Cheating is cheating is cheating

Jason McKeown’s match report following the game at Bury has once more raised the issue of cheating in sport. Or, to use an expression taken directly from the Laws of the Game, unsporting behaviour.

I watch far too much football. Not only did I see exactly what Jason saw at Gigg Lane, but I also watched quite a lot of football on television over the last weekend, in a sad attempt to make up for the loss of a live match to attend on Saturday.

At Gigg Lane I get one chance in real time from one angle and a distance of thirty metres to make up my mind about whether that was a dive or a penalty. I am also biased in favour of my team. I might get the chance in a day or so’s time to see it again from the point of view of a camera, even further away from the action than I was and with a different, but probably less good, angle.

In the comfort of my own armchair, those fine people at Sky let me see almost instant replays from three different views at two different speeds. They include, as near as they can, the view the ref had of Lucas and Higginbotham coming together at Stoke.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to become a supporter of referees. I’m certainly not about to become a supporter of Lee Mason. I just happen to think that, perhaps more by luck than management, he got this one right, both in the instant and in the wider context. I’d better explain myself before I come back to Gigg Lane.

The Stoke replay showed clearly that Lucas began to go down before there was any contact. There was absolutely no reason for him to begin has fall at that moment, other than the desire to persuade the referee that it was a penalty. Thereafter, Higginbotham committed a foul in the penalty area.

However, as we all know, once a foul (unsporting behaviour) has been committed, the ball is dead and a second foul, although punishable by a booking or sending off, cannot result in a free kick or penalty. If it were otherwise, all those shirt-pulls while waiting for a corner would be fouls.

So, as the replays showed, Lucas committed the first foul, for which Mr Mason quite correctly booked him, and the second ‘foul’ did not result in a penalty, because the first offence took precedence.

OK. OK. So I’m being kind to the ref and I’m being legalistic. But let’s just compare Mr Mason’s decision (right or wrong) with Mr Mathieson’s (right or wrong) at Gigg Lane in the wider context of cheating. (I would have to ask any Bury fan reading this to try to put aside the natural bias towards one’s own team. But, if there is a Bury fan reading this, BfB would welcome a comment on the concept of cheating.)

Cheating is becoming more prevalent. Does anyone want to disagree? I suspect not. Cheating, at least from one’s own team, is close to becoming more acceptable and once again we see the description ‘professionalism’. We used to have the ‘professional foul’, but we all knew it was still a foul. We now have the ‘professional fall’, but it’s still a fall.

Would Lucas have been brought down by Higginbotham if he hadn’t fallen first? Of course he would. If he’d behaved like a man, stood up and taken the tackle, he’d have got the penalty. Would Dawson have been brought down by Glennon if he hadn’t fallen? I doubt it very much. My City eyes saw no contact at all. Even if they deceived me and there was some contact, it was, as they say, minimal and certainly insufficient to bring him down so dramatically.

And therein lies the problem. We now have a generation of professionals who know that any contact at all can get them a free kick. We even talk about players ‘winning’ free kicks and penalties, like they were a prize in a raffle. The whole notion of ‘sporting behaviour’ is secondary to the ‘winning mentality’. (I apologise to Paulo Di Canio, who should forever be remembered for catching the ball when the opposition keeper was down injured.)

And ‘being down injured’ brings me to another aspect of cheating and refereeing. At Gigg Lane one of the Bury players clearly pulled at Daley’s shirt (there had to be some advantage in wearing those bright white shirts and clearly seeing them pulled back was about the only one) and then, when the pull failed to stop Daley, went down ‘injured’ and presumably in the hope that the referee would stop the game and the resulting attack. When the referee didn’t stop the game, the player decided he didn’t need treatment after all and performed a miraculous recovery. (I’ve just realised – that was practically a word of praise for the ref!)

And while we’re on shirt-pulling, I can’t resist going back to my hopeless addiction to TV football. When Micah Richards pulled, more than once, at Louis Saha’s shirt on Saturday, the referee’s assistant (and how rarely do they genuinely assist?) flagged for the foul (shirt-pulling still being a foul, I thought, as opposed to the ‘accepted’ practice I’m sure I heard it described as by one former referee) and the resulting penalty. It’s almost worth a small word of praise for Saha that he didn’t throw himself to the ground – almost, but not quite, since that would give non-cheating a status it hardly deserves. Shirt-pulling is just another form of cheating, hoping the referee and his assistants either won’t notice it or won’t do anything about it – because so many don’t.

I don’t want to pay £18 to watch who can cheat better. I could stay warm and dry at home and watch some fake ‘wrestling’ for less. I want a competition between two football teams, to be decided by their relevant footballing skills. I want more Mr Mason’s and fewer Mr Mathieson’s. I want more honest players and fewer cheats. And I want cheats defined in such a way that the word ‘winning’ can no longer sensibly be placed before ‘penalty’. And I want ‘professional’ to mean what it used to mean before the invention of the ‘professional foul’.

Am I asking for too much? If I am, would the authorities tell me, so that I can give up all hope now and decide whether to stop watching or to reconcile myself to watching something horrible and nasty? But if I’m not asking for too much, would the same authorities allow the referees to say ‘I’d have given you that if you hadn’t thrown yourself to the floor’, thereby dealing with the cheats and bringing back something closer to The Beautiful Game?