Leeds United’s last home game, against Wigan Athletic, started amid bright sunshine and relaxed optimism like a pre-season friendly, then collapsed in on itself like a white dwarf star, or like a metaphor for the history of Leeds City and United, 1904-2019.
Leeds United versus Aston Villa felt like another pre-season friendly, but without the optimism. United’s defeat at Brentford had ruined the mood, and Sheffield United’s win over Ipswich Town had flattened it, so this match felt like a pause before a new, hopefully three-game season starts in the play-offs. The main point of interest was the chance to see a new youth player, seventeen-year-old playmaker Mateusz Bogusz, on the bench. Underlining the lack of seriousness, the squad lined up before the match with their babies in their arms. There were a lot of these, suggesting another source of burnout apart from Marcelo Bielsa’s punishing training regime; perhaps the Academy should put on family planning sessions for Bogusz and his teammates, to ensure our future first team players are getting good nights’ sleep. Alone, Gaetano Berardi swerved the gaggle of spouses and kids by the players’ tunnel, marching past them all and sitting straight down on the bench, ready for football.
The game was falling as flat as the preparation suggested it might. At first Leeds couldn’t get out of their own half, as Aston Villa looked as good as their reputation and their ten consecutive wins. After an early onslaught, Leeds started asserting their style, as Bielsa puts it. He was using Mateusz Klich as a more physical enganche than Tyler Roberts, with Adam Forshaw muscling the midfield behind him; Kalvin Phillips was back to doing his usual defensive midfield job, but with additional responsibility for marking Jack Grealish. This was made difficult by Grealish’s habit of throwing himself to the floor whenever he heard the whip of Phillips’ braids through the air near him, and rather than using a heatmap, Grealish’s performance should have been measured with a baby monitor. He spent much of the game sitting on the floor, his arms stretched out, begging the referee to put a dummy in his mouth; he was no risk to Leeds, never getting into their box, never creating anything, a testament to Phillips’ work, as was Phillips getting through the game without a booking.
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The referee, Stuart Attwell, might notice that absence as he leafs through his notebook and feel a tinge of regret. Attwell became the Premier League’s youngest referee in 2008, and it took until 2012 for the mistake to be realised, when he was demoted to continue his search for the attention his parents never gave him in the Football League. It was Attwell’s whistle that pandered to Grealish’s every fake cry, as if he was hoping that the most popular kid might notice him and play with him after school; he adjudged Leeds made twice as many fouls as Aston Villa in the first half, despite Leeds having the ball 67 per cent of the time. Near me on the press gantry Norman Hunter yelled, “Is this the good guys versus the bad guys?” and on the touchline Marcelo Bielsa was saying something similar to the fourth official; they crouched together on the touchline, locked in debates that led to Attwell coming across, with a yellow card for Bielsa and a bulge in his shorts.
Bielsa, who has been a studied contrast to the rest of this country’s coaches by refusing to publicly criticise any referee this season, took a moment before half-time to apologise to the fourth official, placing a hand on his shoulder and accepting that he had lost his temper. Then, as Leeds passed the ball dangerously into Aston Villa’s penalty area, Attwell decided to blow his whistle for half-time, and Bielsa blew his lid again, along with all the Leeds players and all the crowd. Attwell waited on the pitch before being guarded down the tunnel, purple with delight in the atmosphere he’d created, like a scab filling with poisonous blood.
If the game had been refereed properly, the incident it will be remembered for would never have happened. As it was, rather than the centre of attention, Attwell was only a bystander to the goal Leeds scored and the goal they gave away, and that was in fact the problem. His hypersensitive refereeing, rather than imposing discipline, rendered the pitch almost lawless, the players going about their business as best they could, unable to predict how or why Attwell would blow against them. A referee is supposed to keep a match calm with consistency and good sense; the way Attwell ended the first half proved he was out to provoke. If he wanted problems, Mateusz Klich gave him one.
The referee can decide to stop a game if a player looks seriously injured, or players can kick the ball out if they’re concerned about a colleague, or everybody can play on until the next break in play, usually coming soon enough for the physio’s sponge to soothe a bruise away. When Adam Forshaw was felled on the edge of Leeds United’s box, Attwell didn’t give a free-kick, and Villa, once their attack had fizzled out, put the ball out of play. When Jonathan Kodjia hurt himself by barrelling through a tackle on Liam Cooper in the centre circle, United’s attack hadn’t fizzled out, but was just getting going; Tyler Roberts, seeing the Villa players asking for the game to stop, paused as if unsure, and opted to kick the ball towards Klich and let his more experienced teammate sort it out. Klich, not hearing a whistle, not seeing any reason why the game should stop, opted to put the ball in Aston Villa’s net and let Stuart Attwell sort it out. That the goal stood says everything: it was perfectly legal.
After the game Bielsa refused to acknowledge any difference between sporting behaviour in general and the behaviour in this game’s specific circumstances, but that’s because he’s a more moral person than I am; I felt the ball hitting the net with the power of every single one of Jack Grealish’s falsely earned free-kicks. Under more peaceable circumstances, Klich might well have tapped the ball out of play and taken the fair play applause rather than the goal. But the game was being played at a high pitch of Attwellist injustice, so into the net it went.
