Twinned towns. Sister cities. I found them fascinating as a kid, mum or dad driving around and me, the pestering passenger, wondering what Comines-Warneton, Belgium looked like. The French Community city is twinned with Hedge End, a town in the city of Southampton, close to where I grew up. Quite what they offer each other, I do not know, but what I do know is Comines-Warneton is a two-timing, wait, three-timing hussy, also enjoying relationships with Wolverton in Milton Keynes, and Argenton-les-Vallees in France.
Supposedly based on legal or social agreements between towns or cities to promote cultural and commercial ties, I’m beginning to wonder if these things even happen anymore, but at least Wolverton had some claim at a legitimate bond with their Belgian friends.
Wolverton is home to what is believed to be the oldest covered football stand in the world - I bet you didn’t see that coming. Originally home to the Railway Club and then to Wolverton Town, the stadium as a whole was knocked down for redevelopment into housing – I bet you saw that coming though. The lovely, thoughtful, ever so altruistic developers allowed a restored – some say replica - stand to remain and incorporated it into their plans, sitting it on its original site, painted its traditional green. It now looks over a big open space that was once the pitch and backs onto the Grade II listed railway sheds that survived the urbanisation in sorts: they’re now flats and townhouses. There’s an eco-pond, too. Fancy.
So what’s this got to do with its twinned town status with Comines-Warneton? Absolutely nothing, but it is football – beautiful, historic, and charming football – so I thought you would appreciate it. Comines-Warneton is home to the Hyde Park Corner Cemetery, and buried there is Albert French, a 16-year old World War I soldier from Wolverton, whose letters home were found years later, leading to the cities’ bond. Milton Keynes may have only been founded in 1967, the year my mother was born, but Wolverton is steeped in history. He worked even worked at the Railway Works.
The trend for twinned status began towards the end of World War II and was started by Coventry, who partnered with Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in an act of solidarity from one war-town city to another. We’ve come a long way since then, with Coventry’s rather impressive and infidelity-ridden list of 26 partners setting a record. But in the early 2010s, the likes of the BBC and The Guardian started questioning whether they were still needed. Small businesses resoundingly replied in the affirmative.
One example given by the BBC was that of Leicester and Krefeld. Every year since 1973, the cities’ fire services have played an annual football match. It’s not the sole reason for the twinning, but the renowned power of football has strengthened relationships the world over.
There are instances of football clubs unofficially creating sister status, such as Dulwich Hamlet and Altona 1893 of Germany, who periodically play each other in preseason friendlies, and in the 2014/15 season, the South London club even adopted their German friend’s home kit as their away strip.
Again in South London, Corinthian-Casuals maintain their relationship with the Brazilian club of the same name, with fans of the South American giants regularly making the 9500km, 12-hour pilgrimage to their founders’ ground to take in a match. In 2015, with the historic club struggling financially, their Brazilian siblings helped with fundraising, hosting a celebratory friendly between the two clubs at the Itaquerao World Cup stadium in Sao Paulo, in front of 26,000 fans who had mobbed the English amateur side since they touched down in the country.
So do we still need sister cities? Perhaps we don’t see their full benefits as ordinary members of the public, but when it comes to football, there is something deeply enchanting in historic ties and a shared cultural past being recognised and celebrated.
This season, there’s been an emergence of a new, modern relationship between two cities - one in Argentina and one in England - centred around a man who’s had both fall in love with him: Marcelo Bielsa.
Born in Rosario on July 21st1955, Bielsa was an unspectacular footballer in his playing days, but was an instant hit as a manager.
“What Bielsa did for Newell’s was unprecedented,” Jamie Ralph tells me, having agreed to an interview on the current Leeds manager. “Yes, we had won titles before he arrived but the mark he left on the club went beyond winning championships. He was essentially a nobody who had played a few seasons as a player, one with Newell’s, and took up coaching at 25, progressing through the youth teams before being appointed as head coach of the first team.”
Jamie Ralph heads up the Newell’s Old Boys unofficial English-language account and has done such a good job of it that it has more followers than the official one. In fact, it has more followers than any other English fan account for Argentine clubs, including giants River Plate and Boca Juniors.
“He was a local lad who took a team of street footballers, many of them Newell’s fans from Rosario like him, and made them champions of Argentina twice in the space of three seasons. He took us to a Copa Libertadores final in 1992, the furthest we have ever gone in a continental competition. What was most remarkable was the way that this Newell’s team played. He used a mixture of experienced players with untried youngsters and turned them into an efficient, attacking force characterised by aggression with a unique hunger to win the ball back at all costs. Bielsa’s Newell’s mastered the pressing game before it became fashionable and it yielded astonishing results.”
