The Kalvin Phillips and Pablo Hernandez murals are the latest in a growing collection of Leeds United-themed street art to have appeared across the city in the past few years. They follow a whole host of work including epic tributes to Marcelo Bielsa in Hyde Park and Wortley, the huge club crest next to the motorway in Holbeck, and the ever-expanding portfolio of telecommunication boxes painted by the Burley Banksy. With more artwork in the pipeline, it’s clear that for the first time in years, the city of Leeds has a football team to be proud of.
After years of player recruitment dictated by a budget smaller than Jordan Pickford’s arm, quick-fire sales of home-grown talent, and managerial appointments ranging from unambitious to downright bizarre, it’s unsurprising that there were few gable ends being offered to honour anyone on the books at Elland Road. Since Bielsa was appointed, however, there has been an outpouring of pride and adoration for the current team which has been reflected by the new street art across the city.
Perhaps more than any other, the mural on The Calls symbolises how far Leeds have come in the past two years. At its centre is Kalvin Phillips — a player who embodies the hard work and discipline that Bielsa demands of his squad. Under the Argentine’s tutelage, he has been converted from a mediocre Championship number eight to a holding midfielder capable of dictating Premier League games, and his vast improvement is symptomatic of how Bielsa’s coaching has improved the squad beyond all recognition. So, in many ways, the mural on The Calls is testament to the amazing work of Bielsa, without whom neither Phillips nor his teammates would be worthy of the hero status they have acquired.
The prominence of Phillips has further significance. Unlike previous home-grown talents who (understandably) chose to leave the chaos of Elland Road for more stable and well-run clubs, Phillips turned down offers to play in the Premier League in favour of a second go at gaining promotion with Leeds. With three England caps and a Championship winners medal under his belt since then, his prominence on The Calls indicates a significant break with the past: staying at Leeds is now a way for academy products to progress rather than hinder their careers.
This is a new phenomenon, and it’s no wonder that the city centre isn’t adorned with murals of home-grown talent. After all, under Bates, GFH and Cellino, anyone showing a glimpse of promise was sold before having the chance to make a dent in the fortunes of the first team. By bucking this trend, Radrizzani has shown a level of ambition that his predecessors could only dream of, and the mural on the Calls encapsulates this.
Unlike the other murals to have gone up in recent months, it is more than a tribute to the heroes of our promotion winning side. It marks the club’s collaboration with the entertainment agency, Roc Nation; a partnership which is intended to facilitate the growth of the club overseas. The sceptics among us may question the merits of this deal, and with good reason. Jay-Z won’t help us convert the chances that go begging, Rhianna won’t provide cover for Phillips, and DJ Khaled won’t help us defend set pieces.
But we ought to reflect on what this partnership says about Leeds United. Roc Nation chose Leeds over several other clubs, demonstrating how the club have become an attractive prospect for potential investors and partners. In just three years, Leeds have gone from signing a deal with Jay-Roy Grot to one with Jay-Z. This follows a summer in which the Adidas kit was unveiled, transfer spending verged on £100 million, and series two of Take Us Home was released. Leeds United has flexed its muscles in recent months, and the Roc Nation partnership is further evidence of the ambition and innovation with which the club is being run.
The proliferation of murals is also an indication of how the past two seasons have brought the city closer to its football club. As a one-club city, Leeds has the potential to unite around football in a way that other large cities cannot. Yet up until recently, there were few tributes to the club beyond Elland Road and its immediate surroundings. This was hardly a surprise when hoofball prevailed on the pitch and havoc was the norm off it.
But in the past few years, Leeds United has been embraced by the city once more. Whether you’re shopping in town, commuting through Leeds, or returning to LS6 after a day of lectures, you’ll be hard pressed to avoid the abundance of walls, buildings and electricity boxes that pay homage to Leeds United.
While the ‘Where were you when we were shit?’ brigade may grumble about the sudden increase in Leeds-themed street art, they ought to ask themselves whether a 3-storey high painting of Michael Brown, Paddy Kenny and Michael Tonge belongs anywhere other than in Neil Warnock’s wet dream. The answer is, of course, no, which points us to another important development which has taken place since the appointment of Bielsa: for the first time in the best part of two decades, the city of Leeds has a team worth shouting about.
With each brush stroke, each can of paint, and each new design, the residents of Leeds have reclaimed their football club. Alienation and indifference have given way to pride and passion as the disconnect between the city and the club has begun to heal. This positivity has stretched beyond the confines of football as murals of Rob Burrow and Josh Warrington have deservedly appeared in Leeds in recent weeks. Bielsa has transformed Leeds United, there’s no doubting that. Inadvertently, however, he might just have transformed the city as well.