The subject of diving is back in the headlines, and surely it is time for us to explore every angle in addressing what makes the blood of every football lover boil.
When I use the word angle I am not referring exclusively to the use of the ubiquitous television camera, by the way. I am making the case that we must look to as many resources as we can if we are serious about identifying and eradicating the cheats.
I have to laugh when I look back now at something I produced for The Sunday Times back in 1970, which is reproduced here along with screen shots from the latest Monday Night Football on Sky Sports.
I lost a few friends, top managers among them, as a result of that piece of work being published because, so they said, I was giving the game away! Ironically, given the chance, I could take it so much further, of course, and I am convinced that if you only gave me half an hour with a current referee you’d see an instant 50% improvement in their recognition of simulation, the most insidious of the ‘dark arts’.
Which brings me to Arsenal’s visit to Watford and the analysis it prompted, as well as some interesting footage from Anfield, selected by studio guest Peter Schmeichel the following Monday.
The question has to be asked: how can the slightest contact in that position result in Richarlison, or anyone, rolling over four times and, starting 10 yards out, virtually end up off the field of play, if it’s not a dive?
Where is the attempt by the player to stay on his feet, a key element of these all-too-common collisions which can betray the perpetrator just as reliably as all the experience in such an otherwise competent referee as Neil Swarbrick’s locker?
I’m also only too happy to reiterate Schmeichel’s observations related to David de Gea’s ability to spring back up in a flash; a contributory factor to his status as the world’s number one goalkeeper, in my opinion.
There is nobody quicker at getting back up after being knocked off balance, and these stills clearly show how integral his natural hand movements are in him getting back to his feet so swiftly.
So, who were my own teachers when it came to anatomy and the mission of committing my passion for the game to paper, you may well ask?
In the days long before all these subs took up all the room, I was able to accompany coaches on their bench for a whole game. From Don Howe to Revie to Bill Nich, and I will always remember Tommy Docherty letting me do just that, leading to my being treated to Brazil taking on his Scotland side as he pointed out some of the fiendish tricks the Brazilian defenders would get up to!
Such tutorials, courtesy of football’s finest, were not always positive experiences, I can tell you that much, and plain old Alf Ramsey, as he was then, was one who literally tore up a drawing of him competing for a header before my eyes and told me that, if I wanted to depict anyone heading at all, I should draw Nat Lofthouse instead. He added that the longer the ball remained in the air during a game, the lower the standard of that game, in his opinion!
Alf went on to become Sir Alf, of course, having steered the England team through its finest hour. Don Howe would ring me up and tell me to go back to the drawing board, too, if I had made some faux-pas in my Roy of the Rovers artwork.
Andy Gray stands out as an exception I learned to note in the way he would go to ground, because an old shoulder injury ensured he would keep his arms closer to his side than most.
Balance is a funny, quixotic thing, and my determination to capture balance has been 80 years in the making. The secrets behind falling were revealed, in part, to me, however unlikely as it may seem, during a summer season I spent with the late comic actor, Norman Wisdom. He had boxed and played football in the Royal Navy, and had he been able to add an extra foot to his frame he might have gone a lot further as a goalkeeper!
He took me to several games in our free time and his insight when it came to identifying the cheats, through sheer nuance of movement, even decades ago, was superior to mine.
Two examples from the latest round of Champions League fixtures further underline how many clues a player’s physiology can give to the eagle-eyed official: I watched Cristiano Ronaldo and Dino Ndlovu in the act of falling and you see Ronaldo’s hands come out to break his fall as he is nudged, whereas the Qarabag winger threw himself in a most unnatural way and was rightly given a second yellow the following night in Baku.
What really rankles with me is the hypocrisy of the modern manager. Not only do they allow the last 20 minutes to be reduced to half that, they allow players to roll around so blatantly, both of which constitute cheating the fan. It’s so obvious, it’s a wonder so many pens are given!
If a team should find itself losing 1-0 at home, on the other hand, you will never see most players find the time to applaud the fans as they are substituted. Furthermore, how many players do we see miraculously cramp up, only for us to be told this is all “part of the game”?
I must reluctantly reveal who I blame personally in large part for this relentless trend, even though he insisted to me that he hated the approach with which he was to become so closely identified: the late former Leeds and England manager, Don Revie.
“Unless we do what we see when we play continental teams we will be at a disadvantage,” he used to protest. The fact his successful club side were saddled with the name Dirty Leeds was a cross he was prepared to bear. “I really don’t like it, Paul, but we really cannot afford to fall behind other nations,” was the way he would justify the more cynical tactics exemplified by his teams.
Preston’s Tom Finney was a model footballer in one sense and Chelsea’ Ron Harris in another. Drawing both meant taking the time to observe the habits that made them unique, and this is no love letter to the days when physical contact genuinely was so much more part and parcel of the life of every player.
“Chopper was an expert, he used to always get you on the wrong foot,” so his opponents used to say about a defender who suffered pretty bad press in his dedication to the art of the tackle. Then you have Finney, the consummate winger, who could only ever be knocked over if his right foot was not there to fall back on when you took his left foot.
Ultimately I’m not trying to change the world by urging more study of the way bodies work, and I’m fully aware how high the stakes are that keep our managers from taking the high ground.
But in an age when it is hard enough for the men and women in the middle, as well as their assistants, let’s all remember: it’s not so very difficult to stay on your feet, or get back on your feet, but you have to want to!