WHY is professional football unique in its abilty to tolerate cheats?
The now all too familiar occurrence up and down the country of players’ dishonesty, overlooked or defended by their managers and abhorred by paying fans who are ultimately being short-changed. Even for those who might be one-eyed enough to condone and have no sense of honour or fair play, it may work in your favour on occasion but equally the reverse is true.
Sheffield-born former Blade Dominic Calvert-Lewin is the latest to have courted controversy. One that certainly would not be tolerated by Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder had the 20-year-old Everton striker remained at Bramall Lane. Sadly, the simple principle of honesty upheld by the Lane boss and his like, is regarded as old fashioned and misplaced by far too many when put to the test. Shamefully, it is often derided as naive.
"We’ve had it done to us, all of that rolling about business, in the past and yes, it’s frustrating,” said Wilder. “But it’s not something I’m ever going to ask my lads to do. Quite the opposite in fact. We take a great deal of pride in the fact that we play hard but fair, which is the way it should be, the way fans want to see." He added: "We won’t be trying to con anybody, it’s not how we do things here. You can’t complain about it and then start doing it yourself."
Calvert-Lewin, who scored England’s Under-20 World Cup-winning goal against Venezuela in South Korea last June, stole national headlines after ‘winning’ a penalty which rescued Everton and denied Liverpool three points in a 1-1 draw at Anfield.
Reds boss Jurgen Klopp was infuriated when Calvert-Lewin, in possession of the ball inside Liverpool’s box, fell like a stone after defender Dejan Lovren placed a hand on his back. “Calvert-Lewin is smart and takes a step but even then it's nothing," said an angry Klopp in a bad-tempered interview with Sky Sports. “The referees don't understand that the player is doing that.”
Predictably, Sam Allardyce, Everton’s new manager, saw it differently. ”He can moan all he wants but it's a penalty," said Big Sam. "It's an extremely brave decision and I think he [referee Craig Pawson] got the decision right.”
Ex-England striker Alan Shearer concurred on BBC’s Match of the Day. “He [Calvert-Lewin] gets his body across the defender and it’s a shove and it’s a push and it’s a penalty. What the hell Lovren is doing I really couldn’t tell you.”
Everyone is entitled to an opinion and as soft as it looked the truth is only Calvert-Lewin knows the answer to the question did he fall or was he pushed? But stumbling over at every opportunity is in danger of becoming the rule rather than the exception, particularly in the Premier League.
As is leaving a trailing ankle after kicking the ball beyond reach knowing that defenders committed to the tackle will unavoidably catch you. It’s easy to spot those who haven’t quite mastered the dark arts. The ones who collapse clutching their heads insinuating they have been violently struck when untouched or contact is made to an ankle in a fair tackle.
Lovren, with all the experience the 28-year-old Croation international defender possesses, was foolish to place a hand on Calvert-Lewis’s back. The sure signal for any self-respecting cheat to abandon what they are trying to do and fall to the floor with a pained expression of hurt and injustice.
What Calvert-Lewin did was an act of supreme professionalism as far as Everton were concerned. He took the opportunity to ‘earn’ a penalty, giving Wayne Rooney the chance to secure a point late in a match his side had not for one moment looked like taking. Had it been a Liverpool player in the same circumstance it’s a fair bet Klopp would have defended him and sworn it was a penalty.
The counter-argument is that if players do not fall to the ground when fouled – the key words here are 'when fouled' – referees might fail to act. Which is true but officials’ split-second judgments are clouded by the knowledge of how prevalent cheating has become. Not forgetting the seamless professionalism of acting performances with which some of these deceptions are played out.
Which is why it was so refreshing that David Brooks, another 20-year-old and the most gifted player on the Blades’ books, was admonished by Wilder after being booked for diving at Millwall recently. “I don’t enjoy seeing my team chucking its arms up in the air,” he said.
If a professional golfer nudged the ball further towards the hole or kicked it to a better lie on the fairway to gain advantage their would be outrage and condemnation. So what’s the difference?
How often do you hear former footballers turned pundits utter ‘he went down a bit to easily’. Code for ‘he cheated’. Even worse as Alan Smith commented recently on Sky “maybe he’s entitled to go down”. It used to be the case that falling over wasn’t a choice it was an involuntary action.
A generation of children are learning that it is OK to cheat and, as kids do, re-enact on school playing fields and parks what they see professionals demonstrating.
Cheating should be outlawed. The only way for that to be effective is to make the punishment fit the crime. Ridicule from within the game will never happen. It’s too dishonest and greedy for that. Perversely, the controversy and media coverage con merchants generate is a money-spinner. Ten-match bans is the simple answer.
Marmite Adkins has Hull of a personal challenge
NIGEL ADKINS has launched his customary charm offensive after being appointed boss of Hull City and good luck to him.
It sounded all so familiar when he met the Press for the first time since being sacked by Sheffield United in May 2016 only 12 months into a three-year contract.
Talk of “positivity, all pulling together” and “we all want Hull City to win football matches”. Adkins, who replaced Russian Leonid Slutsky, sacked with the club lying 20th in the Championship, as all Blades fans know talks a good game. The same game which in United’s case, left them 11th in League One, their lowest league finish for 33 years.
It was ironic that for all his constant talk of unity, he left a bitterly divided squad behind him and a disconnect between club and supporters that I had not experienced in 48 years of watching the Blades. A disconnect which promoted the United to lower ticket prices in an unprecidented damage limitation gesture at Bramall Lane.
Adkins, who has signed an 18-month contract in strife-torn East Yorkshire is a Marmite figure. Fans of Southampton love him and rightly so. He lifted the Saints from League One to the Premier League in back-to-back promotions. He’s spoken of highly, too, at Scunthorpe United where he forged his managerial reputation, winning promotion to the Championship twice. Once as Champions and after relegation via the play-offs.
