In the first of his many bestselling novels, If Only They Could Talk, the newly qualified veterinary surgeon James Herriot arrives in Yorkshire fresh out of Glasgow University. There, the whey-faced and extremely wet‑behind‑the‑ears rookie begins his new life as an assistant in the practice owned by his new boss, Siegfried Farnon.
After a couple of weeks going about his business under the hawk-eyed supervision of his extremely eccentric but avuncular employer, Herriot is finally handed the responsibility of working in and around the village of Darrowby on his own. The locals – many of them harbouring deeply entrenched views of how their pets and livestock should be treated – greet his methods and very presence with deep suspicion and mistrust.
“I had arrived in the Dales, I felt, at a bad time,” wrote Herriot. “The farmers, after a generation of neglect, had seen the coming of a prophet, the wonderful new vet, Mr Farnon. He appeared like a comet, trailing new ideas in his wake. He was able, energetic and charming and they received him as a maiden would a lover. And now, at the height of the honeymoon, I had to push my way in on the act, and I just wasn’t wanted.”
While anyone who has read Herriot’s wonderful canon will be aware he gradually earned the approval and grudging respect of his clientele, it was difficult not to think of his early travails upon hearing that Jesse Marsch had been given the almost impossible task of filling Marcelo Bielsa’s boots in another part of Yorkshire. Everyone old enough to have seen Live Aid remembers Queen’s iconic performance, but significantly fewer can recall the name of the poor sod who was after them on the bill at Wembley.
The good news for Marsch is that David Bowie was no slouch either but, like Herriot before him, the American will have to get used to the looks of thinly veiled disappointment of Yorkshire locals upon seeing his arrival unaccompanied each match day on the Elland Road pasture they call home. “Usually they looked past me hopefully,” wrote Herriot. “And some even went and peered into the car to see if the man they really wanted was hiding in there.”
To say Bielsa was held in high regard by Leeds United fans who were understandably wary at the time of his appointment would be putting it mildly. Unlike his predecessors, in the wake of his dismissal, he surfed out of the club’s Thorp Arch training ground on a tidal wave of love tinged with what appeared to be genuine grief. And while many are the Leeds fans who accepted results were not good enough and something had to change, there are plenty more who would have mourned relegation from the Premier League with far less sadness than that prompted by the removal of their benevolent dictator.
So, Jesse. No pressure; let’s see you follow that. After Saturday’s encouraging, far-from-ignominious defeat at the hands of Leicester, the good news for sceptical Leeds fans is that for all his peculiar foibles – the ability to speak fluent English and a reluctance to sit on upturned buckets – their new manager’s football philosophy and that of his much-loved predecessor do not seem wildly disparate.
“We always talk about solidarity, mentality, how you feel in a good team,” said Marsch in an episode of Jeder.Mann – This Is Salzburg, a behind-the-scenes peek at RB Salzburg’s maiden foray into the Champions League group stages, after 11 consecutive failures to qualify, with the American in charge. “I think that’s even more important than results. How many coaches in Europe would say that? Just the craziest one! Just the craziest one but that’s important to me.”
Just the craziest one? Not quite. Those characteristics were also conspicuously important to El Loco, as was the focus on intensity, the Protestant work ethic, the togetherness, bravery and compassion espoused by Marsch throughout what amounted to a series of extended adverts for Red Bull. “The character of the team is always the most important thing,” he said, while remaining acutely aware that for all the enthusiasm and togetherness he fostered among the young players in his charge – Erling Haaland, Patson Daka, Takumi Minamino and Enock Mwepu among others – were inherently selfish and using their time at RB Salzburg as a springboard to catapult them on to greater things.
In the opening episode of Jeder.Mann, the newly appointed Marsch admits he is acutely aware of the low expectations Salzburg’s fans have of him, given his lack of any great managerial pedigree and the inherent mistrust most Europeans seem to harbour for coaches from America. “We have a saying in English, in America ‘chip on your shoulder’,” he said. “It means I have to prove myself to everyone who doubts me. I have to prove I am good. That’s always in my mind.”
It is a notion that will have once again been uppermost in Marsch’s mind when he agreed to take the Leeds job, even if his coaching history and the performance of his players against Leicester suggest he is likely to replicate the high press and high-octane intensity Bielsa invariably demanded. Early evidence suggests he will also work hard to close defensive floodgates that did not so much leak as haemorrhage goals in the final games of the Argentinian’s regime.“I don’t have to be Marcelo Bielsa,” said Marsch at his unveiling. “I’ve said I’ve followed Marcelo’s career and watched him closely, and respect and learned from things he’s done. I am different, I am my own person and I have my own ways.” They are words that will have been greeted with frosty scepticism by pessimistic, mourning Leeds fans but in time and with more performances like Saturday’s one suspects they may eventually thaw.