What do Leeds United fans want? Footballing justice. When will they get it? Never, but FA can increase accountability

Pascal Struijk's red card against Liverpool and the FA's rejection of Leeds United's appeal has been the major talking point and source of angst this week but while officiating perfection is unattainable, increased transparency can only help.

Thursday, 16th September 2021, 11:26 am
TALKING POINT - Referee Craig Pawson sent off Leeds United's Pascal Struijk for his challenge on Liverpool midfielder Harvey Elliott. Pic: Tony Johnson

What do we want? Footballing justice. When will we get it? Never.

What do we want? Consistency. When will we get it? Never.

Okay then, what about mere satisfaction? Unlikely.

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

This week Leeds United defender Pascal Struijk has, unwittingly, found himself the subject of the Premier League's latest big talking point, from which the lesson to learn is this - football cannot be perfectly officiated.

On first viewing, Struijk's tackle on Harvey Elliott looked a good one, from the vantage point of the press box in Elland Road's West Stand. It still looks a good one, albeit with a nasty, unintended consequence. The force Struijk used did not seem excessive.

It looked a good one to referee Craig Pawson, too, on first viewing. He played on.

Yet somehow, some moments later, after a crowd of medical staff had obscured the sad sight of the stricken Harvey Elliott and his grotesquely angled ankle, Pawson saw fit to produce his red card. He did not see the challenge again before reaching that conclusion, nor did any of his team. The red card came after the first viewing.

There has been but a little light shed on how that decision was made in the days since Sunday's game, with the FA keen to highlight the proximity to the incident of fourth official Andy Madley and the fact that VAR checked the footage and allowed the red card to stand, but until the written reasons emerge, we do not have all the facts. What we have, depending of course on your association, is a feeling that the severity of the injury influenced the decision or a feeling that the importance of the decision is negligible given the horrific impact of the tackle on an 18-year-old and his career. Some might feel a bit of both.

What Struijk is feeling, as he begins a three-game suspension that gives him more thinking time than is perhaps healthy, is probably a mixture of guilt, indignation and confusion.

He didn't mean it. It was a freak accident. How else is he to tackle? Should he no longer go to ground in the way he, his team-mates and their peers and rivals do on a regular basis?

A tacit conclusion of the FA's independent panel's swift rejection of the Leeds appeal is that Struijk should carry some blame for what happened and until such a time as the written reasons appear to potentially and officially recognise the complete absence of malice in the tackle, he is left swinging in the breeze. Elliott, at least, has gone on record to try and assuage Struijk's guilt and take the heat off.

Yet consider Pawson's position, had the panel found in Leeds' favour this week. Deciding the red card was an error would have thrown him under the bus over what was an incredibly difficult situation to deal with, never mind officiate.

If he and his team erred on the side of player safety, is that such a bad thing? We want physicality in the game but no one wants to see ankles pointing the wrong way.

Reading the laws of the game and looking at the challenge on video and in stills, you can understand why the officials may have jointly concluded Struijk was out of control, in a movement that applied enough force to Elliott's ankle to dislocate it. One former Premier League referee, Keith Hackett, saw it that way. Another, Mark Halsey, did not. It was subjective. These things often are and it's almost impossible to see a way of writing the laws or coaching referees that removes all interpretation and human judgement from decision making.

Even VAR, which as Marcelo Bielsa pointed out entered the game through the pursuit of unattainable perfection, is ultimately machinery operated by men operating under their own judgement, applying their own understanding.

Injustice is part of football that we cannot abide - every fan can think back to a decision that still boils their blood, goals that never were, brutality or cheating that went unpunished - but a part of football it will remain. The perfection we seek is out of reach.

Comparisons to tackles that did not earn red cards, like Fernandinho's on Raphinha, are natural because consistency would bring a great measure of satisfaction but human involvement brings inconsistency.

All we can ask for and what can only help, is transparency. Confusion reigned at Elland Road on Sunday night, not only on the pitch but off it, as Struijk walked off. It lingered this week, exploding back into life with the verdict of the appeal.

The written reasons, which need to be delivered promptly and in a language and format all supporters can access and understand, may help, but had the dialogue between Pawson and his officials been available to viewers on Sunday, or even the entire stadium, and VAR's contentment with the decision made clear, confusion would not have reigned so freely.

It has been argued that the pressure on referees would only be heightened were they mic'd up and broadcasting live to living rooms and the PA system, so why not make public the transcript of officials' in-game conversations and any dialogue they have with others a day later? It would clear up what Jurgen Klopp said on the pitch on Sunday and add a layer of accountability for all concerned. It might even remove some of the pressure being heaped on referees, if players and managers know their words will become public knowledge. Increased accountability could raise the standards of both officiating and behaviour.

Possession of the full facts will not satisfy everyone, injustice will still be felt, but any attempt to show the working out behind decisions, even if the decision reached was not correct, is surely only to football's betterment. The key to enlightenment is not keeping the game's most important stakeholders in the dark.