When Salut! Sunderland hammers on about cheating in football, and declares that any diving and feigning of injury is beyond the pale and not just when committed by opponents, the world is silent. When Arsène Wenger says something similar, everyone sits up and pays attention.
That is naturally as it should be. Not only is Wenger a top voice in football, deserving of a serious hearing when he makes a serious point; his call, reported with big headlines today, for an end to the conning of referees also sounds a little like a Damascene conversion.
As is reasonably well known around these parts, I am a Wenger admirer. That probably makes me a rarity among Sunderland supporters and perhaps the body of non-Arsenal fans generally. But I like the way he tries, with some success, to get his teams to play, the way he runs his club and his ability to express himself so eloquently in our language as well as his own.
But it is scarcely a matter for controversy to add one qualification: Wenger has also, through selective myopia or gamesmanship, been incapable of identifying malpractice on the part of his own players. Robert Pires was a great player but went down with outrageous ease in the penalty area. Eduardo’s dive against Celtic was long commemorated in the cheating question in our own “Who are You?” questionnaire to opposing supporters.
Chamakh made falling down an essential part of his game on arriving in the Premier; Walcott felt so embarrassed about a dive of his own (which failed to win the desired penalty) that he issued a public apology while also indicating that many players considered such conduct normal and acceptable.
This is not the same as saying Wenger or any other identifiable individual coaches the art of cheating, as if it were as desirable an asset for any player as the ability to control the ball with one touch or split a defence with a devastating pass. But I am sure many managers, and not just those in charge of foreign clubs or foreigner in charge of ours, do.
And it is nothing new. Remember Peter Lorimer’s words about the team talk that preceded a penalty winner Leeds United scored against Sunderland back in 1967:
Don said out of the blue: ‘If anybody gets anywhere near the box, get down.’ Jimmy Greenhoff, who was quick when he was in full flight, set off on one of his jinking runs and was fully five yards outside the penalty area when he was brought down. By the time he had stumbled, fallen and rolled over a couple of times he was inside the box, and the referee, Ken Stokes, pointed to the spot so quickly that it was almost embarrassing.
This is not being anti-Leeds (though I can see the wry grin forming on certain faces); after all, they would have been the victims had the Walcott ruse worked.
The issue cropped up again at the weekend – it does most weekends – with a delicious biter-bit morality tale. Leon Osman accused Tottenham’s Gareth Bale of taking a deliberate fall under his challenge. Forget that this is the second recent allegation of diving against Bale; remember instead that his supposed victim is the same Leon Osman who fell over, demonstrably without the least contact, in the Sunderland penalty box and then appealed for a penalty, hoodwinking Howard Webb. The resulting penalty saved the game for Everton.
And before anyone cries hypocrite, let me add that while Seb Larsson is one of the undoubted stars of Sunderland’s season, Salut! Sunderland and some of its readers were quick to criticise his extravangant dive at Wolves. Bent often went down easily, so did Gyan and so, occasionally, does Sessegnon. It is a sickness afflicting football and no club seems immune.
Salut! Sunderland can also claim to have risen in defence of unlikely characters. When Brighton’s Adam El-Abd pushed and pulled at Andy Carroll at every Liverpool set piece in a recent FA Cup tie, we roundly condemned Andre Marriner for ignoring his blatant cheating; there might have been three or more first-half penalties.
So let us hear out Wenger (from today’s Mail but, I assume, elsewhere too):
It annoys me. For example, Suarez got the penalty last week. It was no penalty. Nobody touched him but he goes overboard. I can understand if they push the ball too far but when no-one touches him…
But then when they roll down the sock, take the shin- pad out like he has been kicked like mad, it’s a bit overboard. Everyone who has played football can understand they try to win the penalty but what he does afterwards to get a bit more, we don’t need that.
Bravo. I really, really hope he means it, and means specifically that he wants this new spirit of fairness to descend on his own squad and not just others.