It’s been quite a journey for Leeds United Football Club and after 16 years of pain, the Premier League is within touching distance.
Leeds have manoeuvred their way through a crucial week, moving past Stoke City and Swansea City, teeing themselves up for a huge chance to convert a table-topping position into promotion.
It’s been a memorable week, with Stoke dispatched 5-0 at Elland Road on Thursday, whilst Pablo Hernandez’s 89th minute winner at Swansea on Sunday is looking like the most valuable of goals and has put Leeds on the brink.
That doubleheader will stand out for years to come if Leeds get the job done in the Championship, but so much else has gone before in a memorable 2019/20 campaign.
With that in mind, we take a look at a few talking points as the season edges closer to a conclusion…
The find of the season
When Pontus Jansson’s departure was announced, Leeds had already brought Ben White in on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion, but there was worry. Jansson had been colossus for Leeds last season, but a fallout with Bielsa led to his exit. Questions were already getting asked about White.
Many called for another body to complement White, Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi, but Bielsa being Bielsa, he kept numbers low and faith was placed in the 22-year-old loanee from Brighton.
White has been superb and has featured in every minute of the Championship this season. He’s excelled at centre-back from the get-go at Bristol City in August and has also grown in a defensive midfield role.
What the future holds for White remains to be seen: Leeds want him permanently, Graham Potter sees a path for him at Brighton and the Premier League’s big-guns are circling.
Where he ends up is anybody’s guess, but there’s no denying White has gone from unknown quantity and a potential weak link to the Championship’s best centre-back.
Victor Orta remains hit and miss
On the back of talking about White, you need to praise Victor Orta, Leeds’ Director of Football, who oversaw the signing of the centre-back.
The decision to re-sign Jack Harrison has been a good one, whilst Illan Meslier looks a strong signing and a potential long-term option for Leeds in the goalkeeping department.
However, there have been other deals that haven’t quite hit those heights.
Jack Clarke returned to Leeds on loan after signing for Tottenham and managed only 19 minutes in the Championship, whilst Eddie Nketiah and Jean-Kevin Augustin have arrived to compete with Patrick Bamford, but both departed without much of an impact.
On paper, the three were all good signings and, in the case of Nketiah, he scored three crucial goals in the Championship and by the end of the season his winning goal against Brentford back in August could be massive.
However, he was recalled by Arsenal, Clarke was recalled by Spurs and Augustin has been and gone.
Orta deserves praise, but doubts do surround his success rate.
Bamford proves crucial
Patrick Bamford divides opinion and whether you are standing on the terrace at Elland Road or amongst the press, you will find some praising him and others slating him.
Ultimately, he’s got the backing of the only man that matters: Marcelo Bielsa.
The 26-year-old has started 41 fixtures so far this season and made one appearance from the bench, missing just one game (a 5-4 win over Birmingham City).
He’s returned 16 goals and registered two assists.
That could be so much more given the spades of chances Leeds create, but Bamford’s efforts have put Leeds on the brink of a return to the Premier League.
There’s more to those efforts than just goals, with Bamford’s ability to link play, occupy defences and prove to be a nuisance more than enough for Bielsa.
Streaky runs of form in-front of goal have helped to dilute the criticism and, as Leeds sit on the cusp of glory, few can doubt Bamford’s influence on this side.
Phillips underlines where his future lies
Marcelo Bielsa’s first season at Leeds was a brilliant one for Phillips.
Prior to Bielsa’s arrival, it was hard to pin down what Phillips was; a tough-tackling midfielder that scored a few goals, featured as a No.10, box-to-box midfielder and even on the wing to shoehorn Samu Saiz into a central position under Thomas Christiansen.
Bielsa arrived, identified Phillips as key and built a side around him.
His job is to be the midfield anchor in a 4-1-4-1 system and, for large parts of the 2018/19 campaign, he excelled there.
A move to the Premier League could have come last season after Leeds bombed their position in the promotion race, but a new deal was on the table and another chance for 12 months of development under Bielsa.
He’s proved that last season was no fluke and in 37 appearances in the Championship this season he’s excelled once more, with his appearances in February on the back of a three-match suspension of the highest quality.
Gareth Southgate has monitored him this season with a view to an England call-up and, with or without Leeds, Phillips will be in the Premier League next season and in the reckoning for international honours.
Another season under Bielsa has only underlined that.
Hernandez’s fitting redemption
Hernandez has been a fan favourite since he walked through the door at Elland Road in 2016 and his arrival is the thing Leeds fans thank Garry Monk for most.
Leeds’ capitulation last season brought Hernandez’s tears; Bielsa picked him up from the turf at Brentford in April and less than a month later he was inconsolable at a stunned Elland Road as Derby County reached Wembley.
12 goals and 12 assists across the Spaniard’s best ever season meant nothing.
However, he was back for more and against Bristol City on the opening day of the season he shone with a goal and an assist.
At this stage his stats stand at eight goals and seven assists. Injuries have pinched and there’s been less reliance on him.
Since the restart, Hernandez hasn’t started a game, but you can’t deny the influence he has had.
He tore Fulham to pieces as Leeds beat Scott Parker’s side 3-0, he pulled the strings as Leeds dispatched Stoke 5-0 at Elland Road last Thursday and, on Sunday, he scored arguably the club’s biggest goal in almost two decades to win 1-0 at Swansea.
Forget the tears against Brentford and images of the loveable Spaniard heartbroken as Derby twisted the knife; this is Hernandez’s redemption.
His influence on this season will be talked about for generations if Leeds can get over the line.