There has, however, been cause for concern among the Yorkshire fanbase, who at times have borne witness to what would seem more at home in an Argentine telenovela rather than in the world of professional football.
“The Bielsa family is constantly in the public eye in Argentina. His brother Rafael is a lawyer and former member of government and his sister Maria Eugenia is a politician also. Marcelo was certainly seen as the black sheep of the family by going into football, but he is now the most famous Bielsa. Rafael is never one to turn down an interview and is often asked about Marcelo. He is still heavily involved with Newell’s but there is a feeling amongst Newell’s fans that he is living off his surname and that there is only one Bielsa who Newell’s should be concerned with, Marcelo.”
His first season in English football has not disappointed and the football he has Leeds playing, and the manner in which he carries himself, is disarming anyone who attempts to gun them down as DirtyLeeds. So impressive has their season been, many Leeds fans are worried, if not by Bielsa’s outspoken siblings, by Newell’s Bielsa-doting fans.
“When Newell’s fans call for Bielsa’s return, it’s a romantic notion without being too serious in the immediate. The fans understand that Bielsa has bigger fish to fry in Europe and elsewhere,” says Jamie, reassuring Leeds fans in one respect, “but there is the expectation that he might do another season at some stage in Rosario, just as Lionel Messi has also pledged to do. We don’t know when that will be, but the current situation at Newell’s means we might need him sooner rather than later. Newell’s need to have a really strong season in 2019/20 to avoid relegation to the second division. Relegation in Argentina is based on an average score over the last three seasons and we’ve had two very poor seasons in a row. Newell’s fans hope that Bielsa knows deep down that he has it in him to ‘save’ his beloved Newell’s over anyone else.”
The next Superliga Argentina is scheduled to start in July and will run until May 2020. Come the first fixture, we’ll all know in which division Leeds will be in and come Christmas both sets of fans will have a good indication as to how the season might end for them. Until then, it is just a gentle admiration for what Leeds are doing and a strong affinity for the man orchestrating it.
“Newell’s fans follow every club that Bielsa has managed. They don’t necessarily become supporters of that team beyond Bielsa’s tenure, but they want to see Bielsa do well as devotees of him. It’s been difficult for Newell’s fans this year to show their love for Leeds visually because they have the colours yellow and blue in their kit and logo and wearing these colours is something that is not up for debate for Newell’s fans, due to our rivalry with Rosario Central who wear the same colours. I offered to bring a Leeds shirt to a friend of mine in Rosario when I visited there in March, but he said he simply couldn’t wear it, even though he wants them to do well. There’s a famous saying that goes, ‘Newell’s y nada más’ - Newell’s and nothing more. Some Newell’s fans will even tell you that they don’t support the national team of Argentina, it’s ‘Newell’s y nada más.’”
The one exception to even the most visceral hardcore Newell’s fan may have been the national team from 1998 to 2004. In those six years, Argentina went from strength to strength, though it may not have felt like it after their Group Stage exit at the 2002 World Cup in which they were one of the pre-tournament favourites. That group were amid their death throes, containing six players aged 32 and above, and a 30-year old Mauricio Pochettino, who brought down Michael Owen for England’s only goal in their 1-0 win. The Tottenham manager won all 20 of his international caps under Bielsa, playing in a team that also contained another one of his disciples - Diego Simeone.
The culmination of Bielsa’s efforts arrived in his final year in charge – 2004. Having finished Runners-Up in the Copa America, losing on penalties to World Champions Brazil, Bielsa’s Argentina became the first South American team to win the Olympics just a month later, in a 6-0 win over Serbia and Montenegro. Eight players started both finals. With the play-offs upon us, I asked Jamie what he made of Leeds’ chances in what is effectively knock-out football and a final.
“When I think of how Leeds will do in the playoffs, I look back and take encouragement from Bielsa’s first season at Newell’s in 1990/1991. He blitzed the Apertura tournament (the first half of the season), winning the title with 11 wins from 19 games. They then fell away in the Clausura tournament (second half of the season), just as they have done in The Championship this season, coming 8th. However, as they won the Apertura, they qualified for the championship decider against Clausura winners Boca Juniors, beating them over two legs to become overall champions for the year. So despite some lacklustre performances in the second half of the season, they roared back to victory in the playoff game and I’m hoping that Bielsa and Leeds can be inspired by the spirit of 1991 to do something similar in 2019.”
If they do succeed in securing promotion to the Premier League, it’ll be Leeds’ first appearance in the top flight since relegation in 2004, and – surreally - watching it unfold will be thousands of Argentines.