And down Pat Bamford went. I’ve no track record with Bamford to check whether faking a punch to the face and falling to the floor would be his usual response in the melee after Klich scored, but I suspect he was thinking that what had been good enough for Grealish in the previous seventy minutes was good enough for him. Then again, Bamford had been particularly witless ten minutes earlier, chasing Axel Tuanzebe into the centre circle and pushing him under Attwell’s nose, the one thing every other Leeds player was trying to avoid doing; Pat complained alone. Perhaps cunning isn’t in Bamford’s nature either. Attwell, sorting out the chaos after Klich scored, booked Bamford and sent off Anwar El Ghazi, the player who offended him, but if the cards were both given for their parts in that incident they seemed contradictory, El Ghazi sent off for something Bamford was booked for faking. We’ll have to wait for the referee’s report to find out what they were actually punished for, once Attwell has had his milk and sharpened his crayons.
Marcelo Bielsa and Dean Smith weren’t waiting for Attwell to decide anything. Even while fights were breaking out across the pitch, smoke bombs going off in the stands, players lying injured on the floor, the crowd roaring at it all — don’t listen to anyone who says ‘we don’t like to see this in football’, because it was all fantastic — the head coaches held a summit to sort the situation out. Smith says he asked Bielsa to let Villa equalise; Bielsa, his hand on Smith’s shoulder, Carlos Corberan urgently translating, agreed immediately.
Bielsa’s bigger problem was convincing his players. Pontus Jansson, in particular, shouted his anger so strongly at the bench that the rest of the players began to wonder who, Bielsa or Jansson, they should be listening to. Bielsa was emphatic; Jansson, trying to kick Albert Adomah’s knees off as he walked through to score, was seeing his red mist. Gaetano Berardi was peacemaker, as he had been in the fighting after Klich’s goal; given the way John Terry kept carrying on the argument between the benches even after Villa had been allowed to score, it was fortunate Berardi wasn’t still in the volatile technical areas, where I don’t think he would have stayed calm enough to avoid settling some of Wayne Bridge’s old scores.
Bielsa gave an ironic answer to an Argentinian journalist pressing the subject of Jansson after the game; “I’m not surprised that it’s an Argentinian journalist that asks this kind of question,” he said. Then he gave his serious answer: “Not everyone accepts destiny in the same way. Especially when you have to give up something that is so hard to reach.” Jansson said much the same after the match; he works so hard for a clean sheet, it was hard to give it up in that manner. Jansson is a hothead, Bielsa is El Loco; I doubt that’s the first argument they’ve had this season, and I suspect they secretly relish each others’ passionate obstinance.
Bielsa’s other characteristic obstinance is his refusal to be drawn into football’s outrage machine. “What happened, happened,” he said, “and we behaved as we behaved, and that’s all I can say about something that is very clear.” There was nothing more to discuss about an incident that everybody saw. Even Dean Smith went home content with how Leeds had behaved. “Full respect to Marcelo and Leeds United,” for giving a goal away, he said, “because it was the right decision.” Perhaps he was remembering, guiltily, the point he took away from Elland Road with Brentford earlier in the season, won from Ollie Watkins’ dive.
Mateusz Klich quietly accepted his part in the proceedings too, apologising to Smith after the game, and if there was a fault in the way Leeds scored, it was the moment when Roberts gave the ball to Klich; it was interpreted by everyone on the pitch as a pass going out of play, until Klich flipped the script. That momentary stutter is the one thing Villa could complain about, but complaining about it by turning from diving whiners into fighters wasn’t the noble response Bielsa praised English football for after the game. Perhaps if there’d been a referee on the field worth listening to, the behaviour of the players, of both teams, would have been different.
The whole affair breathed life into the match for five minutes, then took it out again, and the final phase went by like a training exercise for Leeds, attack against defence; they surrounded Aston Villa’s penalty area, filled it with players, returned the ball again and again, and still persisted with extra passes when a shot could have made the difference. The drama, and Bamford’s dive, disguised another impotent performance from him where it counts; the guaranteed moment of collapse for a Leeds attack was Bamford getting the ball. Leeds pushed and pushed in the last twenty minutes — 84 per cent possession, ten misdirected shots — but only having Klich’s goal to show for the day proved that, while Leeds can match Aston Villa, they need to find their early season impetus again to score past them at Wembley.
If Wembley is where this is all heading. The play-offs were on everybody’s mind as the kids were brought out before the match, then again at full-time for the players’ lap of honour, and while nothing can be guaranteed in the post-season games, it was hard to avoid the idea that Stuart Attwell had been sent specifically to provoke the grudges and petty rivalries that could make a Wembley meeting between these two teams in the Richest Game in Football® a malevolent classic. If Leeds beat Frank Lampard Junior’s Derby County on the way to a rematch with John Terry’s Aston Villa, the hype won’t only encompass this weekend’s controversy, but Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy being tested by a self-righteous aristocracy representing English football’s inflated sense of worth. We already know that Shaun Harvey has, in his wisdom, decided that video assistance won’t be available to the referee in the final, a decision that, combined with this game, makes one wonder how inadequates like Harvey and Attwell manage to fill positions of authority in English football, and always have, stretching back to the eminences at The FA who hated Don Revie so much they hired him, then hated him even more.
Whatever happens between now and whenever Leeds United’s season ends, we can at least be sure of how Leeds will behave: fighting for and seizing every advantage on the pitch, refusing to be part of any controversy off it, dominant in midfield but deficient in front of goal, and with no fit left-backs. We’ll be hated, but we’ll be right. ◉
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(photo by Paul Kent)