Standards will take a dive while managers stand by
'He has been fined heavily, and he won't play our next game because of it. Every player in my squad knows how I feel about cheats. It will not happen again, I can assure everyone of that'
No Premier League manager has ever come out with such words in response to one of their players diving. From what I see from the vast majority in work at the moment, I doubt one ever will.
Last weekend Blackburn beat Burnley 1-0 thanks partly to a penalty kick awarded following Martin Olsson's dive. Nothing startling in that I know, but of far more significance was Olsson's subsequent public admission he had dived. Putting to one side that he was caught on camera cheating in the first place, you would assume his confession has landed him in serious trouble. You would be wrong.
Given Olsson's admission, Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce had to publicly comment on what happened. Though prone to banging on and on about incorrect decisions which go against his teams, he said he had dealt with it internally, and was prepared to move on. Burnley boss Brian Laws was bemused, though, that the referee in question, Mike Dean, was given charge of yesterday's game at Old Trafford so soon after getting such a decision wrong. Even Olsson himself, following his explanation of what he did, was more than happy to defer all responsibility to others -- "it's up to the referee to decide in that situation."
While it is incredibly difficult for officials to get it right given the pace of the game and the ever-improving talents of players in this particular 'skill', the English FA are in a position to act if they were inclined to do so. However, fearful of appearing to undermine match officials, their decision not to take action of any kind against Olsson gives an indication of just how little appreciation they seem to have of the damaging effect such behaviour is having on the game. They are prepared to act retrospectively on off-the-ball incidents involving elbows or punches, but as yet show no sign of responding in any meaningful way to this form of cheating.
So if referees can't see it happen, and the authorities aren't prepared to act when they know it has, the only way in which the frequency of diving can be reduced is if those within the dressing room are up for doing so. Unless things have changed dramatically since I was last in one, I wouldn't hold out too much hope on that happening any time soon.
I never once saw a player reprimanded for diving by a manager. At Millwall, we had a player who dived during one of his first training sessions. This was unheard of at Millwall. Even before he got up off the ground, two or three players surrounded him to find out what he thought he was doing. Had he not been as insolent, he may have avoided the kicking which came his way. Violence was something we were more comfortable with. I don't expect managers to respond in similar ways, but the player in question never did it again. With a range of disciplinary options available, there is no behaviour a manager could not eradicate if he wanted to.
At present, other than throw-away comments that it is not encouraged, it seems there are few, if any, managers prepared to discipline players in any way for such shameful carry-on. Allardyce's response was to merely 'reprimand' Olsson, adding he doesn't coach his players to cheat. I was never taught how to dive or given suggestions on how to do so by coaches, but I regularly got bollocked by managers for staying on my feet when the opportunity arose to throw myself on the ground. I would never have been in trouble if the team benefited as a result.
Burnley will not be relegated because of Mike Dean's decision to award a penalty kick against them last weekend, they will go down because of their performances in the majority of their league games over the season. They have not been good enough often enough and that is what will ultimately cost them.
Brian Laws is the latest manager to attempt to assign blame to referees for his team's shortcomings -- Allardyce himself blamed a penalty decision against his team as the reason they lost their Carling Cup semi-final, despite conceding five other goals -- but as long as they believe diving is an issue for referees to deal with, their criticisms of poor decisions should be ignored.
In the form of penalty kicks, bookings or sendings off, there are potentially great rewards for performing a successful dive. Given the FA's cowardly response to Olsson's admission he cheated last week, it appears there will be no great cost attached either. Offending players don't care for the views of opposing fans or pundits and as long as managers only object to the opposition doing it, diving will become an even more prominent tactic from teams everywhere.
And that, in the eyes of a man like Sam Allardyce, will always be someone else's fault.