Zero tolerance required

THE ugly spectre of diving – simulation as it is officially described – has dominated the football headlines again these past few days and it really is time decisive action was taken in a bid to stamp out what is a disgraceful stain on the game. Not for the first time, I am suggesting that a zero tolerance policy be implemented by the Football Association, with referees told to brandish a red card every time they believe a player has cheated. And I also think players should be immediately sent off if they question the referee’s decisions. The authorities simply must be positive about restoring respect for the officials and in their attempts to stamp out the repugnant diving which, while it may be food and drink to the controversy-hungry media, is an ugly practice that threatens to undermine the basic integrity of “the beautiful game.”

Referees and their assistants running the line are being put under far too much pressure, not only by players who harangue them and who over-react in a bid to influence decisions, but also by trial by the TV replay. Linesmen are being held to account nowadays because a replay shows they didn’t see that a player was half a yard offside! And another thing. My zero tolerance policy would incorporate the disgusting offence of waving an imaginary card in the referee’s face, a shameful attempt to get an opponent booked or sent off. People pay a lot of money to go to Premier League – and other category – football matches and they should not have to witness the witless and damn right disrespectful sort of behaviour I am referring to. I see that Southampton have complained that referee Mark Clattenburg allegedly disrespected their England forward Adam Llallana – who was questioning why his team had not been awarded a penalty – a claim that has been thrown out by the professional body that governs referees. Surely, the point is that Llallana should not have been remonstrating with the official in the first place. Had Llallana been shown a red card for insubordination, he would no doubt think twice before questioning an official again.

The fact is that this sort of behaviour has become the norm in the past 10-20 years, and to say I find it tiresome is to massively understate my feelings. I am sick of the sight of players surrounding the referee, brandishing imaginary cards in referees’ faces – and making a meal of it when they are tackled. And I applaud the Manchester United fanzine Red Issue, which has published an article decrying the antics of several of their players –  new boy Januzaj has already been booked an astonishing four times for simulation and Ashley Young has developed a reputation as a diver – and implored manager David Moyes to “sort it.” Moyes did say earlier this season he would speak to the teenager. If he did, it looks as though the message didn’t get across. To their credit, the people at Red Issue insist they can live with defeat, but they cannot accept the sight of players “disgracing the club” by cheating while wearing the famous red shirt. This is the sort of protest that must become an outcry from fans in general and everyone who has the interests of the game as a whole at heart. The authorities must face the fact that the Premier League, which has become a global, multi-billion pound product, is being tarnished by the unruly behaviour of some players. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has got involved, suggesting players who cheat be left on the sideline for a while until the referee decides they can return to the pitch.

Referees – whatever happened to the FA’s “Respect” campaign? – are in a no-win situation when it comes to players exaggerating their reaction to a challenge. The man with the whistle has a split-second to make his decision and, thus, he will get some wrong and some right. Former Grade One ref Graham Poll has made the point that Howard Webb may, understandably, have been prejudiced against Ashley Young, because of the player’s reputation for diving, when he did not give a penalty when the United star was taken out by Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris on the edge of the box. That is precisely what I believe was the case with Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, who was refused a penalty when clattered at Chelsea last week, having gone down like he’d been shot. Suarez was fouled – but you can only cry wolf so many times before you get ignored. It would be a darn sight easier for the referee if he could rely upon honest, no-nonsense reaction when players are tackled. Believe me, when I was playing, over 30 years ago, there was a much more genuine approach on the pitch and certainly no pretend card-waving or dying-swan-type diving, which must be a nightmare for referees to deal with. If they start showing red every time they suspect a dive, occasionally a player will be wrongly punished. But the message will soon get across and the practice will be stamped out. Why would you take the risk if you were in no doubt about the severe consequences?

I accept that there is much, much more money involved these days and, as a result, much more pressure on players and managers. But there can be no excuse for rank disrespecting of referees or for cheating. If rugby players can batter away at each other as they strive for victory and, at the same time, accept the referee’s word without demur, why can’t footballers? It’s time to clean up your act, guys.

BLACKBURN host Manchester City in the FA Cup third round tomorrow and what a day it could prove to be for Jordan Rhodes. I pondered whether a Premier League club would try to sign the Rovers star last summer. Now, with Rhodes hitting 16 goals before Christmas to cement his reputation as a prolific striker, I suggest that a strike against the Premier League title favourites would spark enquiries from several top-flight clubs in the remaining few weeks of the transfer window. Rhodes cost Blackburn £8million when signed from Huddersfield two years ago and, though the Championship club say they are in no hurry to sell, we all know that every player has his price. And none more so than successful strikers.