LIAM MACKEY: The dark art of diving

Ashley Young - a propensity to the suddenly horizontal

It takes some cheek to gain an advantage by diving or feigning injury but a whole lot more to keep a straight face while solemnly deflecting responsibility for same.

Step forward Ashley Young who, after Manchester United’s 1-0 win against Shakhtar Donetsk this week, was questioned about his propensity for what is euphemistically referred to in the game as “going down too easily”.

Young accepted he has a reputation for diving – that was nice of him — and even admitted the matter had been spoken about “in-house” though he declined to reveal the details. But, breathtakingly, he then went on to suggest that, really, it was an issue not for players, but for officials.

“I think it’s one to ask the referees,” he said. “They’re the ones giving free-kicks and penalties… I don’t take notice of the headlines or the debates. That’s obviously for the media to debate and people to have their say and everyone is entitled to have their say. For me, the referees have made decisions and that’s it.”

It’s an interesting line of defence which, if deployed by a burglar, say, might see him arguing in court that the fault lay with the occupants of the house for failing to lock the window or even for simply not waking up when the ordinary decent criminal was going about his nocturnal business downstairs.

Of course, Young is not the only transgressor. Nor is he the master of the outrageous defence of the indefensible. That dubious honour surely belongs to Brazilian legend Rivaldo who, infamously, helped get a Turkish player sent off at the 2002 World Cup by conning the referee into thinking he’d been hit in the face by a ball angrily kicked at him by Hakan Unsal – even though the many millions watching on television had clearly seen the ball hit Rivaldo on the thigh, a split-second before he fell to the ground clutching his face.

Possibly the Korean referee might have sent off Unsal in any case, but the Brazilian’s response made certain that he did. Almost worse than Rivaldo’s embarrassing theatrics, however, was his shameful lack of remorse in the face of the widespread ridicule which deservedly came his way.

Instead, he had the gall to cast himself as Beauty outwitting the Beast, saying at the time: “I was glad to see the red card. Creative players must be able to express themselves if football is to stay a beautiful game. There’s too much foul play and violence in football. It doesn’t matter where the ball hit me. It was only the intent that mattered.”

That was 11 years ago but it would be a mistake to think that what Fifa call simulation is exclusively a modern disease. Even when I were a lad – as opposed to now when, as colleagues will readily tell you, I’m in my anecdotage – I was aware that Manchester City’s ace striker Franny Lee had a reputation for hitting the turf at the slightest hint of contact in the box, a habit which earned him the nickname ‘Lee Won Pen’ and, on one memorable occasion when Lee was at Derby, a few belts from Leeds United’s Norman ‘Bites Yer Leg’ Hunter which Lee returned with interest before the referee brought the wind-milling bout to a close by sending both men off.

Younger readers might not even be aware that the now familiar sight of goalscorers sliding across the turf in celebration has its origins in Jurgen Klinsmann’s reputation for diving which accompanied the brilliant German striker to England when he joined Spurs from Monaco in 1994. To his credit, Klinsmann won over the sceptics by sending himself up with an extravagant celebratory dive after scoring his first goal for Spurs against Sheffield Wednesday — and soon, it seemed, no goal scored anywhere in the world was complete without the scorer skating across the turf on his tummy or his knees.

Sadly, diving of the more nefarious kind has become almost as popular. And it’s not just that multiple camera angles and saturation television coverage make it seem so. The difference now is that, with tackling almost an endangered art – as Keith Andrews notes in his column today — some players clearly see it as well worth their while to invest time in perfecting the faked foul, conscious that almost any kind of contact inside the box will extract the maximum advantage.

One example would be trailing the toe end of the boot across the turf until it connects with a defender’s foot or a goalkeeper’s hand. Another is engineering contact between the striker’s moving leg and the standing leg of the defender. And when such dark arts are executed at speed, and with split-second timing, it’s almost inevitable referees will get it wrong at least as often as they get it right.

Of course, the solution is obvious and, ironically, present in the very technology which has helped make simulation such an embarrassingly visible part of the modern game. The Americans use it and the Scots use it but, so far, the English are reluctant to employ video evidence to retrospectively penalise offenders with the kind of tough suspensions which are what is clearly required if the deterrence of the punishment is to outweigh the advantage of the crime. In fact, I would go even further and insist the technology be used “in-match” so that justice could be dispensed on the spot.

However, given how long it has taken football’s powers-that-be to avail of the transparently obvious merits of goal-line technology, I won’t be holding my breath. Ashley Young isn’t the only one guilty of passing responsibility onto the poor old ref. By failing to give the officials the backing they need, the authorities – even as they bemoan the scourge – have to shoulder their share of the responsibility too.


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