably wouldn’t envy the pressure and the weight of expectation that comes with representing Leeds United, but that is where the recurring mantra of “trust your swing” needs to resonate most strongly.
The stark abnormality of post-lockdown football really sunk in during the two recent ‘home’ games at Elland Road. It felt wrong that we weren’t there, it felt uncomfortable not being able to shout the lads on, it felt like a personal experience and something we hold dear in our own individual lives was being played out in public for the first time; like someone was reading our diary and our most precious thoughts aloud and there was nothing we could do about it. Being denied access to something we cherish was hard to bear, until the matches ended and we realised that all that really matters is the results. The range of post-match emotions are still dictated by results and the elation of Fulham and the grinding frustration of Luton Town didn’t feel any different because we weren’t there.
And then you reflect and think back to past, failed promotion campaigns and how on earth Leeds are going to break the cycle and finally earn promotion, and maybe this is a combination of “trust your swing” and the eerie sterility of football in empty stadiums. It’s like we have tried the conventional route and it doesn’t work for us, and if watching events unfurl on TV is what it takes to break the cycle, then so be it. After the event, the emotion still feels the same.
In the past, maybe our succession of managers have panicked and made rash decisions based on instinct rather than proven method. We know that Marcelo Bielsa will only tinker with Plan A, to make Plan A work, and we know that sooner or later the wins will come - and we don’t need that many – otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are with six games left. Being brave and trusting the process has worked, and who are we to say it could be done better?
We have seen enough under Marcelo Bielsa to know that one day soon – maybe on Saturday when 7,700 Leeds fans will leave 7,700 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire – everything will come together. We’ve seen it time and time again over the last two seasons, but only in parts in the last three games. So if Howard Wilkinson would instruct the players to “trust your swing” in order to get over the line and if Marcelo Bielsa has built his entire philosophy on practicing techniques, drills and formations until they are as natural to the players as walking and eating, then I know which method I trust to see this team click into gear, and come good when it really matters.