Have We Suffered From Premier League Naivety?

Last updated : 02 April 2010 By Gerard Bradley
Sam Allardyce - pushes the boundaries of fair play as far as he can
My qualifications for making these observations are no better than most supporters. Many years ago, I achieved an FA coaching award under Jimmy Armfield and when I ceased playing local football, I coached schoolboy teams to county level. When my independent school changed codes to rugby I concentrated on helping out with cricket. However, I never lost my love of football and the Clarets.

It is, I believe, a very good practice used by Sam Allardyce to spend some time of a match (voluntarily) in the stands. Although I do not like the man, you have to admire his pragmatism. I take him and the Rovers as my main example simply because the incidents of last Sunday's game are still fresh in our memory.

He and his teams and several others in the Premier League push the boundaries of fair play as far as they possibly can. Let me give you two examples apart from the penalty dive. In the first half a Blackburn corner on the left was taken with two players standing in front of Jensen. Immediately, the natural reaction is for a defender to join them, making the situation worse for Jensen. When the corner is put over to the edge of the six yard box there is no way through the jostling threesome for the keeper, and the referee cannot identify a foul because a defender appears to be blocking his own man.

A free header from six yards fortunately went over the bar. This and the blocking of defenders movement towards the ball (Chelsea are the main culprits) is commonplace at this level as well as all the wrestling.

The second example shows clearly how Allardyce pushes the rules to the limit and exploits the confusion surrounding the new off-side interpretation. An attacker deliberately lingers offside as the defence moves upfield. They are confident that the man will be flagged. However, a second player makes a run from deep for a ball over the top or through the defence (the "penalty" incident is a prime example) and has a clear run on goal while the defenders claim in vain for offside. The original attacker is deemed not to be interfering with play but he has caused the situation. We fell for this ruse several times.

As I stated previously, Allardyce and his teams are not the only ones who are guilty. Roy Hodgson's Fulham play a devious game of nudges and pulls, enough to put a player off balance before he receives the ball but not enough for a free-kick to be given by a referee concentrating on events around the moving ball. Zamora is one of several strikers including Davies, Doyle, Carew and Drogba who are experts at backing into a stationary defender. If he moves back they fall backwards claiming a pull, if he stands strongly, they fall forwards claiming a push. It happens at all levels, I know and PNE's Parkin is a clear candidate for inclusion but it is more widespread in the Premier League. Our only "expert" in recent times was Gareth Taylor and he seemed to get more free-kicks given against than for. Andy Gray was a lesser exponent of this "skill". West Ham, by the way are the only team I have seen this season who have a back four who dive! The resulting free-kicks relieve the pressure.

So, what are we to do about it? Do we wise-up and cheat and play unfairly (called "a steep learning curve" in management speak)? Do we play fairly and return to the Championship where Sheffield United, Preston, Crystal Palace and a few others play the Premier League way, perhaps to a lesser extent. Wolves, Birmingham and Stoke seem to have assumed that if you can't beat them join them and they look like staying up. It is a dilemma which will have supporters divided because we have certainly suffered for our fair play but we have enjoyed at times some great football. Perhaps, although some will disagree, only Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City have the skill and flair to play without too much skullduggery. Arsenal have had their divers though.

My inclusion of Manchester City in there suggests that I am optimistic that we might have a proper football game this week-end but watch closely to see if I am right!