Nick Townsend: Game on the deceiving end of a grey area

War on cheating: Are we fast approaching the day when a player accused of diving sues an official for defamation?
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The Independent Football

It was several years ago, well before the current zero-tolerance policy against "diving", that Garry Nelson transgressed, by his own candid admission, one of football's primary laws: Thou shalt not seek to gain an unfair advantage. "I got pulled up for it once against Barnsley," recalls the Michael Palin of strikers, a man who played for seven clubs, most notably Charlton in the early Nineties, and worked for the players' union, the Professional Footballers' Association, before becoming an ITV football pundit. "I guessed what I thought the goalkeeper would do – and he didn't do it.

"I was that close to the keeper and going round him, did the skilful bit all right, and although I knew I wasn't going anywhere, I thought he was going to come right through at me. Instead, he totally pulled out of the challenge. I still went down and I got a caution, and quite rightly so, because it looked bad. But, that said, there were plenty of cases when I went down honestly and I didn't get the penalty."

For most of Nelson's 17-year career, such a caution for that particular offence was a relative rarity in English football. This was, after all, before the game at all levels had benefited from, or as some xenophobes would have it, suffered from, the dubious behaviour of the foreign influx. English footballers may have been guilty of many excesses but, by God, they weren't the kind of men you would find diving, cheating, or as referees currently refer to it, simulating, exaggerating, or deceiving.

We are in the midst of a clampdown on that activity, with such apparent zeal employed in establishing culprits that many suspect that the Witchfinder General himself has been charged with on-field discipline. Whatever the arguments, there will evidently be no respite. This week, the FA's head of refereeing, John Baker, reminded officials of their respons-ibility to take the firmest possible line on offences, including "diving" and violent conduct.

The most contentious area is that of the former, with examples provided only last week by the dismissal of Arsenal's Giovanni van Bronckhorst following a second yellow card, adjudged by Paul Durkin to have been guilty of deception when he fell challenging Liverpool's Sami Hyypia. There has also been a caution for Derby's Benito Carbone (he was subsequently dismissed after committing another offence) at West Ham and a third such punishment this season for Fulham's Luis Boa Morte, against Charlton.

Having observed the Van Bronckhorst incident from every TV angle it was difficult to concur with Durkin that "I'm very confident I got it 100 per cent right". It was a slippery surface, there was contact between the players, and the Dutchman did not exaggerate his fall. Afterwards he got to his feet quickly and did not claim a penalty. The best you could say was that Durkin mayhave got it right.

But Philip Don, who is in charge of the élite group of professional match officials, insists: "It's pure reaction from the referee at the time. The referee will only give a caution if, in his eyes, it is obvious. I can assure you that if he wasn't 100 per cent certain, he wouldn't have stopped the play and cautioned the player.

"The instructions are basically that if a player is exaggerating any form of contact in order to deceive the referee into awarding a free-kick, then he should be cautioned for simulation. It's not necessarily diving. It's something that we've discussed over the last six weeks simply because it's been happening in games. It's true to say that referees this season have certainly become stronger as they have worked towards more consistency and developed support for each other."

Yet, you put it to him, when television replays so frequently suggest those decisions to be erroneous, shouldn't the player receive the benefit of the doubt? "You've got to be out there," Don maintains. "You will very rarely see these incidents replayed from the exact angle that the referee has. He's not sitting in an armchair and refereeing the game through a camera lens. In my view, the caution, the penalty and the dismissal are instinctive – certainly when I was a referee. When you've refereed for many years it becomes second nature. If you are not certain, you will not guess."

Nevertheless, although nobody wants to see a player profit from deception, the objection persists that, in effect, a referee is being placed in the impossible position of reading a player's mind. If the official does find him guilty of illegal intent, he is then branding him a cheat, whatever euphemism he cares to use. Given that there is no greater calumny in the game, other than the accusation of deliberately injuring another player, you wonder when we will hear of the first case of a player suing an official for defamation.

However, Nelson, the author of the much-acclaimed book about a journeyman footballer, Left Foot Forward, insists: "It would only be the case where a player was getting consistently punished for it that he would be thought of as a cheat. There are many times when you know you are going to get a tackle from behind and you're going to get hurt, so you just jump out of your way to avoid it. In my day, defenders got away with murder. They just put a boot into the back of your calf and that would put you out for two or three games. But I don't think it [diving] has got any worse. In fact, players are probably more careful now because they know they'll get into trouble. As a forward, it's always been the case that if there is the slightest bit of contact in or around the penalty area you go down. But if there isn't, you don't."

Nelson, who has observed the introduction of many new directives to referees and amendments to the laws, takes a philosophical view. "I think there'll be cases when they'll be very strong on it [deceiving officials], and in some cases people will be very unfortunate," he says. "There'll be a rash of cards. Then somebody will say, 'This is wrong', they'll have a look at it and they'll change it again."