Paul Heckingbottom’s four-month tenure as Leeds United manager is not fondly remembered by many at Elland Road, and not even the most optimistic fantasist could have dreamt what was to follow.
The coach left his hometown club Barnsley in February 2018, with a brief of reviving Leeds’ ailing play-off chase following a downturn in results under his predecessor Thomas Christiansen.
But he found himself unable to make an impact, winning just four and losing eight of his 16 matches in charge.
Heckingbottom would remain in the post for an ill-advised post-season tour of Myanmar, but was sacked and replaced by Marcelo Bielsa shortly after.
The rest is history, with an unlikely Premier League reunion on the cards amid reports he’s set to take caretaker charge of Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United until the end of the season, having replaced cult Leeds favourite Andy Hughes in charge of Blades’ Under-23s.
One of Heckingbottom’s four wins actually came in his final competitive game in charge, a 2-0 home win over Queens Park Rangers, which saw Leeds end the 2018-19 season 13th, 15 points adrift of the top six in the end. Here’s what the side that doing, nearly three years on.
Having usurped the error-prone Felix Weidwald that season, Darlington-born academy graduate Peacock-Farrell remained the No.1 between the sticks during Bielsa’s first few months in charge, with little competition as Chelsea loanee Jamal Blackman suffered a broken leg turning out for the Under-23s.
But the youngster had more than a few questionable moments as Leeds challenged at the top of the table, and fell behind in the pecking order when Leeds signed the experienced Kiko Casilla from Real Madrid mid-season. The less said about him, the better.
Burnley signed Peacock-Farrell for a reported £2.5million fee that summer. Back-up to Nick Pope, his only Premier League appearance to date was in a 5-0 defeat at Manchester City, but he has made 18 appearances for Northern Ireland.
Right-back Ayling made a strong start to life at Leeds, looking solid as Garry Monk’s side narrowly missed out on the play-offs in his debut campaign, 2016-17.
He’s never looked back since, as one of Bielsa’s most trusted lieutenants, outstanding in the promotion-winning season and not at all fazed by the step up to the Premier League.
When he left Arsenal’s academy for League One Yeovil Town in 2010, he might never have imagined he’d make his top-flight debut a decade later at the age of 29. He looks right at home, too.
Pontus Jansson (Matthew Pennington, ’45)
Sweden international Jansson would remain a stalwart at Leeds under Bielsa the following season.
His chest-beating, heart-on-his-sleeve manner made him an instant hit with the fans at Elland Road, but his three-year stay came to an abrupt end following some amateur dramatics in front of the cameras following the play-off semi-final heartbreak against Derby, having watched the 4-2 defeat from the bench.
He went on to lose in the play-off final the following season as Brentford captain, and he’s involved in yet another promotion charge this year.
His half-time replacement that day, Everton loanee Matthew Pennington, is somehow still on the books at Goodison Park. Now into his seventh loan away, he’s currently turning out for League One side Shrewsbury.
The Hull-born centre-back was nicknamed ‘League One Liam’, having failed to impress in his early years at the club he supported as a child, behind Kyle Bartley and Jansson in pecking order during the strong season under Monk.
But over a decade since making his debut in the competition for Hull, Cooper is back in the Premier League, having captained Leeds as they ended their 16-year exile.
Spoke to Liam Cooper about Marcelo Bielsa pic.twitter.com/TpGVk6Us53
— Reuben (@ReubenPinder) September 26, 2020
There was some hope that Pearce would make it at Leeds, having shown some promise in his early performances, but he only made five appearances (two in the Championship) under Bielsa before being sold to Wigan in the summer of 2019.
The full-back was one of the few players that remained with the Latics, as an exodus followed the beleaguered club’s administration, points deduction and subsequent relegation in 2020. He’s now starting regularly as they battle against a second-successive drop in League One.
Named after the legendary Brazilian, with a brother named Romario, Vieira was born in Guinea Bissau and raised in Portugal before eventually developing his skills in Leeds’ academy, following stints with Benfica and Batley Phoenix – the only context in which those two clubs have been uttered in the same breath, surely.
