ENGLISH FOR FOOTBALL

How Víctor Orta lit a spark under Leeds United and set them on a path of beautiful chaos

Read this great article by @j4brennan on Víctor Orta, Leeds United’s charismatic sporting director. When you’ve finished reading, play the game to test your English reading comprehension skills.

German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was a renowned nihilist, believing in nothing, perpetually locked in a state of despair and mental corrosion, merely existing to be and no more, patiently biding his time for the world to fall into an inevitable, inescapable crisis. Similar to most Leeds United fans, then. Nietzsche, however, although deeply cynical in his moral views, sometimes expressed some hope within the depths of his pessimism, famously noting that “out of chaos comes a dancing star”. In similar ways to his nihilism, Leeds fans can also look to this as a quotation reflective of their beliefs about football.

A shipwreck of a club

A taxi on the M1, the 300km-long monotonous expanse of tarmac that connects London to Leeds, was the place where the spark of the “dancing star” was lit for Leeds. Víctor Orta, United’s Monchi-mentored Sporting Director, sat alongside United owner Andrea Radrizzani on the long journey north, and the two postulated and hypothesised over the future of the West Yorkshire club. The 2017-18 season, Orta and Radrizzani’s first as a directive duo at Leeds, had just finished, and had served as a cruel welcome message as to just how difficult it was going to be to push English football’s biggest shipwreck from where they had sat for over a decade.

Ex-Barcelona forward Thomas Christiansen was Orta’s first choice as head coach for the club, as well as twenty new players spread throughout the first team and youth system. After a lightning start to the league campaign, Leeds sat top in September, with new signing Samu Sáiz the star in a refreshed team playing high-paced, attacking football. Unfortunately for Leeds, the changes were not enough to avoid the annual Christmas dip, and the Danish coach was made redundant just 5 months later after a seven-game winless run was compounded by a 4-1 loss to Cardiff City. The struggles continued and new manager Paul Heckingbottom was unable to pick up the spirits, with Leeds succumbing to yet another mid-table finish. The fans vented their frustrations with the new regime, and cited Orta’s misjudgement on the strength of the league as the mortal wound.

“I will make them the best players in the league.”

And so came the taxi ride. Chairman Radrizzani asked Orta who he would choose to replace the outgoing Heckingbottom if he could have any coach in the world. “Bielsa”, came the reply. Marcelo Bielsa did not pick up his phone when the English phone number flashed on the screen. Instead, he let it ring, and made the Spaniard wait.

A day later, Orta’s phone call was returned; Bielsa wanted to know more about the project. He had watched seven games during the night of the original call, and preposterously claimed that he could turn Luke Ayling, Stuart Dallas and Liam Cooper, three of Leeds’ most underperforming players, into the best in the league. Orta flew out to Buenos Aires and spent 10 hours talking nothing but football to Bielsa, who had set his technical staff on a quest to microscopically analyse and dissect every team in the league. At Bielsa’s request they stopped for lunch, but the conversations about Leeds continued. When the meeting was over the contracts were finalised, and a throwaway taxi conversation had led to Víctor Orta pulling off one of the most impressive deals in the history of English football: Marcelo Bielsa would be Leeds United’s head coach for the 2018-19 season.

Leeds falls in love again

The team, playing with the same players as they had done in the previous season, got off to an electrifying start, mesmerising fans with an ultra-high press and endless attacking transitions – maybe Víctor hadn’t misjudged the league after all. The club fought for promotion with a squad that had been deemed less than average the previous season, only falling short at the very end. A heart-breaking loss to Derby County in the Playoff semi-final was a bitter pill to swallow for the fans but Orta’s capture of Bielsa had reignited a fire throughout the whole city. Fans were back in the stands and Leeds United were the most entertaining team in the whole country.

Bielsa’s maiden season in English football, despite the inability to clear the final hurdle, drew unparalleled attention to Elland Road. A documentary was released in collaboration with Amazon, but it was not the Argentine coach who was the star: Víctor Orta’s weekly showing of passion at the stadium was what caught the eye of the fanbase. The Spaniard was simply one more member of the Leeds United tribe, despite only being at the club for less than three years. Coupled with the on-pitch success, the documentary changed the general opinion of the crowd towards him by showing a more personal side to the man, and the mistakes of the first season’s squad and managerial changes were forgiven. Víctor was given a second bite at the promotion cherry when Bielsa confirmed he would extend his contract; it would be Leeds United’s centenary season and possibly their last chance to go for promotion before the squad had to be disassembled due to financial restrictions.

Breaking the cycle of heartbreak

As celebrations of the start of the new decade came and went, Leeds United were once again flying high, this time playing a more controlled, confident style of football than the year before; it looked as though mistakes on the pitch had been learned. They came out of their typical Christmas slump and by March they had won 5 in a row without conceding a single goal, and sat comfortably atop of the table; the squad looked primed for the Premier League.

Then, as everybody knows, the world came to a standstill. The Coronavirus pandemic hit and football fell to the bottom of everyone’s priorities. When it returned, it did so without the fans, and Leeds United’s campaign to end 16 years of hurt hung in the balance.

Promotion, after a string of standout performances from talisman Pablo Hernández, was finally sealed for the Yorkshire club after a long unbeaten run meant the competition had no way of catching them. The squad had withstood two years of intense Bielsa methods and finally, both mentally and physically, pushed themselves over the finishing line. As has since become tradition as things are going well, it was Víctor who stole the headlines when at Derby County’s stadium on the penultimate matchday, he was seen brandishing a pair of binoculars and having the last laugh against the team that had caused Leeds so much hurt the year before.

One-man band

Playing football in an empty stadium had many drawbacks, but one of the standout benefits was the ability to take advantage of the silence and peek into the coach’s mind by listening to how they communicate to their players during a game. It’s a good thing then that Bielsa is a loud man, because nothing else at Elland Road – and beyond – could be heard over the screams of Víctor Orta from the Director’s box. During the season of empty stadiums he became Leeds’ one-man band, the crazy fan, the nervous fan and the eternally optimistic fan all rolled into one: his counterparts at rival clubs complained about his antics, as well as local radio stations that tried to broadcast over the post-watershed sounds that come out of his mouth. It is said that the bus that took the Leeds board members across the country became his ‘Away Days’ mode of transport, transporting members of the club to games where tickets were all but impossible to come across.

So, in the first season back in the Premier League after over 16 years away, Víctor had a new job: he was the Leeds United fan base. As well as signing Rodrigo Moreno, Robin Koch and Raphinha, players who propelled Leeds comfortably into the top half of the table (above Everton and with just one win less than Chelsea), Orta skipped from stadium to stadium bringing the passion of the fans with him. The ex-Head of Recruitment at Sevilla, Zenit St. Petersburg and Middlesbrough was the voice of 40,000 men, women and children, and not one of them cared that he hadn’t quite perfected the Leeds accent yet.

This article was written by @j4brennan for @FootyLingo.
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