Lee Erwin is commendably committed to the strange. Nobody can remember anything about Erwin’s twelve appearances for Leeds, but we can remember him being used as a punchbag while playing for Motherwell against Rangers, and fishing a football out of the Leeds and Liverpool canal with a shirtless Casper Sloth in the club’s official 2016 calendar.
It says a lot about Erwin’s career that playing for Massimo Cellino’s Leeds United isn’t the weirdest part of his CV. Since leaving Elland Road, he’s bounced around clubs in Scotland, and adventured in Iran, Finland, and now Lebanon. The forward who used to play on either wing has become a certified centre-forward, but when discussing his positional change in an interview with The Athletic in October, he accidentally described his entire career: “I never thought I’d be a proper centre-forward as I used to like floating about.”
Due to sanctions on Iran when he was playing for Tractor in 2018, Erwin had to visit Turkey or Dubai to collect his wages. Players were given a bonus credit card from the club, but money was loaded onto it depending on performances. He was only allowed to fly home to visit his family if he was given an “exit stamp” from the club:
“The contract said your family gets all these flights but when I tried they said I needed a special stamp from the club and that I couldn’t as I wasn’t married.
“A lot of other stuff happened, but the thing that finally did it for me was when we had a few days off and were going to Dubai for a few days. I asked whether I could fly home but they said I couldn’t leave as I needed an exit stamp. It got to the point where they said, ‘If you win, you can go.’”
Erwin responded by scoring a seven-minute hat-trick, the fastest in Iran Pro League history, in a 4-1 win. He couldn’t get out of there quick enough.
A season in Finland with Haka was much calmer, and Erwin’s most successful to date. His only worries were referees mistaking his Scottish accent for dissent and having to choose between wearing a nappy or thong in the showers as his initiation. He scored 21 times, finishing as the league’s top scorer, and was named the competition’s Player of the Year. That attracted interest from clubs in Germany, France, Turkey, Bulgaria, the United States, and the Middle East, with Erwin joining Lebanese side Al-Ahed in November.
Based in Beirut, Al-Ahed are one of Lebanon’s most successful clubs. Last weekend, they played fierce rivals Al-Ansar in a title decider. Ansar needed a win to finish top, whereas a point would suffice for Erwin’s Ahed.
The fixture presented the Lebanese FA with a problem. Football in the country is tainted by sectarianism. Al-Ahed has links to the Shia political party and militant group Hezbollah; party officials have held senior managerial positions at the club, which used to be sponsored by a Hezbollah-owned TV station. In 2018, it was alleged Hezbollah’s missile facilities were hidden at Al-Ahed’s stadium. Two years earlier, one of the club’s most promising young players, Qassem Samaheh, was killed at the age of 19 in a battle in Aleppo, Syria, after joining the organisation.
Due to worries about the threat of violence between Al-Ahed and Al-Ansar ultras, the match was held at a neutral venue in Jounieh, ten miles north of Beirut, where the capacity was restricted to 1,500 supporters. Due to criticisms of the poor standard of refereeing in Lebanon, officials were flown in from Oman.
The measures appeared to be working for the first hour of the game. With Erwin leading the attack, Al-Ahed were winning 1-0, closing in on the championship. That was until Al-Ansar thought they had equalised, only for referee Khaled Al Qusai to disallow the goal because he had already blown his whistle for a free-kick and failed to play advantage. The game was halted for fourteen minutes while Al-Ansar fans scaled fences in front of the stand and threw flares and chairs onto the pitch. The president of Al-Ansar, Nabil Badr, pleaded for calm, and the match eventually restarted with the referee wisely advising Erwin not to contest a drop-ball so Al-Ansar could begin in possession.
Trying to rectify his earlier mistake, Al Qusai soon awarded Ansar a penalty, a decision one report described as ‘a second, more scandalous mistake’. Lasers were shone in the face of the goalkeeper as the penalty was converted. With sixteen minutes of stoppage time added on, both teams then traded further goals, Al-Ansar scoring a second equaliser in the 94th minute.
Ansar had to score again if they were to claim the title, but conceded a free-kick on the edge of their penalty area a minute later. Erwin stepped up, shooting into the wall, a deflection wrong-footing the goalkeeper as the ball ricocheted into the net.
Any chance of Erwin getting to celebrate his title-winning goal for Al-Ahed was soon lost. A mini brawl started between players after an Ansar player tried to waste time and was pushed to the floor, followed by a supporter running onto the pitch and getting tackled by a combination of players. Ansar fans started rioting, tearing down a fence and throwing seats at riot police, who eventually rushed into the stand while the match officials were escorted away. The stadium’s floodlights were switched off as the match was abandoned.
“The referee was clearly not appropriate for the match and has ruined the entire season,” said Al-Ansar spokesman Ayman Al-Sham. The club described the events as “a systematic theft this season by the Football Association”. Al-Ahed president Tamim Suleiman said: “The Lebanese Football Association is responsible for the match not reaching the end due to its failure to manage this competition properly.”
With the match abandoned six minutes before it was due to officially end, it was unclear whether the 3-2 scoreline stood. According to the Lebanon Football Guide, Al-Ansar fans will be suspended for a number of fixtures, and the club will be fined and ordered to cover damages to the stadium. Their report states Al-Ahed will be crowned champions, with Al-Ansar deducted three points and the match declared a 3-0 forfeit, robbing Erwin of his moment of glory.
The second half is available to watch on YouTube. Start at 23 minutes for the madness of Ansar’s disallowed goal and the first riot — with Erwin’s free-kick scored around 57 minutes. It’s difficult to know whether Erwin follows chaos or chaos follows Erwin. Regardless, he might be the only person in the world who looks back on Massimo Cellino’s Leeds United as an oasis of calm. ⬢