I wrote this back in August for The Square Ball. It didn’t get in the mag (fair, it publishes articles, not love letters), but I wanted to dust it off ahead of tomorrow’s game.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. That’s always been true of Leeds United.
A glance through our history shows that even in a team game, we’ve always had players that distil what our club stands for at a moment in time. The yardstick by which we measure everyone else who pulls on the white shirt.
Billy Bremner’s “Side Before Self” mantra isn’t just a slogan. It epitomises the grit, effort and togetherness of Revie’s family. The words are immortal, like Bremner is immortal, like that whole, dwindling team will be forever immortal.
For Wilkinson’s driven professionalism, read Gordon Strachan. Simon Grayson’s all out attack with no thought to defence sounds a lot like Jermaine Beckford. Then there’s Colin’s hoofball distilled into the dour, dire Michael Brown, and Cellino’s entire half-arsed, egotistical era taking the form of Guissepe fucking Bellusci — a man convinced he knew better than a whole fanbase pointing out his painfully glaring mistakes.
And then there’s Gaetano Berardi.
No recent player has taken it upon himself to embody Leeds United as the team, the club, re-invents itself time and time again quite like Berardi.
Thrust him into the chaos of Hockaday, Milanic and Redfearn, and he’s a chaotic element. Violent, untrustworthy, borderline insane, yet still someone the fans are desperate to love.
Fast forward to Garry Monk, and Berra embodies The Group™. “Pontus Janson, Kyle Bartley. Luke Ayling and Berardi.” A player so intrinsically part of a greater collective that his first name is written out of the chants from the Kop. Under the Snake, Leeds came close, but were never ever going to be quite good enough. Not that anyone at Elland Road would admit that. Except for the one man who came out and demanded that the team replace him with a better left back.
We didn’t need a better left back. We needed a better manager.
We got one.
While Bielsa provided the brains, Kalvin the heart, and Pablo the wizardry that we needed to finally end sixteen long, tedious, terrible years, Berardi was the soul of the team. Committed. Driven. Uncompromising.
Want someone to train like a demon even when he’s not being picked? Berardi. Need someone to fill in at centre half? Berardi. Need someone to find a Centenary kit to raise funds and refurbish a hospital? Berardi.
Looking for a neat summation of just how much we lost the plot that night against Derby? Well. Look no further.
Marcelo Bielsa took League One Liam, the only academy midfielder we couldn’t cash in on, the world’s most unloved nomadic striker, and a rag-tag collection of also-rans and never-weres and moulded them into Champions. A team defined by unwavering commitment and professionalism. The willingness to go the extra yard, both when it mattered and when it didn’t.
It’s fitting that what could be Berardi’s last game in a Leeds shirt didn’t matter. We were up. We were Champions. We were a combination of half pissed and fully hungover. And he still gave it his all, paying the price to the tune of one career-threatening knee injury. Bielsa’s approach demands nothing less.
For the Premier League, Leeds will need another man to step up and take the mantle. To embody a club with ambitions — replacing delusions for the first time in 16 years — of grandeur. To stand toe to toe with the best and beat them.
But for one night, battered and bruised on the top of a bus, Gaetano Berardi was all of us for one last time. Sixteen years of suffering released in two simple, triumphant words.
How does it feel, Gaetano?