Followers of Reading look from a different perspective as do Blades. The 52-year-old already knows he’s guaranteed a hostile reception when United fans visit the KC Stadium on February 24. The way he turned on them at the end of his calamitous tenure will never be forgotten.
By then, of course, City supporters will have had time to make their own minds up about which Nigel Adkins turned up on Humberside. For his and their sakes let’s hope it’s the former. He got off to a good start with a 3-2 home win against Brentford, a team that play good football and arrived beaten only once in their last 13 matches. It was Hull’s first win in eight.
In the meantime City supporters should all ask themselves this: which is the most important room in the house? Adkins, king of the one-liners and proponent of the wisdom of geese as they will undoubtedly discover in due course, has the answer. One that everyone can agree upon. But if you can’t wait for the man himself it’s at the foot of the page.
Root of the problem for Wednesday fan Vaughan
JOE ROOT was described sarcastically as a typical Sheffield United fan by Wednesday-loving Michael Vaughan during cricket’s second Ashes Test in Adelaide.
England captain Root, a lifelong Blade, was the subject of sledging from Australia as he battled in vain at the crease to keep his side in the match. England lost by 120 runs to trail 2-0 in the five-match series.
Root reacted to the Aussies' taunts on the pitch by giving them as good as he got, prompting BT Sport commentator Vaughan to make his tongue-in-cheek remark.
But the former England skipper who admitted on Twitter that Wednesday had been outclassed by United in the derby at Hillsborough, has a more pressing matter to occupy his thoughts.
Youngest daughter Jemima is refusing to take calls from Australia to his Derbyshire home. The seven-year-old is upset after he revealed Down Under that he’d eaten kangaroo. TV colleagues made Vaughan’s predicament worse by claiming on air he has also eaten koala steak and possum stew.
Proper club backed by proper supporters
SNOW in the Midlands and Home Counties causing road and rail delays, triggered reports of fears for football fans heading for the Manchester derby may not arrive at Old Trafford in time.
As a long distance Sheffield United supporter and season ticket holder who has lived in Sussex for the last 25 years I have every sympathy. But I can’t help but wonder how many of them are genuine fans. If the Blades had enjoyed the sort of success Manchester United or more recently neighbours City have over the years, would there be hordes of Unitedites batting through snow-bound Wycombe, Oxford and Birmingham in a race against time to reach the Lane? Somehow I don’t think so.
Strangely, ploughing a lonely furrow from the deep south – I do bump into a few Blades on the train in London from time to time – brings with it a comfort that I follow what manager Chris Wilder describes as ‘a proper club with proper supporters’. After all no Blade could ever be accused of jumping on the band wagon and being a glory seeker.
Yes, when we were last promoted to the Premier League there were lost souls who appeared to have never set foot in Bramall Lane before, clutching tickets and desperately seeking help from stewards. They disappeared just a quickly after relegation. That’s life. But it’s safe to say the majority, if not all, were Sheffielders from within a 20-mile radius.
Nevertheless the frustration often met by long-distance football fans, genuine or otherwise, is real. Only last week heavy traffic turned a four-hour journey into six-and-a-half on my way to the evening kick-off against Bristol City at Bramall Lane.
The return home on largely empty motorways took almost as long, thanks to two separate sections of the M1 and a stretch of the M25 all being closed for maintenance. The resulting rural detours of between ten and 20 miles each meant I eventually arrived home at 3.45am. a 440-mile round trip, taking 12 hours and 15 minutes.
Add to that reports about the possibility of heavy snowfall before setting off, going to a home match can often present logistical, operational and decision-making dilemmas which make it more akin to planning a military operation. I know I could have watched it live on TV from the comfort of the front room but, as we all know, it’s just not the same.
What a Kop out from Liverpool's Stevie G
STEVEN GERRARD is a player down the years who has had plenty to say for himself. But when presented with his latest opportunity the former England international chose to look the other way.
Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster was consumed with rage after allegedly being subjected to racial abuse by a Spartak Moscow player at the end of a UEFA Youth League group stage win at Prenton Park.
Anfield great Gerrard, now Liverpool’s Under 18 manager, had to restrain the English-born youngster who was so upset that it wasn’t until he returned to the dressing room that he began to calm down. Gerrard's words carry weight so following the 2-0 victory was he affronted that one of his players, if proven, had indeed been the victim of racial hatred? “It’s difficult for me to comment,” said Gerrard. “It’s something that the club will look into and deal with.”
This even after Spartak were punished by UEFA for racist behaviour from their supporters towards Liverpool youngster Bobby Adekanye at the Russian club's academy in September.
Chilling reminder of shadow from the past
JUST 587 hardy souls turned up at Bloomfield Road - capacity 17,338 - for Blackpool’s Checkatrade Trophy Northern Section second round tie with Mansfield.
The Stags, managed by ex-Leeds and Rotherham boss Steve Evans, equalised with two minutes of normal time remaining to compound a miserable night on the Fylde coast if you were wearing tangerine.
But not all was lost. Blackpool went through to the next round after winning 5-4 in a penalty shootout. At least that gave home fans something to shout about.
Avoiding the Checkatrade, previously Johnstone Paint Trophy, and the first two rounds of the FA Cup, is a real bonus to all Sheffield United fans basking in the club’s long-awaited return to the Championship.
With all due respect to competing clubs, participating in the Checkatrade in particular served as a blunt and constant reminder of the depths the Blades had reached.
Blackpool’s hardiest of fans weren’t spared in the third round draw. A trip to League One high-fliers Shrewsbury Town.
ANSWER to Adkins’ question, above, as told to the long-suffering Press corps in Sheffield: room for improvement.