DUBAI: If Ezgjian “Gjanni” Alioski’s four seasons at Leeds United could be distilled into a single moment, the 56th minute of the fixture against Fulham on June 27, 2020 probably serves as well as any.
It was the Yorkshire club’s first home game following the enforced Covid break and, having lost against Cardiff City on the league’s resumption a week earlier, second-placed Leeds were hoping to reignite their promotion charge and end their 16-year Premier League exile.
With Leeds leading 1-0 but struggling to convince in an empty, echoing Elland Road, Mateusz Klich released Jack Harrison down the right wing. After a healthy gallop forward, his scuffed cross wrong-footed defenders Joe Bryan and Tim Ream and, almost apologetically, arrived at the feet of Alioski two yards to the left of the penalty spot.
He took a steadying touch and then drilled a low shot into the bottom right-hand corner; 2-0. Sensing the eerie abnormality of the stadium’s silence, he sprinted towards the Kop and started blowing kisses and waving to the cardboard cutout fans that had been placed in the stands to replicate a full house.
It was a typically Alioski sequence: the athleticism of the scamper into the box, the accuracy of the low, left-foot finish, the absurdity of the celebration – and all of it moments after collecting a yellow card for a wild scythe on Denis Odoi. He had, it should also be mentioned, only been on the pitch 10 minutes.
That is the Alioski Saudi football fans should be willing to embrace when he makes his bow in the SPL.
An effervescent, erratic and unpredictable left-sided player who would harry, press, interchange, track back and bomb forward whenever he was on the pitch and joke, play-act, mug, amuse and bemuse whenever he wasn’t, especially if there was a camera present.
In fact, few players in the club’s history have combined the sublime and the ridiculous quite so instantaneously. “Maddest human I’ve ever met,” was Luke Ayling’s summary of his teammate’s unique qualities.
It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the North Macedonian’s contribution to Leeds United’s renaissance as comic relief. Signed in 2017 as one of director of football Victor Orta’s first batch of recruits, the result of a Moneyball-style trawl of Europe’s smaller leagues, second tiers and reserve squads, Alioski was picked up from FC Lugano on the back of a 16-goal, 14-assist season in the Swiss Super League. He would go on to make 170 appearances at Elland Road, scoring 21 times – including a goal of the season against Nottingham Forest in just his fifth outing for the club – and was a near ever-present during the promotion-winning 2019-20 season, when Leeds finished 10 points clear at the top of the table, and again when they secured a creditable 9th place on their return to the Premier League.
Most importantly, perhaps, was the fact that, despite being signed as a winger, he ended up solving the club’s perennial left-back issues, stepping in when specialist recruits Laurens De Bock and Barry Douglas failed to replicate the form displayed at Brugge and Wolves respectively.
Indeed, there’s an argument to suggest that Alioski embodied the Bielsa revolution as well as anyone at Leeds. The tactical shift introduced when head coach Marcelo Bielsa took over the club in the summer of 2018 is built around constant movement, instant transitions between defence and attack and, when the ball is lost, relentless pressing to get it back – and the higher up the pitch the better. Requiring almost inhuman levels of fitness, excellent close control and the versatility to adapt to a number of different roles, Alioski provided the ideal raw material for Bielsa’s system. His stamina was such that Bielsa would often overload the right-hand side of the pitch knowing the entire left flank could be covered by one player.
“The club has changed me a lot and I have improved,” he told the club’s website in 2019. “I have learned to play new positions, improved on my defending and I now have the ability to run more. I’m also more professional and more disciplined, I have learnt a lot from Marcelo and I try to learn new things everyday.”
After four years in West Yorkshire, though, he couldn’t be tempted to extend his stay. It was clear Leeds were looking to recruit a new first-choice left back for their second Premier League campaign and, at 29 and with a financial future to secure, Alioski chose to become a free agent. Al-Ahli moved in to offer the practicing Muslim a lucrative two-year deal to play in Saudi Arabia.
So, what exactly is the Saudi club getting? The footballing answer would be an experienced, versatile international with a great engine who is equally comfortable at left back or left-midfield. But that’s half the story. He’s also a one-man content generator, an irrepressible dressing room personality who, with the benefit of six languages, ensured every member of the squad was welcomed and valued.
Club captain Liam Cooper probably summed it up best. Alioski was both “a lunatic” and “a beautiful human.” It’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.