Last Wednesday, Victor Orta did an hour-long interview with La Media Inglesa in Spain. Joe Brennan has translated the interview and we will be releasing it in four parts here. In Part I, Orta talks about the process behind his recruitment, the 62 point dossier a fan sent him details his mistakes last season, and the way Marcelo Bielsa has been received in Leeds. The next three parts will be out over the next three days.
Q: Thank you for your time and the warm welcome to Leeds. I wanted to start with the question of the urban legend of Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll. Is it true? [That FSG’s “Moneyball” strategy consisted of them deciding to sign Downing and Carroll on the basis that they wanted the best crosser and best header of the ball in the league].
Well, I think like every urban legend it must have some grain of truth to it. Someone in the club told me it and it was clearly the approach of the American owners; there are good and bad American owners in everything: the 49ers are extraordinary, the best [laughs]. But it was bit what they thought would be easy to do. I was eating dinner with Stewart and never dared ask him. It’s all out there, you can find articles on it.
I suppose like every urban legend it will have some truth and some fiction in it. But what’s clear is that it didn’t work out. I think the statistical side of things wasn’t so developed back then but now it’s completely different, it’s really a simplification but not unreal, it seems truthful to me; someone from inside the club told me and he has no reason to lie to me.
Q: Hopefully it is true! We have a list here [in the Legends Lounge at Elland Road] of all the captains of Leeds United. My question: is it important to have in mind the history of the club when you arrive as sporting director of a club?
Yes, without a doubt. It was our biggest failing in the first year. When Andrea bought the club he presented to us the project — a club that needed a medium term project, developing players, a young manager — an important club model. I knew the history of Leeds but didn’t know the current situation. I’d lived in England and had lots of data and with there always being something in the news, whether it be a scandal or bad news.
In the first year we had a good first 6 months before a match against Birmingham it was 0–0 on the 21st of December, Pablo hits the post in the 79th minute and they score in the 82nd; if we’d have scored we’d have been second at the end of the year. Then, a lot of bad things happened over that period, like the incident with Samu Sáiz that was very relevant, because he was a very good player for us. It was then I realised that there was a demand for promotion that was absolutely incredible.
I still get them but then I was getting 10–15 death threats a week! Things like “go now” or “this isn’t working”. I had a very tough meeting with Andrea, I remember it perfectly, in a Japanese restaurant. There was a famous F1 driver next to us and I’m not saying that it got physical but there was a moment in which the F1 driver nearly got up to separate us because we were shouting so much, but it was because of the passion. We wanted to talk about what club model we wanted; I had an offer to go back to Spain — he knew that, I’d told him — and I was doubting whether or not to go back.
So after that and, above all, due to the intelligence of Angus Kinnear, we decided on the model of the project that we wanted. I told Andrea that Leeds is a not a club that you can come in a do a medium-term project, relaxed, wait and see what happens with, for instance, Jay Roy Grot, having 2 good seasons, sell him for double etc, no. It’s a club that has a historic demand and a historic weight that is incredible.
I had the feeling that — and I still do now — that for Leeds fans over 50 felt sick watching the Champions League, that it gave them a rash because they had lived a glorious period in which Leeds United had dominated as the champions of the country. The 30–50-year-olds were on a rollercoaster going from seeing their team in the UCL semi-finals to playing in League One and even losing to Doncaster at Wembley. The ones younger than 30 were tired of hearing their grandparents and parents talk about it when they hadn’t even seen one Premier League game at Elland Road. It’s the historic demand that I think happens in Spain with some clubs in the second division.
We had to battle against the parachute payments since clubs could even keep their Premier League players while in the second division; the gap was huge so we had to go for a manager who could reduce that difference, one who went over the general pay-grade for a Championship manager and who was at the top level, also while moving towards a much more immediate model of transfers. We could do that and work with the under 20/23s and have a very young model — for example, Pascal is now in the first team — but the first team had to be immediate with loans or whatever made an immediate impact to get promotion.
Everything ended up with Marcelo Bielsa’s name and it was either going to be an amazing success or a trip to the hospital; fortunately, it went well.
Q: Now that you have mentioned Marcelo’s name, what were those first few months like after he got there in terms of the new experience? How did you perceive everything in terms of the playing style, the fans, etc?
First I have to thank the fact that the club put everything behind this from my initial obsession, everyone from Mark Bromley the facilities manager to Angus Kinnear, the CEO. They created an atmosphere to get the best results and the club responded; I feel very proud of the club in all senses from Mandy Walker in ticket sales to Patrick Bamford who scores the goals. The club understood it was a historic moment, we put in a lot of hours not having the best wages in any position not even for the Championship, just having a common goal. I feel very proud of that.
The English model of players is an obedient one; it’s a player that trains and sees the coach as a teacher, with that distance. It happened at Boro with Aitor [Karanka]. I said, “Aitor, you have a problem, it’s hard for you to ask them to train better because they’re already doing it”. I didn’t see one bad training session at Boro even during bad results and it’s the same at Leeds. The English type of person is one who trains well, who puts a lot of effort in. So to get a coach that emphasises all of that will be responded to well.
There’s the story that we were all watching Bielsa’s first match against Stoke all of the staff and honestly we, myself included, would’ve all been happy with the draw: a 1–1 or a 0–0, Marcelo’s first game and Stoke had just come down from the Premier League, it was on TV all over the UK. In the end, it was a great game we won 3–1 and we could feel the confidence right there.
