Leeds United: 16-year journey back to Premier League worth the wait

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Every year for the last 16, I believed. No matter how circus-like the previous season had gone, I kept the faith that Leeds United would be promoted again to the Premier League.

[ VIDEOS: Leeds United fans, players, Bielsa celebrate ]

It was a long wait and so much happened since that 2004 afternoon in Bolton — a day that fell on the third anniversary of their home leg in the Champions League semifinals.

Points deductions, ownership ranging from stingy to criminal, manager after manager after manager (Thanks, Massimo Cellino!), star players leaving, young players blossoming elsewhere, hope in August only for a finish somewhere in the teens come May — there weren’t many positives in the last 16 years.

But when Marcelo Bielsa was hired in 2018 there was a feeling of change. This was Marcelo Bielsa, the man praised by former players like Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola. This was a man who was well respected globally taking up the challenge of getting a second division side promoted.

In one season Bielsa improved an entire squad, had players playing above their level, and instilled a belief that as a unit they could achieve great things.

It took a lot of belief that brighter days would come and the sentence, “Leeds United are back in the Premier League” would ever be uttered again.

But, here we finally are.

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After last season’s crushing Easter weekend cost them automatic promotion, Leeds United’s Managing Director Angus Kinnear got right to the point in the Amazon documentary “Take Me Home” when he said “We’re not dicking around with the playoffs anymore.” The club backed up that statement, and it began with Bielsa returning for a second season following the crushing playoff semifinal defeat to Derby.

The manager’s influence on the squad was evident in Year 2. The improvement up and down the lineup was noticeable. This was a team on a mission. There would be no dance with the playoffs this season.

Promotion didn’t come easy. Nothing ever does with Leeds United. They started off strong, had a bit of a wobble at the turn of the new year, then opened the restart with one win in three games. Still, the teams chasing them dropped points, allowing fate to be in their hands.

At the time of the restart Leeds sat seven points clear atop the Championship. Each match was a stressful 90 minutes to earn three points. As the remaining fixture list kept getting smaller and smaller and promised land got closer and closer, it still didn’t feel real. Then Pablo Hernandez scored an 89th minute winner against Swansea.

That didn’t clinch promotion, but it put one foot in the Premier League.

So when the final whistle blew on Friday following Huddersfield’s win over West Brom, allowing Leeds to clinch automatic promotion, I thought about the last 16 years (after celebrating in my office).

Sometimes it’s about the journey and not the destination. For Leeds United, it was always about the destination. The journey brought few memories and plenty to forget.

Now it’s time for version 2.0 of Leeds United in the Premier League, and it was worth the wait.

Bielsa
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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.