Marcelo Bielsa likes to read and in his first summer at Leeds United, he asked his players to dip into a book about the success and the psyche of the All Blacks, New Zealand’s men’s rugby union team. There were stories in there and a culture of attainment that Bielsa thought were worth passing on, translating easily from sport to sport.
He would make other recommendations too, like Eleven Rings written by the American basketball coach, Phil Jackson. Bielsa’s first translator at Leeds, Salim Lamrani, explained in his recent memoir about Bielsa how he picked up a copy of Eleven Rings after the Argentinian mentioned it to him. It did not take a love of basketball to appreciate the value of understanding Jackson’s mind.
Motivational literature and motivational quotes are awash in professional sport, at the fingertips of coaches who like to use them. It could be said, for example, that if Arrigo Sacchi’s Immortals — his diary-like tale of sprinkling magic on AC Milan — makes nothing inside you flicker, football is not the game for you. Bielsa used to remark that even for a 66-year-old, there was always something left to learn. He devoured newspaper coverage of him, he said, in case women were seeing things he was missing.
Jesse Marsch, it turns out, is big on motivational speaking or big on the use of historical soundbites as motivational tools. He was drawn into speaking about it on Tuesday after Jack Harrison opened a can of worms at the weekend by revealing that Marsch had distributed quotes from Mahatma Gandhi as part of Leeds’ preparation for Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at Arsenal. Keep it tight early on, avoid two-footing anyone by the corner flag… presumably nothing so run of the mill but relevant from Marsch’s perspective. For Leeds, there might be nothing in Gandhi’s back-catalogue more prescient than ‘live as if you were to die tomorrow’, given the lie of the land.
Who else does Marsch like to draw on? “I’ve used Muhammad Ali a few times with the group,” he said. “Michael Jordan’s a guy I’m inspired by, and Phil Jackson.” So far so straight. But then came references to Gandhi, Mother Theresa and JFK and Marsch was into territory where comments were liable to be sliced and diced online.
He reminded the room that in his days at Princeton University in the US, history was his subject. There was some basis for him straying outside the lines of elite sport. But it left the goal wide open: a head coach dangerously close to relegation stuck in conversation about Mother Theresa.
How to win in his situation? Essentially by saying as little as possible, which is easier said than done when the weeks are peppered with contractual and non-contractual media commitments.
There are good times to sell yourself as a coach and the tail-end of a season where nothing has gone well and everything is on the line is not one of them. You have a vision and an ideal of how your team will look but here and now, you might be going down. You envisage Leeds’ academy becoming the best in Europe but here and now, you might be going down. You like this quote from history, but here and now, you might be going down. There is no bigger picture until the haze clears.
Bielsa was a philosophical talker, known for taking his press conferences away from football into global issues, foreign politics and life. Largely, he did that when he was prompted and everything Marsch said were answers to specific questions.
But Bielsa’s musings were the opposite of a vicious circle. The more his influence was felt and the better his team became, the more people wanted to hear him talk and understand where his brain took him, and the more he could veer off the beaten track and hold people’s attention, without ridicule. Naturally, there were people who took the piss but none of his own. Why not think differently and why not go off-piste? A captive audience loved it.
Marsch cannot count on that tolerance because in spite of the positive bounce in results over the course of a month and a half, Leeds are in peril and the city is worried.
He said last week that given the chance again, he would take the job at Leeds in the same circumstances “100 times out of 100” but you cannot help feeling that parachuting into a club with brittle bones is when a coach’s reputation is likely to fare worst. Marsch is new to his surroundings but the surroundings are tense and unforgiving.
Arrive in the summer, with empty weeks ahead of you, and people can get to know you in an uncharged way. They can listen to your thoughts with a little more patience and roll more gently with your idiosyncrasies. It might all go the same way, especially if pre-season in Italy involves players sitting in rivers, but the summer has the advantage of convincing everyone that anything is possible.
Whatever else Marsch has gleaned so far, the scale of the scrutiny on him cannot have gone over his head. He is Bielsa’s successor and it took one comment about over-training for that to flare up. He is in a city which is fair but low on bullshit and currently living on its nerves. He is entitled to think big in his planning but it is a challenge to ask anyone to take those plans in when nobody dares look beyond the next 10 days.
It is that time of year and a former Leeds player once talked about the thankless process of giving interviews when a season was at its height. “The only response you got was ‘just win some fucking games’,” he said. “I tried to say as little as possible.” Because the higher the stakes climbed, the less the talking mattered.
Marsch’s rhetoric has made too much of the conversation around Leeds about him when actually, a flawed season lies at the feet of so many other people. He is nine games in and you cannot tell at this stage if you are seeing all of the coach or the man, which creates confusion over whether to be convinced or perplexed by some of what he is saying. Gandhi won’t get Leeds United out of trouble and nor will Mother Theresa. Marsch, on the other hand, can. It is an essential first step in proving he can walk the walk.
(Photo: James Baylis – AMA/Getty Images)