James Shield: If Sheffield United just blame referees for gamesmanship explosion, then they're also complicit
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They were talking about Sheffield United and their game against Norwich City. Well, the performance of the referee to be exact; although the person in question could also have been referring to some Oscar worthy displays from a handful of visiting players, whose ability to recover from apparently career-ending injuries - so violent was their writhing after going sprawling across the pitch - is only matched by their skill to procrastinate.
And that, the fact the guy was referring specifically to Josh Smith, reveals something which is rotten at the heart of our sport. Yes, the sight of footballers cheating to try and win penalties or free-kicks is bloody annoying. So too is their willingness to rob paying supporters of some proper action by wasting minutes and minutes of a fixture. But the fact the officials are always first to be blamed whenever this happens, which is it on an increasingly frequent basis, confirms those deservedly aggrieved by these pathetic practices are inadvertently complicit in ensuring they continue.
Let’s get this right. Smith had an afternoon to forget during last Saturday’s 2-2 draw. Hopefully Dean Whitestone, who takes charge of United’s trip to West Bromwich Albion tomorrow afternoon, doesn’t. Mind you, for the opening 45 minutes the same could be said for nearly all of Paul Heckingbottom’s players before they realised during the interval they’re a team with designs on promotion.
I asked Dean Smith, the City manager, if United were right to be angered by how some of those under his command conducted themselves seven days ago. “I told them ‘you look after your lads and I’ll look after mine,’ because I will do,” he told me, referring to his exchange of words with the hosts’ bench midway through the second-half. The only trouble is, he won’t. Most of those attempting to con his namesake from Cambridgeshire into believing they were suffering from broken legs, broken jaws, broken toes or worse featured in the starting eleven which faced Burnley earlier this week. And in the interests of balance, it’s worth remembering that several of those selected by Heckingbottom were guilty of confronting Smith, Josh Smith that is, in a terribly aggressive fashion when tempers began to get frayed.
Yes, Smith - Josh again - had a bit of a ‘mare. Yes, he got more calls wrong that either he or anyone else inside the stadium would have liked. Yes, he should have been firmer when it became clear certain individuals were in need of nothing more than a quick dab of the magic sponge rather than emergency resuscitation. But those wearing red and white striped and canary yellow shirts all contributed to the fact he appeared unable to tell his ‘arris from his elbow. Because they were either pretending they required urgent medical attention when they weren’t or shouting angrily in his face.
I’m not someone who believes professional athletes should be role models. That’s a job for parents, carers and society in general. Still, I’ve lost count of the amount of times a footballer in my company has been happy to grasp that mantle when it suits. They’re clearly just as comfortable handing it back if they think it might gain them an advantage.
The likes of Heckingbottom, Smith - Dean in this instance - and their counterparts across the Championship are right to complain about simulation and gamesmanship. I’ve got no issue with them commenting on how the likes of Smith - back to Josh again - and his ilk go about their work either; providing they remain within the parameters of decency.
But I also don’t see, if people really do care as passionately about these issues as it seems, why many of them look at you as if you’re daft for daring to suggest that anyone effectively squeezing the urine out of fans, refs and fellow athletes should be automatically dropped for their club’s next outing. After all, they obviously have a sixth sense for understanding when a player has been fouled or hurt. Because there’s a seemingly never ending queue of ex- pro’s waiting to stand in front of a television camera and tell us exactly that wherever they dissect controversial incidents.
When I played Sunday League, which could be bloomin’ competitive, it was the done thing to pretend you weren’t hurt even when you were. Now it’s the opposite. From the top of the pyramid down to the grassroots.
But if people have no concerns about cheating and making themselves laughing stocks among followers of other sports, they should take a moment to consider what might happen when a referee finally tires of their behaviour and waves the action on when someone genuinely does need immediate treatment. You can bet, without absolute certainty, the very same folk who roll about on the pitch after being scratched on the back of the hand or clutch their face when they get a gentle nod to the forehead would be the first ones to castigate the guy or girl who prevented treatment being speedily administered to one of their own.
Smith - I really should have risked sounding overly familiar and called him Josh from the outset - and others tasked with governing fixtures do need to get tougher on those guilty of timewasting or theatrics.
The best way of solving a problem is usually going right back to the source, though. But football will never do that. Because, as we’ve seen more times than we care to remember of late, those working within it are not always the best at taking responsibility.