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Leeds United back in English Premier League after 16-year exile

Setting off smoke bombs in the team’s yellow and blue, Leeds United fans celebrated outside their Elland Road stadium after the northern English team’s 16-year exile from the Premier League ended on Friday.

Marcelo Bielsa’s side secured promotion from the second-tier Championship with two games to spare on Friday after West Bromwich lost to Huddersfield 2-1. Bielsa was filmed in a tracksuit celebrating with fans near his home.

A return to the world’s richest football league comes a year after a late collapse saw the northern English team drop to third place and have to go through the playoffs where it was beaten.

“Our club, our fans and our players have sacrificed so much — we’ve been in the doldrums for 16 years,” captain Liam Cooper said. “To be part of this team and to lead this team to promotion back to where we know we’ve always belonged is unbelievable.”

Seen as a sleeping giant of English soccer, Leeds won the last of its three English league titles in 1992 — the final season before the inception of the Premier League — and was a Champions League semifinalist in 2001.

A financial implosion led to Leeds being relegated from the Premier League in 2004, with debts rising to more than 100 million pounds (now $125 million) and fears the club could go out of business.

Leeds was forced to sell all of its players and other assets, including the stadium academy, and stumbled from crisis to crisis under a succession of owners.

Leeds went into administration in 2007 under Ken Bates’ ownership, which led to the team being relegated to the third tier where it spent three seasons. Leeds fared little better under the next set of owners, GFH Capital, before the arrival of controversial Italian Massimo Cellino.

During Cellino’s chaotic three-year ownership Leeds had seven different managers, but current owner Andrea Radrizzani bought a 50% stake in Leeds in January 2017 to signal the dawning of a new era.

Radrizzani purchased the remaining 50% from Cellino the following May.

The 49ers Enterprises investment affiliate of the San Francisco NFL team also took a minority ownership stake in 2018.

Leeds made a bold statement of intent by appointing Bielsa in the summer of 2018.

Bielsa spent seven years in charge of Argentina, guiding it to Olympic gold in 2004 and the runner-up spot in the Copa America the same year.

He also guided Chile to the 2010 World Cup, while Athletic Bilbao reached the Europa League final and Copa del Rey final under him in 2012.

After spells at Marseille, Lazio and Lille, Bielsa was competing in the second-tier at Leeds. He proved an instant hit, transforming the same squad he inherited into genuine promotion challengers in his first season.

Last season, Leeds had to remind Bielsa of the need to demonstrate “integrity and honesty” after apologizing to League Championship rival Derby for spying on its training ground.

“At an age when I’m trying to develop, he’s the perfect manager to have,” midfielder Kalvin Phillips told the BBC. “The Premier League is the best league in the world and, after 16 years, we’re back in there.”

West Brom remains a point ahead of Brentford, which can move into the second automatic promotion place with a win at Stoke on Saturday in its penultimate game.


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