Luke Ayling: Leeds’ fun comes on a Saturday, not in five-a-side at training
Anyone who was lucky enough to witness Luke Ayling’s flying volley for Leeds United against Huddersfield Town could be excused for thinking football under Marcelo Bielsa is always a case of divine inspiration.
That moment during the last game at Elland Road played in front of any supporters felt like a culmination of two seasons of Bielsa’s work at Leeds. Football suddenly looked easy, promotion was within reach, and the party had already started.
Former Leeds cult hero Andy Hughes summed up the mood in commentary for LUTV: “He’s even got the ponytail out!” I’m proud to say I’ve still got a scar on the back of my right ankle from the delirious celebrations, a badge of honour in lieu of my own personal Championship winner’s medal.
It’s easy to forget that Bielsa’s arrival was not a guarantee of success for Leeds. El Loco, much like the club he was joining, was better known for near misses and explosive controversies rather than an extensive list of honours.
A runner-up in the Copa Libertadores with Newell’s Old Boys, he had finished second in the Copa America with Argentina and lost out in both the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals with Athletic Bilbao. As Leeds’ greatest ever captain Billy Bremner noted in the title of his autobiography: “You get nowt for being second.”
Ayling was part of the Leeds squad inherited by Bielsa that had been written off by plenty of fans in West Yorkshire. In truth, it was nothing new for the right-back. After 10 years at Arsenal, he was released at the age of 18 and dropped down to League One to successfully rebuild his career, only to once again find himself deemed not good by Lee Johnson at Bristol City.
In the second instalment of Do You Remember The First Time, Ayling appears on MUNDIAL’s award-winning Spotify originals podcast, GIANT, to discuss the various knockbacks that led him to a £250,000 move to Leeds – in hindsight, arguably the club’s signing of the century.
But while he’s now taking the Premier League by storm, Ayling’s first two seasons at Elland Road ended in familiar disappointment. Campaigns that started with promise under both Garry Monk and Thomas Christiansen ended with the side bombing out of the play-offs, the apathetic arms of mid-table obscurity and Paul Fucking Heckingbottom.
Thank God, thank God, thank God almighty, something changed; namely, Leeds somehow appointed Bielsa, a mysterious, almost mythical figure. Nobody knew what to expect, least of all the players, at least until their first day working under their new manager.
“The first time we met him we were in the dressing room,” Ayling says on episode 14 of series two of GIANT. “He said a few words through his interpreter and then he went around to shake everyone’s hands.
“He completely sacked it off (calling the players by name) and went with the numbers that we play in. It was the start of the season so we didn’t have any numbers on our training kit but he went around and went, ‘Two, hello,’ and said everybody’s number that we play in.
“Then we knew he knows, he’s watched all the games. We knew then.”
Not only had Bielsa watched all of Leeds’ games from the previous season, he could also tell you every formation every other side in the Championship had used, and now it was time to begin the reprogramming of his new players.
First of all, they each had to trim their weight and lower their body fat. Tested on a daily basis, Ayling, already one of the fitter players in the squad, lost around five kilos. He is now as thin as six o’clock, relentlessly covering every blade of grass on Leeds’ right-hand side.
Results in Bielsa’s first pre-season failed to provide evidence on much discernible progress, only for Leeds to explode into life in their opening game of the 2018-19 Championship season, mauling promotion favourites Stoke City in a 3-1 win at Elland Road.
“The first time I thought this is going to work was that Stoke game,” Ayling says. “We played a few pre-season games and we hadn’t really been able to keep the ball and stuff.
“We went into the game against Stoke and we’re keeping the ball, we’re making runs off the ball. The drills that he does, the one-twos around the manikins, you can see them working in the game and you think, ‘How has that happened?!’
“We’d done it all pre-season, not really feeling like it was doing anything, then you come into a game and all the one-twos work, we’re keeping the ball better than we’d kept it, even though we’d not done keep-ball in pre-season.”
Ayling adds: “We don’t do any keep-balls like every other team, or five-a-side. [That’s all] fun, but our fun comes on a Saturday playing football, keeping the ball and being on the front foot and attacking. That’s where our fun comes from, not from five-a-side on a Friday.”
Much of Bielsa’s first season in charge followed the same pattern. At times, Leeds were magical, their football almost laughable. Yet the end of the campaign was soundtracked by that all-too-familiar Joy Division refrain: Leeds were falling apart, again.
Having agonisingly missed out on automatic promotion, their meeting with Derby County in the play-off semi-finals ended in a bewildering, traumatic defeat made all the more galling by the spectre of Spygate and Frank Fucking Lampard.
“Pretty much the whole dressing room was in tears because we knew how hard we’d worked,” Ayling says. “Physically and mentally it was a hard season. We’d put everything into it. Absolute devastation.
“We actually came in the day after and the gaffer gave a talk and I remember sitting there tears running down my face, it was horrible.”
In the past, Leeds would have pressed self-destruct, ripped things up and started again, only worse. Once Bielsa had agreed to return for another year, the plan, in theory, was always going to be simple: if plan A fails, do it again but better.
Come December 2019, Leeds were 11 points clear of third-placed Fulham, only for a run of one win in nine league matches to completely wipe out their safety net. Leeds were falling apart, again, but Ayling wouldn’t let them.
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After the penultimate game in that run, a 2-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest, Ayling appeared on LUTV to bemoan the side’s frailties. He himself looked gaunt, haunted, exhausted. What was perceived as evidence of the players’ vulnerabilities was instead a message of defiance; Ayling had told the club’s media department: “If there’s post-match press to be done, I’m fucking doing it.”
Not only did he talk the talk, but he also walked the walk. Leeds won five games on the spin to reassert their dominance at the top of the league, Ayling was part of a defence that kept a clean sheet in each of those victories and even chipped in with the opening goal in three of the five fixtures, culminating in his volley against Huddersfield that would have made Tony Yeboah blush.
Post-football’s restart, Ayling’s lung-bursting assist against Swansea City helped provide Leeds’ unofficial promotion moment. The heartbeat of the dressing room, when promotion was finally confirmed, Ayling was front and centre of the dressing room before appearing half-cut a few days later as the Peacocks celebrated the title by dismantling Derby 3-1 at Pride Park.
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“Driving down to Derby with all your mates as champions was just brilliant. We’d had two years of pressure from the media so to go out against Derby with no pressure and bring it full circle after they’d beaten us in the play-offs…that gave me the worst moment of my career, to then walk out to a guard of honour at Derby: brilliant.
“We beat them 3-1, so all the sports science stuff about living right…a nice beer on a Friday never hurt anyone!”
For Ayling and his fellow Leeds team-mates, the added bonus of promotion was seeing the usually distant Bielsa finally show his emotions to the players he had worked so hard for two years.
“For two years he’s kept us at arm’s length and not really shown that side of him. Honestly, it was the best feeling – him cuddling you, talking in your ear saying, ‘Thank you, we did it.’
“To hear him saying thank you to us when we’re so thankful to him that he came and gave us this chance…but we’ve also given him the league title that he hasn’t had, he was really thankful for that.
“It was a brilliant moment.”
To hear more from one of football’s good guys, listen to Luke Ayling: Do You Remember The First Time, featuring more insight into Marcelo Bielsa’s methods, murderball and adjusting to the Premier League, plus how he got his career back on track after leaving Arsenal. Then go watch his volley against Huddersfield again and again and again.