A sad necessity in the modern game?

Sunday should have been a day to savour English football at its finest. Manchester United welcomed Aston Villa to Old Trafford in another chapter of their electric duel with their city neighbours from the Premier League crown, while two of the country’s biggest footballing rivals slugged it out in the world’s greatest cup competition at England’s footballing cathedral, Wembley. It was sure to be a day to savour for even the most casual of football fans. But sadly, both of Sunday’s games were overshadowed by the decisions of the Men in Black. In Monday’s papers glowing references to United’s free-flowing football will be confined to the inner pages. Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, who both scored stunning goals for Chelsea, will be reduced to the subscript. Instead, footballing conversations around Britain will be dedicated to Wembley’s ‘phantom goal’ and Ashley Young’s tendency to be blown away in the wind every time he feels contact within a mile of the opposition penalty area.

It seems a waste of time to discuss the first of these. Quite why Martin Atkinson chose to award Chelsea a goal after the melee on Tottenham’s goal-line is beyond the most rational human being. Cynics will point out that Tottenham were soundly beaten in the end at Wembley, but anyone who suggests that the pattern of the game was unaffected by the incident is as much of a fool as Atkinson must feel this week. After missing Mario Balotelli’s karate kick challenge on Alex Song in his last game, the referee clearly missed another trick here. His reputation as one of the country’s leading officials must come under some scrutiny this most recent blunder, while the argument for goal-line technology now seems like a no-brainer that must surely be addressed in some form by football’s governing bodies when the season ends.

However, a more debatable issue is that of diving, which seems to have come to the fore in recent weeks. Diving has been a part of the game in this country for a number of years. However, the crusade to chastise any culprit seems to have gathered pace in recent weeks. The reason, I suspect, is linked to the fact that more and more English players have recently become embroiled in scandals that we feel more comfortable with blaming on overtheatrical Europeans, and which threaten the core British values of bravery and honesty. When the likes of Robert Pires and Cristiano Ronaldo were denting the turf of football pitches around the country there was some disgruntled mumbling from the footballing community. However, the most recent culprits have provoked an altogether more wholehearted response. First there was Liverpool’s Andy Carroll, the traditional English number 9, hurling himself to the floor despite a lack of contact as he returned to his spiritual home at St. James’ Park. Then, following his lead, we witnessed the Tom Daleyesque springboard antics of United’s Ashley Young, who won his team two crucial penalties against QPR last week and Villa on Sunday, crashing to the ground after minimal contact. One voyage into the Twittersphere or even the local pub is likely to lead to only one conclusion: all of these incidences fall into the bracket of cheating.

But is this necessarily the case? Carroll’s dive against Newcastle can certainly be placed into this bracket. Carroll was not touched in any way, shape or form by Newcastle’s Tim Krul before tumbling to the ground, and his actions were a clear attempt to con the referee into giving a decision that would have been incorrect. It is tempting to throw Young into the same category, to label him a liar, a cheat, to demand that he face a retrospective ban. However, in reality, his case is altogether less clear-cut, and exposes uncomfortable truths about the evolution of the Premier League.

Young’s reaction to minor contact from QPR’s Shaun Derry and Villa’s Ciaran Clark was certainly exaggerated. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, a man who generally defends his players to the hilt, admitted after the Villa game that the England winger ‘overdid it’ as he turned both Alan Hutton and Clark inside out before crashing to the ground after his foot brushed that of the Villa midfielder. However, both of these incidents, unlike Carroll’s bellyflop, did actually follow fouls. To pull someone back in the penalty area as Derry did should result in a penalty and, if it denies a clear goalscoring opportunity, a red card for the offender. The rule book contains no mention of the velocity of the pull. Likewise, the foot-on-foot contact between Young and Clark in the penalty area at Old Trafford on Sunday. Clark fouled Young. The pathetic nature of the fall to the ground, while distasteful, does not change the fact that United were correctly awarded a penalty by referee Mark Halsey.

The concerning part about the incident is that while Young’s antics represent bad sportsmanship and are rightly frowned upon within football circles, there is some weight to the argument that they are necessary to an extent within the modern game. If Young had stayed on his feet against Villa, United would not have been awarded a penalty. They may not have broken the deadlock. They may have thrown away the title. Gary Neville wrote an excellent article in last week’s Mail on Sunday in which he explained his experiences of simulation. To become successful in Europe United’s players had needed to learn to go down when fouled, rather than battling on. In a Premier League that is becoming more similar to the continental game year on year, are we now facing a similar situation in this country? If Young had stayed on his feet against Villa would his persistence have been rewarded? Would Halsey have played advantage and come back to award a penalty if the attack had failed? You suspect not. The backlash after Howard Webb awarded what was deemed a ‘soft penalty’ against Poland in Euro 2008 remains a stark reminder of the potential consequences of awarding of a penalty to a player who does not fall over, even if he is clearly fouled. Having seen Webb receive death threats following the incident, it is hard to see one of his Premier League colleagues being keen to embroil themselves in a similar controversy.

On this basis, surely only a fool would not go down upon feeling contact in the box. Diving without contact like Carroll is an attempt to gain an unfair advantage. That is wrong. That is cheating. Diving after contact (however minimal) ensures that you win the foul that you are entitled to within the laws of the game. The difference between falling when fouled and diving like Young is clear to see. While the former may be necessary, the latter remains shameful, and the FA must surely take some action to end the farce of swallow diving. Maybe in an ideal scenario, on Sunday Halsey would have both booked Young for exaggeration and awarded United a penalty. As far as I am aware this is not currently an option for referees, but it is a route that may be worth wandering down. In the meantime, we probably need to accept that at times players need to hit the deck when fouled. An embarrassment Young most certainly is at times. But a cheat? I am not so sure.

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