Contact.

This is not all Ashley Young’s fault, this current malaise. The silky-skilled Manchester United forward is not unique in his thoroughbred cynicism, his (by Premiership standards) quietly coiffured amorality. Ashley – if he possesses the capacity to process complicated thoughts – thinks, poor love, that he’s just doing his job; skinning the full-back. So he drives for that magic line delineating the extent of the defender’s hopes. Should he breach it – and thereby enter the (effective) no tackle zone that is the penalty box, Ashley’s only thought is to win a spot kick. He’s not, some imagine, all that bothered about scoring, such is the miserly fixation seemingly automatically engaged once that limey watershed is crossed. Ashley (and nearly every other Premier League striker?) just wants to ‘draw contact,’ to win a penno, to collect the prize. And often he does.

In my view – admittedly a soulfully aromatic, moisture-affected one – this very deeply negative approach to attacking play is in itself an offence of a sort, though I admit not one that we can reasonably prosecute. Yet it’s clearly prevalent in the professional game. Top Players get near the box and their interest turns from goals to penalties – symbolically from gold to faeces. In a moment they succumb, these solid pro’s; rather than instinctively flashing past an opponent or two and gleefully, innocently, heartily smashing home, they become weirdly obsessed by the feet or body position of retreating defenders, so as to feel for a questionably dangled or interjected leg. A practice that if it was only a metaphor for the ways of the modern world might be poetically and justly resonant. However, as a fact of sporting life – even allowing for an understanding of the daftness of our ‘seriousness’ about sport – this spirit-killing reflex does matter, in both a corporeal, ie. de-mystified points-on-the-board kindofaway and an ethical sense. Because mean-spiritedness erodes joy and the expression of talent as well as helping bad guys to win.

Yesterday, in an allegedly crucial match against Aston Villa, Young claimed a penalty which set the Champions on their way. He gathered and then set; he waited and he waltzed and he drew; then he trailed a foot for contact with a defender plainly conscious of (but perhaps not entirely athletically/dexterously responsive enough to?) Ashley’s intention to throw himself. When Young either felt or was sure he was about to feel said contact some believe he launched, shamelessly, hilarious, nauseatingly, embarrassingly high and utilised that slightly rolling airborne gait he adds in for er… kicks. Or maybe for added ‘authenticity’ – the notion presumingly being that heavy contact is likely to result in dynamic distortions of a roll-about sort. And the ref pointed. Rooney, despite being fascinatingly poor for almost the entire match, notched from the twelve.

This is not all Ashley Young’s fault, this ‘debate’. But that was. In my personal revolutionary court he is guilty of a disgrace against the spirit of everything I can think of and I want to bawl at him and squirt lemon juice in his eyes. I want to demand answers and put things right immediately if not sooner… but how?

Whether or not Young actually practices what are perceived by many as his theatrical dives is a medium-interesting diversion here. I doubt that he or anyone else would do so in a public environment and shame on any club or manager or coach who actually presides over or witnesses such a rehearsal. Do we see him then safely in front of a full-length bedroom mirror, givin’-it-the-Tom-Daley’s before retiring to beddybyes? Is the length and breadth of the country sub-tectonically active Friday nights with the repeated dull thuds of similarly repellently prostrate strikers? I fear it may be, but the issue of whether the actual incidents on the telly are even provably-actually ‘dives’ is perhaps more relevant, being central to the concept of judging how and what to do as a result. For surely something has to be done about cheating in football?

Cheating is an emotive word of course. But how else are we to describe deception and manifest abuse of the spirit of the game? Hardened Pro’s might be less than moved by some woolly argument against idealised sportsmanship but even they have to concede that deception – conning the referee – is outside the laws. But because of the general low levels of honesty and respect for authority amongst players and shockingly one-eyed appreciation of issues arising from both fans and managers, the broad range of matters predicated around truthfulness, honour and sportsmanship in which this foul nugget of theatricality is set remain ungoverned. The matrix remains stolidly, amorphously powerless; an infuriatingly noisy flux. We need change.

Players and clubs must buy in to a move towards positive action but selfishness and rank myopia have typically got in the way of progress. Individuals representing clubs have generally howled about particular offences against their team rather than make any contribution to the increasingly necessary debate. Managers in particular rarely envisage anything which might generally elevate levels of sportsmanship, being far too busy calling for other, more immediately ‘relevant’ improvements, which may, incidentally advance their particular agenda or redress an injustice to their side. Plus nobody seems to want to – or have the courage to? Or be foolish and uncool enough to? – unashamedly claim the moral high ground. It’s easy enough – and right to – call for goal-line technology and use of TV reviews but more problematic, apparently, to call on the game to substantially re-negotiate aspects of broadly moral concern.

I have felt for some years that if it is necessary to implement or invent new rules to improve sportsmanship in football then so be it. If it does not work to use or extend the Ungentlemanly Conduct rule to encourage honesty or penalise dishonesty then fine; write a better law. Clearly there is a case for legislating against – for example – diabolical contempt for referees and diving or otherwise faking to gain advantage. (Etc.) Clearly something like the establishment of a small panel of informed and respected ex-players or similar charged with judging controversial incidents retrospectively might be helpful. Particularly if it was known that they had the facility to uphold spiritual early-footie-truths like respect and sporting behaviour through the application of meaningful punishments for serious transgression. If The Game had decided that other whiter-than-white lines of focus had to be drawn – lines against fraudulence and cynicism – and that players had to regard them as effective law and part of football itself then high-standard aspirations might be achievable. In short, cheats might not prosper – or would likely prosper less.

It is possible to improve things; even in footie, with its scandalous/wonderful/natural/psychotic tribalism and its capacity to crassly swamp intelligent thought. Players could be ‘caught’ whilst cheating or intending to cheat. And they could be banned… for weeks, if necessary.

Ashley Young is not to blame entirely. In fact perhaps the predictably growing outrage, the Young-gateism of this depressingly common moment speaks as loudly of us and our weaknesses as it does of him, the winner, the sinner. This is not, however, an argument for missing out on an opportunity to spring-clean the fusty cupboards of our national sport.

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