Play to the whistle. It’s one of the most common phrases uttered in most young footballers’ careers, but rarely does it have so much relevance as in Leeds United’s 1-1 draw with Aston Villa at the weekend.
After Jonathan Kodjia went down under an innocuous-looking coming together with Leeds defender Liam Cooper, Aston Villa looked to their opponents to put the ball out of play.
However, they didn’t.
They had no reason to. After all, Kodjia was not down with a head injury, so it ultimately fell on the referee to decide to stop the play. Leeds were not mandated to put the ball out of play, and referee Stuart Attwell didn’t blow his whistle.
Unfortunately, what then sparked from that moment was arguably some of the most dramatic six minutes in this Championship season.
Tyler Roberts received the ball out wide and, in a moment that was largely to blame for most of the fury and reaction to follow, appeared to dummy putting the ball out into touch and instead fed Mateusz Klich.
The Aston Villa players, and a number of the Leeds players, stopped dead. They assumed the ball was going out of play, only to be caught off guard by Roberts’ ball forwards. Klich drove into the box, taking full advantage of the opposition defenders being flat-footed, curling an effort into the corner of the net and sparking absolute chaos.
In an already passionate encounter, tempers exploded as both sets of players collided in an all-out brawl of shoving, shouting and shirt-pulling that went on for a lengthy period. The two benches flooded their technical areas and plenty more vocal disputes raged between the two sets of playing staff, with gestures and gesticulations aimed at one another.
In the midst of the melee, Patrick Bamford embarrassingly went down clutching his face, insinuating contact from Anwar El Ghazi, despite replays showing a distinct lack of contact to the Leeds man’s head.
When Attwell finally regained control of the chaos, some five minutes after Klich’s initial strike, there was more of a twist in the tale for Aston Villa, who saw a straight red shown to bewildered El Ghazi as part of the punishments issued.
There was now a serious problem. Aston Villa were already incensed, screaming injustice at the Klich goal, and now found themselves a man down too after the El Ghazi dismissal. As far as they were concerned, they were now a goal and a man down from the unsportsmanlike behaviour of their opponents.
Step in Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa, who took the high road and should be massively applauded for it. Ordering his men to give Aston Villa a goal from the restart, he watched as Albert Adomah dribbled past the largely stationary (we’ll come to that in a second) Leeds players and slotted the equaliser into the net.
It was a bizarre moment watching one team intentionally allow their opponents a goal.
Well, all but Pontus Jansson. From the moment Bielsa ordered his men to give back a goal as a way of evening the contest and cooling the controversy, the Swedish centre back was apoplectic.
He spent the entire restart and Adomah’s run towards him gesticulating furiously at his manager and teammates, furious at the idea of gifting a goal away, and even went so far as to try to tackle Adomah. The Aston Villa man shrugged him off, but naturally once the equaliser was in the net, round two of the handbags sparked.
Jansson’s teammates chastised him for his actions – and I imagine even further chaos would have broken out had he actually denied the goal – but you can almost understand his reaction.
Post match he blamed his competitive spirit as a centre back wanting to protect the clean sheet, but his reaction does still make some sense.
It’s farcical to be told there, in a game so desperately important to your season and faint chance of still achieving automatic promotion, to gift away a vital goal. Added in that Leeds hadn’t actually been required to put the ball out, and in the heat of the moment you can understand his unwillingness to go along with Bielsa’s sportsmanlike solution to the conflict.
At the end of the day, the actions and decision of Bielsa deserve praise as sportsmanlike of the highest order, but truthfully it wasn’t something he had to do.
I understand Aston Villa’s fury, especially seeing as they’d just moments early put the ball out of play for a Leeds injury, but Kodjia wasn’t down with any kind of injury that dictates the stoppage of play.
As such, as we said in the beginning, you play to the whistle. Until that ball goes out in touch, or Attwell raises the whistle to his lips, it’s their duty as players to keep playing.
Should Roberts have done what he did? No. Categorically, if he was looking to play it along the line towards Klich then he should have done that, not slowed initially and looked as if he was going to play it out. That much was unsportsmanlike behaviour, but all of the controversy and chaos that followed is avoided if the Aston Villa players continue playing until it goes across that white line.
Ultimately, Bielsa took the moral option and restored order to a situation, but it really cannot be understated that he really did not have to. It shows his character in such an important game, with three points vital to his team, that he’d be willing to demand such a response from his players, but it was a situation entirely avoidable by one of the most basic principles of football; playing to the whistle.