So Tyler Roberts didn’t kick the ball out. Public outrage! For what exactly? What about the noble English art of sportsmanship? Do me a favour! But, but…Dirty Leeds? Well, no. Clearly not. From the outside looking in it looks to me that there’s a lot of blame being thrown around in the wrong direction. One thing’s for sure though; it was the start of a series of events that could shape the short term future of Leeds United.
To recap, during their final home league game of the season, against Aston Villa, when an opposition player went down injured, Leeds carried on playing and within seconds had scored the opening goal of the game. Cue hysteria! Sky pundits -who when they’d played the game themselves most likely were anything but angels – took the moral high ground so high they needed to parachute back down to ground level and the land we call ‘Havealittlethinkaboutthat’.
As the ball hit the back of the net there was a bit of a scrap between opposing players. Or, if you prefer the correct football media parlance, a melee ensued. The mass of bodies became a moving brawl, trundling across the field of play, pausing for a second or two before finding the strength, or the moral outrage to go again. Eventually, with the added excitement of stewards on the pitch – yes, on the pitch! – things calmed down enough for the referee to take some sort of appropriate action. Or so we thought.
The media and social media fallout since has been somewhat incredible. And as a football fan and a supporter of a team that, in my opinion, doesn’t get the rub of the green with the media, it’s made me wonder why. So, is it just a Leeds thing? If for instance Manchester City or media darlings Spurs or West Ham or God forbid, Manchester United had done the same, would it have been OK to play to the whistle? Would doing what you were taught as kids – play to the whistle – have been acceptable then? Because that’s all that happened really.
Oh, I know that if we slow it down it looks like he’s going to put the ball out, blah, blah, blah. And he might well have been thinking that. But he didn’t do it. And in doing so he broke no rules. None whatsoever. Or again, if you prefer media speak, he didn’t contravene any of the laws of the game. Fair enough, he broke some precious unwritten moral code. But how are we governing the game here? Because if it’s based around morals…well, football’s in more trouble than we imagined!
As for the goal scorer, Mattheus Klich, I feel sure that he wouldn’t have been aware of any fuss that might have been going on around him. What he did was what we all would have done. It was Boys’ Own stuff – he had a chance to score a goal in a huge game. His team were stuck in the middle of a bit of a goal drought. He was a professional footballer doing his job. And it was actually a good finish.
So did Leeds do anything wrong? Well, for me, no. Not really. Surely it’s just instinct to play the ball forward? And if we then look at the actual injury we might easily just think that there was very little to kick the ball out for. From my standpoint as a complete neutral there wasn’t even a foul. Both players went in for the ball, there was a momentary tangle and then Kodija went down. Yes, he was injured and subsequently went off, but I don’t recall a stretcher or a head injury.
We all know what happened next. Chaos ensued. Villa players took the moral high ground while also taking the law into their own hands, while Patrick Bamford took the opportunity to showcase his acting skills. Unfortunately, rather than winning an award he earned himself a ban. In fact, in many ways he was the only Leeds player to really do anything wrong. And if we’re punishing bad acting then some of those Villa players need pulling up for their impressions of modern day football hard men. I’m not sure the likes of Bremner, Clarke or Gray would have been too intimidated.
In among the moral outrage Bielsa emerged as the voice of reason, which given his language skills was quite some achievement. With a true British sense of fair play in mind he ordered the Leeds players – and yes, that does include you Pontus – to let Villa run through and score an unopposed equaliser. Villa then withstood the Leeds pressure to hold out for a draw, but that was never going to be the end of the matter. With a multitude of cameras covering any game these days more wrongdoing was uncovered and the scandal lived on. Bamford was banned, a Villa player was excused for punching an opponent and the debate about the rights and wrongs raged on.
Meanwhile the football season continued. Leeds stumbled into the play-offs with Villa a possible opponent further down the line. Another meeting would be compulsive viewing, but both teams have to make it happen. Villa have languished in the Championship for a few years now without ever realistically looking like they might get out, despite a play-off final last year. And their good run has to end at some point. Will their players cope with the pressure.
Elsewhere, Derby have stuttered through the season and only clinched their play-off spot on the final day of the season, while West Brom have only never really looked that convincing all year.
And that leaves Leeds. The biggest club left standing? Arguably, yes, although I’m sure Villa fans would argue otherwise. Personally though I’d love to see Leeds make it to the Premier League. It’s been a long time without them and Elland Road is the kind of ground teams and fans should want to be visiting. No disrespect to any team in the Premier League, but a club and a city like Leeds is bigger and more high profile than most and if this is the league that claims to be the biggest and best in the world, then you’d hope it would recognise the value of a Leeds over say, a Bournemouth or a Watford.
Looking at current form though, it’s clearly going to be an enormous challenge for Leeds in the play-offs. They aren’t in any kind of form. They’re not taking chances, despite creating a lot and they don’t seem to have a striker with that killer instinct that’s needed in such massive games. I genuinely believe that with someone like Dwight Gayle up front Leeds would already be planning for life in the Premier league. Without and they’re relying on Kemar Roofe, fresh back from injury, but yet to truly hit form. Furthermore, there are some problems in defence – as illustrated against Ipswich – with the absence of Barry Douglas proving crucial.
Leeds don’t go into the play-offs in great shape. However, there are factors that might just see them through. Firstly, there’s Bielsa himself. We know he’ll have done his homework, that’s for sure. Besides that though, he has a group of players that are not only capable of playing incisive and attractive football, but who are in clearly in awe of him as a coach. Bielsa has transformed Leeds’ fortunes and although the play-offs are a real test of his mettle and methods, his standing in the game dictates that he should still have enough to pull the team through. If you’re a Leeds fan, you’ve got to hope so!
Elsewhere – and maybe I’m clutching at straws here – I’d point to players like Kemar Roofe and Jack Clarke. Both, to some extent are returning from injury or illness and both searching for form. Could such major games inspire them? Roofe has scored goals while fit and you’d expect him to continue to do just that, while Clarke is a young player that’s likely to produce a trick and a moment of magic, things that Leeds are in real need of now.
Can the crowd make the difference? Well, you’d expect so. Leeds – like my own team Newcastle – have a loyal and long suffering fanbase and it can’t be denied that they make quite a racket, especially inside Elland Road. That should be inspirational; it has to be. These players must be desperate to get to the Premier League, given the season they’ve had and so the occasions that they’re going to be faced with over the next week or so shouldn’t frighten them. One of the key factors, you’d imagine, will be whether or not teams rise to the occasion. Anyone feeling intimidated isn’t going to attempt that killer pass, won’t play the ball first time and is liable to fluff the chance that comes their way.
Having spoken to Leeds fans there seems to be a split in opinion and feeling about how things are expected to go. Some are adamant that Leeds don’t do one-off games and have reverted to the safety of the pessimist. Others however have decided that Leeds’ play-off record has got to change sometime, that this group of players and this manager are good enough to handle the pressure.
It’s been an interesting season for Leeds. It’s been an interesting last fortnight. It’s could be an even more interesting next week or so.