There’s one thing that happens with Marcelo is that what he says comes true, it’s how his players get confidence in him. He says that match X is going to go this way, and it does; it’s a question of work rate, he is not a magician, he works a lot, he analyses a lot and that gave us confidence. The first season ended how it did and we were capable of overcoming the semi-final loss and getting promoted the following year winning the title.
Of course, there were doubts, well not so much doubts, but in football everything is a challenge and you’re always living on a knife-edge. I’m sure the guys who sent me those letters in the first season see me on the street now and say “Orta! Legend!” it’s all part of it and you have to be absolutely respectful to everything. We’re in football, loving football, you have to be stood on the front line, you have to feel that if you don’t take up the challenge then you might as well go and focus on something else
Q: You said you still receive those letters?
Well, this summer I got one titled: 62 points why I disagree with your first season in the Premier League. 62! You have to have a lot of free time to do that!
Q: He didn’t want to kill you then?
I think it was the same handwriting! And in 30 of those points, I agree with them! By the way, they never come with return addresses; if you’re watching please send your address next time and I’ll send you a shirt or a keyring or something.
Q: Of all 62 points there must have been some funny ones.
Of all the 62 points of course there were some funny ones — the person blamed me for the pitch! Come on! Not everything! They said something about the seats in the dressing rooms being the worst in the Premier League, give us time! We’ve had a pandemic and now this summer we have changed the pitch to a new one that cost a lot of money and everything. That’s the level of the club — it’s a Latin club, it’s a Latin club.
Q: I get the feeling that Bielsa is very demanding. And listening to you, you sound very identified with the club. So I wanted to ask: what’s special about Leeds that makes everyone who works here feel so content?
I had luck in my time in football with the clubs I was at. I’ve always been at clubs with great emotional strength. Valladolid, Sevilla — 7 years in Sevilla where it runs through your veins, it’s so strong. I have seen amazing things there, the whole stadium singing, finals. The same for Elche, they had 20,000 season ticket holders, crazy. But I do see the difference with Leeds.
The one-club city thing? It’s real. We are the biggest city in the UK with only one club and that club turns into a religion, a sect. I still get surprised by it, one normal Tuesday we play in the second round of the league cup and 7,000 guys from Leeds end up going [vs Fulham]. OK, fair enough 3000 of them could live in London and they miss their club but we got 35,000 guys in here in the first round against Crewe Alexandra.
It’s a generational thing, very Latin, a place where they feel a genuine passion for football. They show it on every corner; Leeds United is on every corner of Yorkshire. I like it both in the good and bad sense: we’re in football and we work here and luckily we get paid better or worse and we have a quality of life that’s better or not but we get it from football.
What I love is that you can generate so many feelings for people. Do you know what it’s like to wake up the day after promotion and feel like you’ve made a million people happy all over the world? I made the joke about the letters but I get them from Norway, Sweden. In the 1980s when they put the Premier League on the TV over there and then with Bakke and the others they got a lot of fans from them. We could fill Elland Road with Nordic fans and you can feel the feelings they have and you have the responsibility on your shoulders to give that feeling back. How? By doing things the best way possible.
Nobody can promise success because we’re in football and nobody can. But you have the responsibility to try and the club gives you it back. It makes me proud. For me, Leeds is a club that returns those feelings and I’ll tell you clearly it would be very, very difficult for me to work in another club in English football. And I say difficult to not say practically impossible; I feel so intensely what the club gave to me and that is why I have to appreciate all of that
Q: A question from a Spanish perspective and even a Latin American one, it’s something that everyone is interested in. How did and the Leeds fans receive Bielsa and how do they now? He is like a messianic figure for so many people.
They’re only like that with their idols, Gary Speed, Yeboah, he came here the other day, so did Lucas Radebe, it was incredible. The statue of Revie, of Billy Bremner. I think that’s a very English thing in general, the education of the interpretation of history, we’re here in the Legends Lounge which is a room dedicated to players throughout the history. There is a sense of respect and knowledge about the history of the clubs that I feel proud to be part of it in English football.
I don’t want to compare because I love Spanish football but here there is that feeling of respect for history as a way of identification: ask a 14-year-old kid about Billy Bremner. He won’t have hardly seen any YouTube videos of him but he’ll tell you everything about him.
Look at Eddie Gray, he’s a club ambassador. He gets stopped in the street but by 20-year-olds; look at his goal against Burnely that’s painted in the middle of town. I feel that in English football, when you give to [the fans], they give you everything back. In every club there is that concept of legend, you have legends dinners, it’s quite reverential. And then here of course you’ve got all of that but multiplied with the passion that I mentioned before.
In the end, you have to be honest, I am not saying Leeds was mistreated, being the north, etc., but Leeds has always been an undervalued city, one based on immigration, working-class people, the mines, the industrial revolution. Not undervalued, but considered secondary in some aspects by the rest of the UK. So, 60 years ago, the only image of Leeds as a success was the club and that is a self-fed pride of saying we’re not London but we’re part of the UK, we generate GDP as well.
This is the north. This is what you feel, that social identification is done through your football club and for these people that is what Leeds United is, vindicating yourself and saying ‘here we are’.
Part II of this interview will be released tomorrow.
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