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Don't be fooled, honesty is certainly not the best policy

Prior to Ireland's opening fixture in the finals of the under 18 European Championships in Iceland in 1997, we were briefed by an official from UEFA on the particular offences which referees would not tolerate during the tournament.

I can't recall what they were, but I specifically remember the distinction he made between how he expected Irish players to approach each game as opposed to players from the other nations. Stopping short of calling them cheats, he acknowledged there was an honesty to what he called the 'British' style of play he assumed we would adopt. He fully expected us to accept refereeing decisions as final. Such a claim would not ring quite as true today.

Without identifying anyone, this official dismissed some countries for their tendency to play-act, feign injury and harangue referees after each decision. During this meeting we were quick to pat ourselves on the back for our superior levels of sportsmanship and adherence to the principles of fair play.

We ended up meeting Spain in the play-off for third place, but my memory of that game will always be of the frustration we felt as they cheated and dived their way through the 90 minutes. And, not entirely unrelated, they won 2-1.

Stephen Hunt spoke last week about the naivety attached to playing the game in a way that earns plaudits from those who like to see players behave in a certain way. Citing the reaction of the Arsenal players in last week's incident which lead to Wolves midfielder Nenad Milijas being sent off for a challenge on Mikel Arteta, Hunt says it may be time for a more streetwise approach. Crowding around referees to influence their decisions may be the way to go.

"Every team does it, so we don't do it and get punished. Maybe we should start doing it," said Hunt.

On many occasions I have found myself in television studios discussing the issue of players surrounding and arguing with match officials, and demanding referees to show yellow and red cards.

The question as to whether it sets a good example to younger viewers is always asked, whereas a more pertinent one would address the very high rates of success associated with behaving in such a way. Acknowledge that and discussion about influencing young children is completely out of touch.

Quite apart from their effectiveness, there are some commonly seen acts which are condemned as unsporting for which I have no issue with.

For example, I have never understood the view that waving an imaginary card at a referee is unsportsmanlike. Nobody objects to players assisting officials in awarding throw-ins or corner kicks to the correct team, but asking for the laws of the game to be applied by booking an opponent is often deemed to be shameful. It isn't in my opinion, but the offences which lead to those requests often are.

The important point here is that players know officials can be influenced, and most behave accordingly. Hunt is playing at a club whose place in next season's Premier League may be decided by the smallest of margins. If it is true that Wolves' players are reluctant to get involved in swaying the minds of officials in their favour, he is right to say it's time to wise up.

It was never something which was lacking in any team I played in at Millwall, but I was often singled out for criticism for failing to realise how beneficial it could be.

From the crowd to the players to the manager, officials were there to be influenced. Even the substitutes were sent to warm up

alongside the linesman with the specific instruction to badger the life out of him after every decision that went against us.

And when there were none nearby when an incorrect call was made, the subs were sent out to bollock him immediately afterwards. We knew the crowd at the Den didn't need to be briefed on their role; it was all part of an orchestrated assault on the men whose decisions make all the difference.

It works, and it always has done. Over a season of 38 games, every team in the Premier League will pick up and drop points from games in which key decisions are dealt with incorrectly by officials. Whether through a discreet word in the ear or a foul-mouthed rant, players can do their bit too. And it never matters whether you have the facts on your side either. That's been my experience anyway.


Sunday Indo Sport