Leeds United's lifetime Elland Road ban threat must work before serious incident tars Whites
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Objects have been hurled at opposition players in numerous games involving the Whites this season, not just at home and not just while they’ve been celebrating goals against Leeds - Seamus Coleman became a target for someone in the away section at Goodison for having the temerity to take a throw-in.
Sunday’s game against Manchester United was just the latest instance of an issue that is blighting fixtures in other grounds too, and it wasn’t just Leeds fans involved, as the red smoke pouring from a number of smoke bombs landing on the pitch proved.
Leeds knew that kind of thing was a possibility. CEO Angus Kinnear’s programme notes contained encouragement to keep the atmosphere hostile but within legal boundaries.
They knew it was possible not just because of the strength of the rivalry and the years the club has had to wait to host the enemy in front of fans, but because it’s happening all too frequently.
Red Devils substitute Anthony Elanga joined a list that includes Burnley’s Matthew Lowton and Brentford’s Sergi Canos when he was struck by something - coins were cleared from the pitch following the incident - thrown from the crowd.
Mercifully, none of those targeted since fans returned to the LS11 ground this season have been hurt seriously. Lowton left Leeds with a lump on his forehead and Elanga received attention from the Manchester United medical team but was uninjured.
It’s not just away players, match officials and travelling supporters at risk. There’s every chance a Leeds player in the vicinity could be struck, there are Leeds stewards having to shield themselves as they attempt to protect opposition players and, if a coin goes into the away end, it may well come back with interest. These people are putting their own at risk.
At some stage, if the trend continues, Leeds’ luck will run out and the back page of every national newspaper will be filled with images of a bloodied footballer and headlines to match. All it will take is one coin, as the infamous Hugh Dallas Old Firm scenes proved, and scenes that no one wants to see but no one would be able to ignore will be beamed across the world by the Premier League’s broadcast partners.
If that situation arises it won’t be fair at all on Leeds, who work alongside West Yorkshire Police to identify and punish culprits, or the vast majority of Elland Road supporters who wouldn’t dream of acting in such a way, but find themselves tarred by association.
And, ultimately, it falls to Leeds, with the help of the police, to stamp the problem out. The FA are looking into Sunday’s incidents, as they always do when there are crowd management issues, but they can only really offer support to clubs, they have no jurisdiction when it comes to individual fans. Any action in such matters must be taken by the club and the police.
The FA can, of course, take action against clubs but it would only be in the case that Leeds were in some way negligent in taking every possible step to prevent missile throwing, or if their matchday operation suffered a serious failure, that they would face a misconduct charge under rule E20. And how exactly are they to stop an individual from bringing pocket change into the ground and aiming it at players’ heads?
The Premier League are currently in dialogue with the FA, the EFL, clubs and the UK's Football Policing Unit about crowd issues and have sent out a questionnaire to determine the specific problems Leeds and others are facing. They hope to come up with action points off the back of the information clubs supply, but there is no magic wand that the football authorities can wave to make this kind of thing disappear. They could decide on sanctions that would impinge on attendances but it would feel draconian, when the presumption is that clubs are working as hard as they can to eliminate disorder in grounds. Punishing the many to deter the few can't be the way.
Supporters have self-policed racist abuse at Elland Road this season, and a collective determination to see this issue also banished from the ground may help. Failing that, though, Leeds can only do their utmost to find those responsible and remove from them the right to enjoy football at Elland Road. There will be no shortage of others happy to take their place and support the club in the right way.