The balance of Friday’s game at Brighton and the sense that Leeds United were doomed from the 23rd minute onwards deflected attention from the penalty which sealed the club’s 2-0 defeat.
The first of two spot-kicks awarded to Brighton was the definition of a stonewaller and disputed by no-one, but their second, converted by Tomer Hemed eight minutes from time, relied more on the interpretation which referees have been juggling with this season.
Paul Tierney, Friday’s match official, penalised Kyle Bartley for a tussle with Brighton centre-back Lewis Dunk as a free-kick dropped into United’s box, siding with Dunk over a moment of grappling which looked decidedly soft. The debate about fouls in the penalty area reared its head again and the only saving grace for Tierney was that the incident was not entirely decisive.
At the beginning of the season the Football Association instructed referees to deal more harshly with fouls in the penalty area, focusing on one of football’s grey areas. Leeds benefited from the FA’s directive in September when a pull on defender Pontus Jansson earned them a penalty and the opening goal in a 2-0 victory at Cardiff City. Cardiff’s boss at the time, Paul Trollope, argued afterwards that the question was not so much whether Jansson had been fouled but whether the challenge was any more of a foul than others that went unpunished. United’s goalkeeper, Rob Green, left Brighton thinking the same. Green was adamant that while Kalvin Phillips clearly handled the ball on the goalline when Albion won their first penalty on 23 minutes, Brighton striker Sam Baldock impeded him in the build-up. Replays show Green, Phillips and Baldock grouped together as a corner arrived and Baldock reaching out towards Green as the keeper tried to cover his back post. Amid undeniably poor defending from Leeds, the keeper felt aggrieved.
“You’re going back to this modern argument of holding in the box,” Green said.
You’re looking at it and saying that if the referees are consistent you don’t mind.
“You know that at every corner and every free-kick there’s holding.
“For (Brighton’s) first goal I was held. I could see other lads being held but the ref doesn’t see that. Then he sees one in the second half where Dunk realises he’s not getting the ball and throws himself on the floor. That gets given.
“I’m not saying they’re not penalties but if he’s giving one for the second (foul) then at every free-kick he has to give something. What I’m asking for is consistency – but how do you do that?”
Green suggested that more officials were needed to police the rule, saying Tierney had admitted that he had no way of monitoring every challenge on him at set-pieces. “I spoke to the ref and he said ‘I can’t look at you (all the time)’ but I’m getting pushed and held on every corner. So at what point am I going to get something?
“You’re coming back to an argument of either everybody walks around with their arms tucked in by their sides or you’ve got to have more officials. Because you need another pair of eyes.”
Those frustrations did not translate into any attempt by Green or head coach Garry Monk to deny that Leeds had experienced a poor night at The Amex. Green and the defence in front of him were shaky in the opening 20 minutes and Monk was openly willing a passive team to play higher up the field in the moments before Phillips’ handball effectively decided the match, earning the midfielder a red card in the process.
Green’s position as first-choice keeper has been unchallenged this season, despite occasional criticism of him and a few costly mistakes. With his 37th birthday coming next month, the former England international insisted he was happy with his form and his condition and said the presence of 41-year-old Jussi Jaaskelainen at Wigan Athletic was encouraging him to look at this season “and beyond.”
“You look at someone like Jussi and he’s a good five years older than me,” Green said. “There’s still plenty of time left in me.
“It’s interesting because you don’t feel any different, you’re not playing any different but in football you get discriminated against because it’s a young man’s game and people are wary of that. That’s the way it is.
“You just want to be there with the team and doing your utmost. It’s not going to be perfect every week but it’s not for the want of trying. I love being here and I love playing every week. If you enjoy playing and you’re playing every week, your performances are good enough to keep you in the team.”
Green gave credit to Brighton who, having reached the play-offs last season, briefly topped the Championship after their win on Friday. Leeds dug in with 10 men and kept the score at 1-0 until the latter stages but Hemed’s penalty killed off any hope of an equaliser.
“I don’t think we were as settled,” Green said. “They came out with their plan and they were playing good football. They got the ball wide a lot and their wide players were causing problems – (Anthony) Knockaert and (Jamie) Murphy on the other side.
“It was a storm but it settled down and even with 10 men we were holding our own. It wasn’t the quickest of starts from us but at the same time we were by no means out of it. I didn’t have a shot to save until the (first) penalty. It was one of those games.”