Restless Leeds United natives will be screaming “vamos” when their new Spanish manager, Javi Gracia, takes charge of his first match at Elland Road on Saturday, subject to a work permit.

But come the end of the season, will the same fans be saying “gracias” to Gracia, feting their newest club hero, or will they be utterly distraught, yelling, “thanks for nothing”?

Gracia answers Leeds SOS

Gracia, brought in to succeed the sacked Jesse Marsch, has one job and one job only; to save Leeds United from relegation. In other words, the former Watford boss has been roped in to perform a rescue operation akin to the one pulled off by his predecessor last term, minus the stress and anxieties.

To be honest, Leeds fans will not care a jot how their club escapes the dreaded drop – with games to spare or on the final day of the season by the proverbial skin of their teeth – as long as they stay up. Of course it would be nice to dodge the relegation bullet while playing some scintillating football and with fewer heart-in-mouth moments along the way than they endured under Marsch. The final-day drama of last season was not for the faint-hearted.

But if any group of fans can handle the topsy-turvies of a football campaign, it is Leeds fan. It’s now ingrained in their DNA.

Relegation six-pointer first up

The football gods rarely disappoint. Once again they have obliged with an almost impeccable sense of scheduling. Assuming the necessary work permissions are granted, Gracia’s SOS mission will start in earnest on Saturday against basement side Southampton. Rarely has a first match for a new manager looked like the biggest of his tenure.

Leeds come into the match on the back of another soul-destroying defeat at fellow strugglers Everton, while last-placed Saints will be marching to Elland Road with their tales up after coming away from moneybags Chelsea with all three points last time out.

It is a good old-fashioned relegation six-pointer between two bottom clubs who will not only be wary of each other, but also have a lot in common.

Both the hosts and the visitors will be banking on the new manager bounce effect, with Southampton having confirmed that, after masterminding the win at Stamford Bridge last week,  caretaker manager Ruben Selles will remain in charge until the end of the season.

In the event Gracia gets the necessary work permissions in time, the match will see two newly appointed Spaniards pitting their wits against each other, adding another layer to this intriguing contest between two clubs in turmoil. The compatriots will be using their short-term spells as auditions as they seek to stake long-term claims for their respective jobs.

Both sides will know that the best way to boost their own survival chances is by taking points off their relegation rivals, pushing the loser deeper into the relegation quagmire. Separated by just one point, it is a match neither side will want to lose.

Not much to lose

It’s no secret Gracia wasn’t the club’s first choice. Reports suggest Leeds came a cropper in their pursuit of candidates they had identified as ideal for the assignment. It would appear the targets they had in mind didn’t relish taking charge of a club skating on thin relegation ice. So, fair play to Gracia for embracing the challenge.

The former Valencia coach inherits a club in a freefall, and for that reason he has little to lose if he fails to keep Leeds in the Premier League, except perhaps a bit of professional pride.

He arrives at the club with a reputation as a pragmatist and disciplinarian, but most importantly, as a coach adept at varying and adapting tactics to suit the playing resources at his disposal. A coach who can “mix it” is exactly what a club in a relation dogfight needs.

The sooner Gracia is able to put his stamp on the squad the better. He will need the troops to buy into his philosophy straightaway.

Leeds’ decision to plump for a coach with Premier League experience could prove a masterstroke. Watford probably regret sacking Gracia only four matches into the season in 2019. The Spaniard was a victim of his own success having led the Hornets to the FA Cup final the previous season and a club record 11th-place finish in the league on the back of a record points tally of 50. That experience will stand the Spaniard in good stead for the job he faces at Leeds.

No time to waste

Southampton vs Leeds United 6pts

Gracia has 15 games to shepherd Leeds away from the relegation zone and keep the club in the Promised Land. So there is no time to waste. To use an overemployed phrase, the new man will have to hit the ground running. He would be frustrated that he can’t get to work straightway because of the small matter of a work permit. Hopefully that hold-up proves to be a temporary inconvenience.

November 5, 2022 was the last time Leeds won a football match. They must return to winning ways sooner rather than later. Fans are yearning for that winning feeling again and Gracia might just be the man to put the fire back into the players’ bellies.

There will be some handsome rewards to be had for keeping the club in the top flight. The Spaniard stands to earn himself a decent bonus and the adoration of the Leeds faithful. He might even earn himself the right to dictate the terms of his long-term contract should he be offered one.

Gracia will cross that bridge when he gets there. For now the focus is on the job at hand and the attendant pressure of carrying the hopes of thousands of football-mad Leeds United fans.


I'm Barrie Jarrett, born in Leeds, lived over a decade in South Africa, CEO And Co Founder of Planet Sport Limited and Planet Bet Limited.

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