Graham Kelly: Poll's comments undermine referees' standing

Ferguson did not need any help in feeding his paranoia about the treatment of his players by those in authority
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Predictably, Sir Alex Ferguson did not take long to respond to referee Graham Poll's allegations about Gary Neville's diving in a Premiership match against Arsenal.

He said that Poll had never awarded Manchester United a penalty kick in his career and that it was wrong for officials to single out players in the way that Neville had been targeted after the Select Group of referees' fortnightly meeting last week. During the 1-1 draw at Highbury on 28 March, Neville had gone down after a run carried him between two Arsenal players in the penalty area.

The referees signalled their intention to get tough on diving at their get-together, but if their motives were to convince the world that they had become fully professional by opening the doors to the outside world, then they surely need some public relations advice to complement the sports psychologists, the sports scientists, and the technical wizardry that they are already using.

For they committed a huge blunder by naming individual players, when discussing the issue of cheating in public. I do not believe Sir Alex needs any help from them in feeding his paranoia about the treatment of his players by those in authority. Didn't he imply almost in the same breath that Paul Scholes was unlikely to receive a fair hearing when he comes up before the Football Association soon?

And when Poll said: "Players are very good at simulation. I'm not saying they do practise, but I find it hard to believe they are so good at something without practising," he held the Select Group of referees up to ridicule.

Do they imagine that the League Managers Association is about to devise a new coaching course for diving, to be introduced in centres of excellence for boys aged 11 and over? Or that as part of the criteria for entry to the Champions' League, clubs must be able to demonstrate they have in their employment a fully licensed Uefa diving examiner?

No, the referees have our sympathy, of course they do, in the enormously difficult and immensely important - and incidentally much better rewarded now - job that they do in upholding the letter and almost extinct spirit of the laws of football, but they are in danger of forfeiting much goodwill if they do not choose their words more carefully.

If Poll believes we should be taken into his confidence about what Roy Keane said to him about Neville in the heat of the battle (being a non-diver), then let him advocate the referees being miked up as they are in other sports and we can all make our own judgment calls. There would soon be a dramatic improvement in players' behaviour.

The sad thing about diving is that the referees have felt so isolated in tackling the issue over a number of years. But then if it were not some novel form of cheating, the law-makers would not have given it a fancy name - simulation - and a specific sanction: the yellow card.

We English have demonstrated a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the problem. It was something those nasty foreigners got up to. A bit like crowd trouble. Those excitable foreign crowds with the moats and fences to keep the players safe were most amusing. Then came pictures of wrecked British Rail football specials to explode the myth of our superiority.

Equally, when Michael Owen won a penalty for England against Argentina in the France World Cup in 1998, how many England supporters questioned its validity? Here's how England coach Glenn Hoddle clarified the issue in his controversial book, My 1998 World Cup Story: "Watching what happened I went through a range of emotions. I saw Michael touch the ball past the player and go down, and the referee give the penalty. I have to admit I wasn't convinced at the time that it was a penalty. It could have been from where I was sitting, but in my heart I wasn't sure. It certainly wasn't cast-iron. But my immediate reaction was, great maybe that's a bit of justice.

"Michael did the right thing. There's no way I would ever tell a player to go down in the box, to dive in order to earn a penalty. What I would tell him is that if an opponent physically catches you then stay on your feet if you can; if not, if you've been fouled, go down. That's professionalism. Most countries recognise this. I think we get far fewer free-kicks than others because of the efforts our players make to stay on their feet. If you're fouled you should get your just rewards.

"Of course, there are certain times when you tell a striker to go across a defender, who's then got the option of bringing the striker down or letting him go. That's not cheating, that's intelligent play. That's exactly what Michael did."