Leeds promoted to Premier League after 16 years in the wilderness

One of England’s most storied clubs is back in the big time.

Leeds United were promoted to the Premier League on Friday after West Bromwich Albion’s 2-1 loss at Huddersfield Town assured Marcelo Bielsa’s side of a spot in either of the Championship’s two automatic places.

West Brom or Brentford will take the other automatic promotion position. The club that falls short in that race will face the lottery of the Championship playoffs.

Leeds were most recently in the Premier League during the 2003-04 campaign. The 1-0 defeat at Chelsea that concluded the season featured an 18-year-old James Milner in Leeds’ starting XI, while Argentine striker Hernan Crespo, who’s now 45, was an unused substitute for the hosts. The Yorkshire club finished that term in 19th place, sandwiched between Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the relegation zone.

Their descent was followed by a prolonged period of financial insecurity, on-field torment, and, after another demotion in 2007, three long, frustrating seasons in the third tier.

Nick Potts – PA Images / PA Images / Getty

Leeds endured two unsuccessful League One playoff campaigns before they were finally promoted automatically in the 2009-10 season, but that didn’t mark the start of a miraculous renaissance for the club.

The Whites spent 10 seasons in the Championship, finishing 13th or worse in more than half of those campaigns. And, somehow, they kept afloat during and after Massimo Cellino’s tumultuous three-year reign as owner.

Cellino received three bans from the Football Association and fired six managers during his tenure.

“Coaches are like watermelons, you only know (how good it is) when you open it,” the Italian businessman said in 2014.

Cellino sold his majority stake in the club to Andrea Radrizzani in January 2017, sparking a reversal in fortunes for Leeds. Radrizzani appointed Bielsa in June 2018, and the respected tactician soon appeased his employers by primarily leaning on youth-team graduates and shrewd loan acquisitions to build his side. There wasn’t much money available to buy players.

His game plan was demanding – Bielsa’s teams have a reputation for fading near the end of seasons – but it was soon understood by his squad.

The manager is often spotted analyzing tactics on his laptop in the Wetherby branch of Costa Coffee, and his extensive studying and preparation paid off with the likes of Kalvin Phillips developing into an international-grade midfielder, the oft-maligned Patrick Bamford notching 16 goals this season, and Liam Cooper and Ben White forging an uncompromising central defensive partnership.

Statistic Figure League rank
Average possession 59.7% 1st
Shots per game 16.2 1st
Total goals 70 3rd
Shots allowed per game 8.9 1st
Total conceded 34 1st
Total key passes 536 1st

Leeds missed out on promotion last term when a late-season slump culminated in a playoff semifinal defeat to Frank Lampard’s Derby County. But, for once, it won’t be Leeds experiencing heartache this time around.

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