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15th Aug 2019

Take Us Home: Leeds United gets better the more it focuses on Bielsa

Kyle Picknell

Leeds United’s new Amazon documentary doesn’t start how it means to go on (and that can only be a good thing)

Take Us Home: Leeds United starts as all football documentaries, and indeed, sports documentaries, seem to now as heavily filtered, grey overlay slow-mo footage of  matches is interlaced with closeup shots of supporters clutching their faces in shock, or covering their eyes, or stood, defiantly, with a scarf or face tattoos. Maybe a sobbing child in their arms. The notable difference in the latest, a recount of Leeds United’s tumultuous 18/19 season in the Championship that, like its Netflix equivalent Sunderland ‘Til I Die, promises to take a large mound of hope and pile heartbreak on top of heartbreak onto it, is that it’s narrated by Russell Crowe. From Gladiator. Russell Crowe. It takes some getting used to.

His deep, gravelly, softly-accented voice dominates the introduction sequence to the first episode of the series as images of Pontus Jansson and Kalvin Phillips and Pablo Hernandez and Patrick Bamford, some of the more notable characters in the squad, fade in and out as DJ Luck & MC Neat’s ‘A Little Bit of Luck’ quietly swells in the background.

Crowe tells us about the club, “one of the biggest in England”, how they went from “Champions League heroes to the brink of extinction”, how what you’re about to see is a retelling of “one of the most extraordinary seasons in this club’s remarkable history”. Please do stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. Or at least something mildly similar.

And then, suddenly, we’re in Milan, home of the owner. Narrow streets, small cars and pizzerias. The worry comes that this series is going to be as much a flattering piece of PR for Andrea Radrizzani than it is a documentary on the football team he bought. He’s immediately portrayed as a businessman who, and you won’t believe this, is doing it not for profit but for his love of football. AND his son’s love of football.

“If Leeds United get promoted,” he tells the camera as we follow him through a faintly lit building at night, money never sleeps after all, “I have a deal with the wife to move to Leeds for a year.” We reach his apartment, where, shock, his son wanders in, apparently still up in his pyjamas, cuddly giraffe toy tightly in hand.

“Show them your football pitch,” Andrea says, camera quickly panning to a small goal set up in the hall, before he performatively walks his child up the stairs to bed, obviously not before a quick stop at his son’s walk-in wardrobe to fish out his favourite bit of clothing – a tiny Leeds jacket.

“His favourite.” Cut. New scene, phone and glasses on the kitchen table, “I like to make money of course.” Extra emphasis on the make. If that transition seems incongruous then, well, it’s because it is.

“I take risks because then it’s like a game,” the owner continues. “One day I’m going back to the dust like everybody so money doesn’t count. I like to invest in things that give me adrenaline – business is one of them, football is one of them.”

Already, it seems the proud working-class history of Leeds is being saved for maximum emotional impact later on, perhaps after they (spoiler alert if you don’t follow football) lose in the playoff semi-finals in almost comically catastrophic circumstances, where the close-up tears of devastated supporters spending hundreds of pounds on all their shirts and tickets and their half-time pie and beer will be spliced in between the shots of Radrizzani in the director’s box looking mildly annoyed now he can’t now move to Yorkshire for a year to piss off his wife. That’s just a guess. Forgive me. I just don’t find millionaire owners the most interesting facet of a traditional football club. Take, for comparison, Sunderland ‘Til I Die, which opened with a rousing sermon in a local church by a Sunderland-supporting priest on how the football club could unite the city. The scene after that took us straight into the player’s dressing room and the unflinching thoughts of club captains John O’Shea and Lee Cattermole.

Anyway, back to Take Us Home. Back to Leeds. We hear from Phil Hay, previously the Leeds beat writer for the Yorkshire Evening Post, now poached up by The Athletic, along with supporters themselves on the importance of the team in a one-club city. Somehow the sentence “In Leeds everyone’s Leeds” makes perfect, crystalline sense. It’s a maxim and call to arms all at once. A mother tells the camera: “It’s my religion and I’m off praising. I’m off to church.” We see the entirety of Elland Road in unison belting out that infectious “All Leeds Aren’t We”. We are given a brief glimpse into the glory years: Don Revie and Billy Bremner’s combative team of the 60s, the First Division-winning side of ’92, the Champions League semi-finalists of 2001, before Russell really starts to lay it on thick. It’s really building to something, you can tell.

“But after overspending and financial mismanagement, they went into free-fall. Now, after 15 years in the wilderness, hope is returning…” Crowe continues, and just when you think you might see him, the man 99% of us are watching the documentary for, it cuts back to, yep. Andrea Radrizzani. And then testimony from his wife on how great he is.

If he’s the hero of this story, well. You’re just telling it wrong I’m afraid.

Director of Football Victor Orta and Chief Executive Angus Kinnear are both introduced to the audience long before Marcelo Bielsa, who comes several minutes later, is even mentioned. Even then, he appears as though a consequence of the owner’s genius. As Kinnear explains: “Andrea and Victor suggested his name as someone we should be looking at. I had a wry smile as neither of them lack ambition but sometimes their ideas aren’t routed in reality.”

If you’re a football fan you’ll know all about Bielsa – the cult of personality that surrounds him, the mercurial nature of his appointments and departures at clubs, the idiosyncratic way his teams approach the game of football. You’ll know that Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino worship him and you’ll know that he signed the latter when he was just a boy. You’ll know about the 3-3-3-1. You’ll be watching this series to see more of him.

