Arsenal won the Premiership in 2003/2004 without losing a game, and the unbeaten run of 49 games came to an end at Old Trafford the following October. Most football fans know this, and many United fans are proud of it. That Wayne Rooney dived over Sol Campbell's leg and fooled the referee into awarding a penalty in that game is less memorable. United scored from the penalty and went on to win 2-0, but Rooney's dishonesty is forgotten.
The Invincibles had finally been beaten, and that's all that people remember. Only the naive think anything else matters.
Brendan Rodgers is the latest manager to bemoan the advantages given to those who dive and cheat, or rather the disadvantages of being a manager who encourages fair play and honesty from his players. He was angered by referee Mark Halsey's decision not to award Luis Suarez a penalty against United last weekend, and by Youssouf Mulumbu's challenge on Jordan Henderson that went unpunished on Wednesday evening in the Capital One Cup. In addition to the dubious penalty awarded to United at Anfield and the red card shown to Jonjo Shelvey in the same game, Rodgers felt it was time to speak out.
"I have always told my players to do the right thing, not to dive, to play fair. But the fairness we show, it seems the decisions pass us by because of it," said Rodgers. It's clearly an attempt to grab the attention of referees in the hope of influencing future decisions, but he is simply pointing out the obvious. Diving works, and there are advantages to be had by cheating. Those who do it get the breaks, and those who don't are left to whinge.
Issues like honesty and fair play are less clear when you're in a dressing room. While public remarks are consistently clear -- stamp out cheating and diving, they're ruining the game -- private debates are more complex. On several occasions I was lambasted by coaches and players for not falling to the ground when the opportunity arose. Demonstrating just how honest and tough I was, I would remain on my feet wherever possible. When kicked to the ground, I would look to get up straight away if I could. These were the habits I picked up playing schoolboy football in Dublin, but I was quickly told to update them in Millwall's first team. Referees base their decisions on what they see, or what they think have seen, so it was time for me to wise up. The same could be said of Jonjo Shelvey today.
United's penalty at Anfield was the result of minimal contact and a theatrical fall, but it cost Liverpool the game in the end. I disagree that Suarez should have been awarded a penalty, though the referee certainly wasn't swayed by his honesty of effort in staying up.
As for the red card, it should have been followed by one for Jonny Evans also, but a more experienced player may have stayed on the ground longer than Shelvey did. Both players were guilty of the same reckless challenge, but only one gave the impression he was hurt. You're a fool if you think referees don't consider these things. It's hard to accept defeat in those circumstances, but Liverpool have only themselves to blame.
Managers remain in charge of their own teams. Calls for opposing players to behave better or referees to act tougher seem fanciful, for neither will happen any time soon. Meaningful punishment for those who dive or cheat, whether handed
out instantly or retrospectively, is nowhere near the agenda of the authorities. The culture of staying on your feet to demonstrate toughness has disappeared. Falling down under a challenge is no longer seen as an act of weakness. Football isn't played that way anymore, at least not by those who win trophies.
You can call it being streetwise or dismiss it as cheating. Whether there was sufficient contact to knock an athlete like Antonio Valencia to the ground for United's penalty is something else you could consider.
You could applaud Shelvey for his simple-minded enthusiasm or lash him for his naivety. But while you are making up your mind, remember Alex Ferguson laughing at Shelvey as he headed to the tunnel. Recall how Liverpool suffered with ten men and measure the cost of the penalty. Compare the moods of both dressing rooms immediately after the game.
And, most of all, remember that United won and Liverpool lost. Debating honesty and naivety seems pointless now.
Sunday Indo Sport