The leniency shown by the Football Association to Conor Hourihane did not change the fact that Patrick Bamford had sanctions coming after Sunday’s mayhem at Elland Road.
Bamford’s role in the dismissal of Anwar El Ghazi was there to be seen, irrespective of the FA’s decision to leave alone an apparent punch thrown by Hourihane at Mateusz Klich.
Bamford awaits a two-match ban for fooling Stuart Attwell into thinking El Ghazi had struck him in the face and that punishment will come at the cost of an appearance in the first leg of Leeds United’s play-off semi-final but the club’s realism about their centre-forward’s offence was matched on Tuesday by bemusement at Hourihane escaping further action.
Hourihane was caught on camera, amid the melee between players from Leeds and Aston Villa, digging a fist into Klich’s stomach while Attwell had his back turned and his eyes elsewhere.
The FA ruled on Monday that the incident was worthy of review but classed Hourihane’s punch as falling short of violent conduct and therefore subject to no penalty.
Prior to 2013, flashpoints like that would have been left to Attwell to reassess in the days after the game but the FA moved back then to a system where unseen incidents were considered by a panel of three former referees, none named publicly and all required to reach a unanimous view on whether the individuals involved had cases to answer.
The need for a unanimous verdict saved Sergi Canos in October when the FA’s panel failed to agree that the Brentford winger had been guilty of headbutting Gjanni Alioski during a 1-1 draw at Elland Road, despite video footage showing Canos flicking his head at the Macedonia international.
The review of Hourihane’s punch went the same way: unable to convince all three ex-officials that his offence constituted violent conduct. Hourihane would otherwise have been looking at a three-game suspension, ruling him out of both legs of Villa’s play-off semi-final.
Leeds declined to comment formally on that decision or the citing of Bamford, though their majority shareholder, Andrea Radrizzani, replied to a video on Twitter of Hourihane’s clash with Klich by describing himself as “speechless”.
While he and United’s hierarchy stew over that outcome – and while others ask if the FA’s process needs revisiting, potentially allowing for majority decisions – Marcelo Bielsa is contemplating the loss of a striker who, for all the issues with his finishing, Leeds can hardly do without.
Kemar Roofe is expected to be available for Sunday’s game at Ipswich Town, the last of Leeds’ 46-match season and the first of Bamford’s pending suspension, but he suffered a hip injury last week and has not started a game for two-and-a-half months.
Fitness problems have restricted Roofe to 12 appearances and one goal in the second half of the term and Bielsa needs the 26-year-old’s form to kick in rapidly, in time of the start of the play-offs on May 11.
Leeds were at their most fluent, or most consistently fluent, with Roofe up front before Christmas and Bamford has struggled to give Bielsa the same movement and interplay but the former Middlesbrough player is averaging close to a goal from every two appearances, albeit in the knowledge that too many chances have gone begging.
His suspension and Roofe’s recent absences will require potential contingencies as United attempt to master the play-offs for the first time since the format was introduced in the 1980s.
Bielsa has used Tyler Roberts as a centre-forward sporadically, and to good effect. Roberts came up with precious goals against Preston North End and Hull City while Roofe and Bamford were injured in the autumn and Roberts’ extended run at number 10 recently was halted against Villa on Sunday by Bielsa using a midfield of Klich, Kalvin Phillips and Adam Forshaw.
Klich took the advanced role, scoring the contentious goal which sparked a mass brawl, and Bielsa liked his combination with Forshaw.
“They are two players with a lot of mobility,” Bielsa said.
United’s head coach has countered gaps in his squad all season by dipping into the club’s Under-23s pool, in which there are still potential options for him.
Izzy Brown, an attacking midfielder, was used as a striker in Monday’s PDL play-off semi-final against Coventry City, though he was substituted with an ankle injury before the hour and Bielsa’s constant refusal to involve him in first-team fixtures suggests Brown’s style and intensity is not ticking enough of the 63-year-old’s boxes. B
rown made the bench against Villa but largely because Roofe and Alioski had been lost to injury that week.
A more buoyant alternative as cover for Bamford is Ryan Edmondson, the young but physically powerful forward who has thrived at development-squad level since Leeds signed him from York City in 2016.
The 17-year-old’s height and strength defies his young age and his second-half goal against Coventry was his 19th for the Under-23s.
Bielsa has used Edmondson only once, as a substitute in a 2-1 defeat to Birmingham City in September. The teenager is knocking on the door consistently but Bielsa admitted last month that the availability of Roofe, Bamford and Roberts made the inclusion of another striker in his matchday squad unnecessary.
“He’s very young,” Bielsa said, “and Roofe, Bamford and Roberts are in his position at the moment. But he’s made a good impression from the beginning of the season.”
Bielsa is not about to hang the first leg of Leeds’ play-off on a player as peripheral as Brown or a player as raw as Edmondson but in a squad who already score fewer goals than they should, Bamford’s suspension at a time when Roofe is short of his peak is a hindrance, challenging Bielsa to ensure that Leeds are adequately armed for the ultimate game of dog eat dog.