A vendetta is a lot like a dog turd – if it looks like one and smells like one (and especially if there’s some cur in the vicinity with a guilty expression on his chops) then it probably is one. The evidence is mounting that one of the factors blighting this Leeds United season is – how can I put this? – the reluctance of officialdom and the authorities to grant the Whites a level playing field.
The last few games have been reasonable for United results-wise, but this has been in spite of some less than competent – some might allege less than completely impartial – refereeing. On Saturday at Elland Road, Leeds faced a high-flying, hard-working and effective Brentford side who have made a real impact on the Championship this season. That the wheels fell off for Leeds was partly down to these opposition qualities, partly down to the old failings that returned to haunt the Whites – but significantly also it was down to a simply appalling performance by referee Graham Salisbury.
Elland Road is no stranger to shoddy refereeing. Any club will have its tales to tell of dodgy match officials on their travels – the phenomenon of the “homer” referee is well-documented and has a solid factual base. But while classically-educated Leeds fans (i.e. most of us) will be familiar with the Homer of Greek rhapsodic poetry fame, so rightly celebrated for his Iliad and Odyssey, they will scratch their heads and look blank when asked about the concept of a home-biased ref at United’s ground. It’s a bit of a sick joke for long-suffering Whites supporters. A book could easily be filled with tales of how we have suffered at the hands and whistle of these arrogant, officious little men.
So, for someone to stand out in that context, he has to be extraordinary indeed. For Leeds fans, brought up on cautionary tales of Tinkler, Michas, Kitabdjian and Elleray, to be so unanimously vehement in their post-match rage and fury, something seismic must have happened. Ecce homo, ecce arbitro: Graham Salisbury. This man outdid the most ravenous of starved rats for taking the biscuit.
Let us not go into the gory details again. In the short time since Salisbury blew the final whistle and relaxed into the warm afterglow of job satisfaction, the internet has been aglow with indignant accounts of the Leeds penalty claims bizarrely turned down; of the dodgy build-up to Brentford’s goal. There’s no smoke without fire, they say. Here we have a stratospheric pall that bids fair to choke the whole of the ether and betrays a proper conflagration. The details of the game are damning enough – of possibly even greater significance is the fact that this same Mr Salisbury was hauled over the coals just a few months back, after the Watford v Brentford game, by the Bees’ rentaquote manager, Mark Warburton.
Now a proper referee, a man of integrity, moral courage and steadfast determination to Do The Right Thing, would not be affected by a mere managerial rant. But, as we saw so clearly at Elland Road on Saturday, Graham Salisbury is none of these things. Salisbury appears instead to be the sort of match official who, in his eagerness to show he’s not to be intimidated by a vociferous crowd, will lean so far the other way as to absolutely persecute the side this crowd is rooting for. I’ve seen it many, many times before at Leeds, though not to this extent. The more the crowd hollers and gets on his back, the more the ref thinks “I shall NOT be intimidated. How good am I??” You can see it in his expression, in his demeanour, in his very body language. Gestures accompanying decisions become exaggerated and defiant. He plays the crowd like the matador he imagines himself to be might play an enraged bull. He walks off afterwards, feeling wonderful, cleansed, virtuous – expecting praise for his incredible, superhuman resilience, heedless and uncaring of the crowd baying for his blood.
On Saturday, Mr Salisbury got the praise he coveted – and not just from the Football League, whom – in common with other officials at recent Leeds games – he might well have expected to be more than satisfied with him. But yet more praise was heaped on his head by the man who had quite recently torn into him – Brentford’s mercurial Mark Warburton. Not so happy, obviously, was the Leeds coach Neil Redfearn, who condemned Salisbury’s abject failure to award obvious penalties. But then again, Mr Salisbury will rationalise in his self-satisfied way, he would say that, wouldn’t he? Besides, Warburton was quite possibly only following orders. Befehl ist befehl – as they used to say in the Wehrmacht or at the Nuremberg hearings.
Warburton, in stark contrast to his anti-Salisbury hatchet-job of September, waxed lyrical this time about the same ref – especially the way he “refused to be intimidated by the crowd” for the penalty claims. If you review the incidents with the sound off, apparently, they’re not penalties. Is that so, Mr Warburton? Perhaps if you reviewed them once more, this time with your Brentford-tinted specs off, they might look different again? There’s a good few thousand present yesterday who might very well think so. But – we would say that, wouldn’t we? The BBC might have been able to shed some light – if they had included the incidents in their brief Football League Show highlights. True to form, as well as the party line, they didn’t. So I’m told.
The tiresome thing about some of the more anonymous managers these days – the ones who perhaps feel they’re not as famous as they should be – is that they tend to play what the media, wistfully remembering those glorious Sir Alex Taggart days, just love to call “mind games”. Warburton will be a happy man today. He’ll think he’s handled the hapless Salisbury just right – soften him up with a post Watford rant, continue that process by expressing, in the run-up to the Leeds game, the hope that he’ll not succumb to that notorious crowd pressure – and then fulsomely praise him afterwards when he’s got his result.
And, make no mistake, Warburton and Brentford have got a result – a right result, to compare with any in their spectacular season so far. League placings notwithstanding, for Brentford to win at Leeds is historic, earth-shattering. It’s another one up for David over Goliath. Memorable just isn’t the word. And it doesn’t matter that it was a blagged result, a smash and grab where everything went for the away side. What do the history books care for that? In years to come, Warburton will still be the Brentford boss who went to Leeds and won. They can never take that away from him.
In a way, the sheer classlessness of Warburton’s post-match comments betrays the erstwhile lower-league parvenu in him. Many managers would have emerged from a triumphant away dressing room, conscious that they’ve had the breaks, ridden their luck, got away with it. There’s a sort of nobility in acknowledging that, grinning wryly, being pleased but realistic – showing a bit of class.
But to choose, as Warburton did, to praise a refereeing performance of such grotesque ineptitude, as utterly farcical as Salisbury’s was in its ridiculous one-sidedness – that’s so lacking in class and composure as to reflect ill on a man who really should know better. Perhaps he genuinely wants to inherit the mantle of “mind-games man”, now that The “Auld Bugger” is no more. Who knows? But Mark Warburton emerges somewhat besmirched and grubby from this, certainly with less credit than he could and should have done, after such an unprecedented result.
As for Leeds, they must strive to take what positives they can. There are not many. It was a nearly-but-not-quite performance, a game Leeds might well have lost even without the Salisbury factor so bizarrely skewing matters. Redfearn’s post-match reaction was nowhere near as undignified and opportunistic as his Brentford counterpart’s – but it hardly inspired confidence either. “We can’t play well every week, mate” he said to Eddie Gray as the listening, glum, homeward-bound supporters cringed. But – the other relegation battlers lost too; our fate remains in our own hands and – surely – we won’t get a ref as calamitously bad/bent as Salisbury again. Will we??
Wearily, then, we look forward again. Not to a distantly golden future where we get a fair crack of the whip and the game’s masters leave us alone to get on with playing football – but to the next week or so when we play Reading and Millwall with six vital points at stake. This nightmare reffing Brentford débâcle means we need the whole half-dozen and then we must kick on from there. Horrifically, the Millwall game will be almost as much our Cup Final as it always is theirs.
Come on, Leeds.