The mask of the usually impeccable and fair-minded Gary Neville slipped on Sky Sports’ Payback Sunday yesterday when discussing his former side’s capitulation to Spurs with Jamie Redknapp. His words gave key insight into the win-at-all-costs mentality that has served the Red Devils so well.
Yet what cost does that mentality have for the integrity of the modern game?
Clint Dempsey’s late equaliser in front of the White Hart Lane faithful warmed up the watching British public on the wintriest of weekends and left Alex Ferguson clutching his watch for non-existent “Fergie-time.” The deflected criticism of the linesman who turned down Wayne Rooney’s penalty appeals made sure media attention was taken away from his team dropping two points in the title race to rivals and current champions Man City.
Yet more revealing was his former acolyte Neville’s comments when discussing American Clint Dempsey, who dared to stay on his feet and attempt to score instead of keeling over for a penalty after a first-half Evra challenge.
Neville says Dempsey should have gone down after the soft challenge and co-presenter Jamie Redknapp replies in amazement: "Why on earth would you want to go down? You are going clean through there—he is a goal scorer, why would he want to go down? I think you have got to look at that as an opportunity."
In the immediate wake of the Lance Armstrong mass cheating scandal and Luis Suarez’s admission of diving last week, such a comment is very revealing of the mentality possessed by one of the former cornerstones of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Premier League dynasty.
Neville, of course, is a highly decorated former youth product of Manchester United, so was firmly indoctrinated in their "winning" ways.
Recall the Ashley Young diving scandal towards the end of last season (2011/12) when the new £9M signing, who had "won" the most penalties of any Premier League player over the last two seasons, was heavily criticised by fellow players. Fellow professional footballer Ryan Taylor of Newcastle United was outraged so much at a Young dive versus Aston Villa, he blurted out on Twitter, "Ashley Young is an absolute DISGRACE. He’s the biggest cheat in the league. His antics are a joke."
Just a week later, Young dived again blatantly against QPR when challenged by Shaun Derry, who was subsequently sent off, effectively ending the game. Is it too much a flight of fancy to consider the possibility that diving is part and parcel of the "winning" culture at Old Trafford and those willing to flout the rules and gain advantage by any means necessary are bought for such a purpose?
Yet, thankfully, cheats didn’t prosper on this occasion as Manchester City went on to win the title and Dempsey’s fair actions yesterday may have “earned him the later goal” according to Neville.
In a modern world in which technology is so prevalent, it is high time that any form of diving and gamesmanship is outlawed. Stoke manager Tony Pulis has championed the cause of bringing into the game retrospective action against "simulation" whereby if a player is judged to have dived after the match, he would be subject to a lengthy ban of three, four or five matches.
Until the rules are changed, perhaps as Pulis suggests by the introduction of a panel meeting on a Monday to judge the weekend's incidents, the existing minority culture in the game to gain advantage by any means necessary may continue unchecked.
With time, there will be changes to the rules and technology will play a greater role in the game, just as the introduction of floodlights and the back-pass rule, for example, have helped take the sport to the next level in the past. Fortunately, like the outraged Jamie Redknapp and Ryan Taylor and Clint Dempsey himself, the vast majority of pros and ex-pros clearly do play in a spirit of sportsmanship.
Yet perhaps tellingly, like the advantage gained by the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, those who clearly do not figure heavily among the most successful.