“The Argentine press and TV channels regularly cover Bielsa’s Leeds,” Jamie responds, when I ask him if the Argentinian interest in Leeds was just limited to social media.“A lot of Leeds games have been shown on ESPN in Argentina this season. The Championship would have never been shown on Argentine TV in the past.”
It would be a heart-breaking end to the season, as play-offs inherently are for three of the four participants, but Jamie believes Leeds fans should be proud of their campaign, regardless of how it ends.
“Yes, without doubt,” he unequivocally states when I question whether 2018/19 can go down as a success even without promotion. “Leeds were 13th last season. To take them to 3rd, into the play-offs and maybe even more with practically the same squad is a massive success, in my opinion. As a Newell’s fan, I’d just love to see him lift a trophy again.”
Should Leeds navigate their way past Frank Lampard’s Derby and overcome either Aston Villa or West Brom, both teams with recent Premier League experience, Bielsa will be in unchartered territory for the second season on the trot - and with a team Jamie believes could struggle without an overhaul.
“They would need serious investment to stay up, but then again Bielsa seems to get performances out of players that they simply were not capable of under other managers. A poor start could see Bielsa assess the situation. When he realises he can’t take a team any further, he’s the first one to put his hands up and say so.”
But it wouldn’t be the first time the 63-year old has had to cope with limited transfer potential and options.
In his first of two seasons at Atletic Bilbao, Bielsa got the Basque side to the finals of the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, where they lost to Atletico Madrid and Barcelona respectively. Along with a 10thplace finish in La Liga, those results were impressive enough, but what made them all the more so was the transfer conditions under which they were achieved. Famously, Bilbao only sign players born, or trained, in the Basque Country. Their one signing that season was Ander Herrera from Zaragoza.
In his second year, despite the sale of key player Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich – a player who said “everyone should work with [Bielsa] at least once in their life” – and the club freezing out Fernando Llorente, the previous season’s top scorer, Bielsa secured them a 12thplace finish, just 2 places and 4 points below his first season in charge. However, Bilbao’s president did not offer him a new contract, meaning once more – and still to this date – Bielsa has yet to spend more than two years at a club. Leeds fans will be hoping he spends at least that at Elland Road, but Jamie is reticent.
“Honestly, it’s hard to see him staying for 4 or 5 years. Manager turnover in England is very high now, in both The Championship and the Premier League. He’s not exactly in the prime of his career but he will always stay true to his word and his promises. Let’s enjoy Bielsa in England while it lasts and hopefully when the day comes for him to return to Newell’s, all of the Leeds fans who have now become devoted to Bielsa will follow his career back in Argentina as he leads Newell’s to one more title.”
It's an enduring partnership already in the making and should Leeds one day twin with another country – it is already twinned with Lille and Dortmund, among others – Rosario would be a fitting choice. Leeds fans have already been showing more than just a passing interest in Bielsa’s home city, with Jamie inundated with requests for Newell’s shirts and background information about Bielsa and Rosario in general.
“I think that Leeds fans are probably keen to show Bielsa that they are interested in his history, his life and his past, because he has given everything to them and to the city of Leeds. He has completely immersed himself in the city, shopping in local shops and living a simple life in a Leeds suburb. Wearing a Newell’s jersey is probably a way for Leeds fans to give something back to him. They’ve also asked me what Newell’s songs they should sing at Leeds games to make him feel at home.”
Some requests have been much harder to fulfil than others and it’s the obvious one that has proven itself as the most difficult to meet.
“I understand it’s difficult for Leeds fans to wear red because of their rivalry with Manchester United and it’s also not easy to wear a shirt where the letters in our badge spell out ’NOB’ – that’s enough said about that! Nevertheless I’ve had hundreds of requests for the shirts. That has been a huge challenge as the club do not ship outside of Argentina. I’ve tried to get some imported, but it costs around $700 just to ship a box from Argentina to the UK, before you consider the cost of the shirts. I’ve also spoken to Umbro who make the shirt, but they haven’t been helpful. They are a completely decentralised organisation and Umbro in the UK is basically a completely separate company to Umbro in Argentina so there’s no collaboration whatsoever.”
Marcelo Bielsa’s season in charge of Leeds will likely never be forgotten. Whether they seal promotion or fall at this final and cruellest of hurdles, he has endeared himself to the fans and to the city of Leeds. This is, after all, a man who was in charge of Newell’s Old Boys for just two seasons, yet 17 years later their fans voted to rename their stadium after him. Sometimes it really is quality over quantity.
Until then, ¡Vamos Newell’s Carajo!
Thanks to Jamie Ralph of @Newells_en for talking to us.