Back in 2018, the general consensus was that the teenage midfielder was a more talented prospect than Phillips, so there was some consternation when Bielsa allowed him to be sold to Sampdoria, building his side around the latter.
He made 41 Serie A appearances for the Italian club, and has since been loaned out to Hellas Verona. There was a period in which he was strongly tipped to sign for West Ham, but you can’t imagine him usurping Declan Rice or Tomas Soucek now.
The Leeds-born midfielder scored his seventh goal of the 2017-18 season with the second in the 2-0 win over QPR, but it was his 95th appearance for the club and the jury remained out as to his future.
At that stage in his career, you’d probably have said he was more likely to follow in fellow academy graduate Alex Mowatt with a stint in League One than to shine in the Premier League and represent England.
But Bielsa saw something in the player that few others back then did, transformed him into a deep-lying playmaker as a single pivot at the base of Leeds’ midfield, and the rest is history.
“Players that had potentially been written off by the fanbase, like Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips, were specific ones who Marcelo said ‘I will make them the best in the league’,” chief executive Angus Kinnear later recalled to i News.
Kalvin Phillips vs West Brom pic.twitter.com/E9AiW5aNTA
— Thiago 🐺 (@HMDComps) December 29, 2020
Adam Forshaw (Eunan O’Kane, ’87)
Leeds played some of their best football of the Bielsa era with Forshaw, who arrived a couple of weeks before Heckingbottom in 2018, adding extra control in midfield in the opening weeks of the 2019-20 promotion-winning season.
“Minor hip injury for Forshaw. Failed a fitness test but should be okay for Derby next weekend,” tweeted Leeds reporter Phil Hay, with little alarm, back in September 2019.
One 45-minute appearance followed against Charlton a fortnight later, but he hasn’t stepped onto the pitch over 18 months later, having undergone hip surgery in the United States in March 2020.
His replacement that afternoon, O’Kane, has also been cursed by serious injury. The 30-year-old remains on Leeds’ books, though is back on loan at Luton, but he hasn’t made a single appearance since suffering a broken leg in his fourth appearance for the Hatters in September 2018.
Back in his days as a winger, Alioski was frustrating more often than not, but he’s turned out to be a useful player for Bielsa, with bags of energy and the humility to adapt at left-back.
The loveable rogue/absolute maniac’s contract at Elland Road is due to expire this summer, with question marks over his future amid strong rumours Leeds will sign a new left-back this summer.
There was never any doubt the Macedonian would ruffle feathers in the Premier League, and we hope he’s still around doing so next season.
The win over QPR was the Ghanaian striker’s last appearance for Leeds. Patrick Bamford arrived a few weeks later, and Ekuban was loaned out to Turkish side Trabzonspor.
The move was made permanent the following summer, and he remains with the club today. At the time of writing, he’s scored 16 goals and registered 11 assists in 73 Super Lig appearances.
Kemar Roofe (Ryan Edmondson, ’74)
With Bamford injured and rarely quite looking up to speed in 2018-19, Roofe was Bielsa’s main man in attack during his first season at the club, finishing the campaign as top scorer with 15 Championship goals.
But as he entered the final year of his contract, Leeds cashed in on him that summer, selling him for a reported £7million to Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht. He spent an injury-ravaged year at the Belgian club, scoring six goals in 13 appearances, before returning to these shores with Steven Gerrard’s Rangers.
He’s scored 10 Scottish Premiership goals to help the club win their first league title in a decade, as well as a goal of the season contender from his own half in the Europa League.
Edmondson, 16 at the time, came on for his debut against QPR, a 15-minute cameo at the end of the campaign. He went on to score 20 goals as Carlos Corberan’s Under-23s won the PDL North title in 2018-19, but only one short substitute appearance has followed under Bielsa.
The strapping centre-forward spent the first half of this season loan at Aberdeen, and is now turning out for Northampton Town in League One.