It’s all neatly summarised by Russell Crowe, regardless, complete with the appropriately rousing imagery of his old haunt in Rosario, Argentina: Newell’s Old Boys, the team stadium named after him. “If Bielsa doesn’t love a city he will not go,” explains a former Old Boy’s player, Ricardo Lunari, to the anticipated, presumed ecstasy of Leeds diehards watching on their sofa.

Finally, 19 minutes, in we hear the man himself, via voiceover, explain in his own terms the reason for taking the job. It lasts less than a minute and that’s mostly thanks to the deliberate way Bielsa has of speaking.

It’s at this point, however, that there is a noticeable tonal shift in the film and suddenly it starts to become what a football documentary should be: about the fans, the manager and the players and the special bond between the three that comes and goes, strengthens and folds, crystallises or fades throughout the course of a single season. An instant highlight is Kalvin Phillips discussing the seemingly instantaneous, city-wide affection Bielsa with his gran and then his successful trial at Leeds, the club he supported as a boy, in which he scored five goals in three games.

We then cut to two fans in the pub admitting how surprised they were by his development under his new irrepressible manager. Afterwards, the oft-maligned captain and centre back, Liam Cooper, talks through what it means to be Leeds United supporter playing for the club as a fan and how they are just normal people who, occasionally, are made to suffer through the unfair projections and weight of expectation people place upon them as professional footballers.

It’s a rare, fleeting insight into the perhaps underexplored murky waters of self-doubt and fear of failure that can impact upon an athlete, and the segment is brilliantly juxtaposed as Bielsa explains Cooper’s merits as a captain, through his selflessness and humility, immediately after.

We also return to the two men in the pub who speak proudly of the base of good, English, Yorkshire lads coming through at the club, exemplified by Cooper and Phillips.

Finally, we get what we signed up for. It starts to look and feel like the documentary we hoped it would be. We’re shown a whole cascade of different shots of the Leeds players running themselves ragged in training whilst Bielsa, clipboard in hand, stands in the centre circle screaming his lungs out in Spanish. We get Ander Herrera, one of his former players during his time in Bilbao, talking about how hard he works players in those sessions. We get shots of Liam Cooper running through the ladder. Pablo Hernandez volleying passes. Kalvin Phillips sprinting around, getting shouted at by Bielsa, and then shouting “I’m sorry” back whilst looking happy and confused all at the same time.

We get Luke Ayling explaining how painful it is to come home, fancy a takeaway, and then remember that Bielsa is measuring your body fat in the morning and has instructed you to lose four kilograms before the season starts. Shots of Kalvin Phillips, in his pants, enthusiastically getting weighed. Shots of Kemar Roofe physically wrestling someone to the ground during a practice game and then a coach bringing the whistle to his lips, pausing, and then letting play carry on. Shots of Adam Forshaw, in his Range Rover, earnestly telling the camera that “since he came in, I’ve acted like a sponge.”

This, this *gesturing wildly at the above like I’m Antonio Conte on the sideline and my team isn’t pressing in the exact manner I had demanded*  is what makes a good football documentary. There’s a simple reason for that. It’s the stuff the fans don’t get to see. It’s the stuff that will endear them to these players no matter what happens on the pitch during the season. It’s the stuff that makes them people with stories, nuance and depth. Not just a name and a number and a position and a general interpretation of whether he is good or shit. The only two absolutes in the minds of the modern fan. Of course, having Bielsa front and centre as a semi-messianic figure, a one-man sea change of a team’s culture really helps bring it out of everyone else.

That period is undoubtedly the highlight of the first episode of Take Us Home and it doesn’t last long enough. To end the episode we’re given a ham-fisted, fully-blown saviour narrative about the signing of Patrick Bamford (yikes, to be honest) and a quicker, but far superior, bit on the arrival of Barry Douglas. We also get the trippy surrealism of Russell Crowe explaining the format of the Championship in a voice even more Gladiator than his narration in, er, Gladiator. Unbelievable.

The first episode ends with highlights of Leeds’ opening game against Stoke City who, the documentary emphasises, and I mean really emphasises, were apparently favourites to go up last season and some kind of footballing juggernaut (despite not being any good at all whilst they were in the Premier League and then consequently finishing 16th. For instance, the following sentence is actually said following a Benik Afobe penalty to briefly make it 2-1: “Last season, Leeds might have buckled after such a setback. But this… is a new… Leeds United.” Yeah.

A quick rush through the first eight games of the season follows, which leaves the team top of the Championship. But, as we know, things are never that easy. Particularly in streaming subscription service football documentaries. Crowe warns us of a “long, twisting road ahead. And what is about to unfold will be one of the most dramatic seasons in this club’s history,” before we are given brief glimpses into the future to entice us into committing to this series. Pontus Jansson is asked whether the team should have let Aston Villa score against them in one of the most controversial incidents in football last season and replies “Absolutely not.” Patrick Bamford is shown strumming a guitar, for some reason. Kalvin Phillips is, once more, shown looking simultaneously happy and confused at once.

And then we get Bielsa, sat, ruminating in the stands. Bielsa slowly walking out of the dugout. More of all that stuff, the players at the heart of it, and most of all, more of him, and Take Us Home will be well worth its place alongside Sunderland Til I Die and All or Nothing: Manchester City as valuable, insightful looks into a modern football team.

Any more of Andrea Radrizzani fluff in its place, however, and the wheels will come off this documentary quicker than it did Leeds United’s playoff run. There’s a great story here, but it’s one that takes place on the pitch and in the stands. Not the boardroom.

Take Us Home: Leeds United launches on Prime Video on 16th August