Alan Biggs at Large: The grounded players who don’t go to ground

Sheffield United legend Brian Deane
Sheffield United legend Brian Deane

One lasting truth in English football – however sad if you turn it on its head – is that the players tend to be more honest further down the scale.

I’d say League One rivals Sheffield United and Chesterfield are currently shining examples of that.

by Pete McKee

by Pete McKee

And it applies in the Championship, too, where Sheffield Wednesday and many others have a reputation for fair play – despite the relentless quest to climb that pyramid towards the Premier League where, shamefully, the opposite often applies. Across the board in the play-offs, I’d be confident that, with the players involved predominantly British, you won’t see too much diving, play-acting and downright cheating.

Indeed, United boss Nigel Clough made a point of telling me this season that he won’t tolerate his players going to ground without contact from an opponent.

But you do wonder - and worry - about how much longer this spirit of fair physical combat will last, even from home-grown players, considering the example increasingly set from above.

Falling from phantom challenges has become an art form, and a means of winning – and, let’s be honest, many a top British player has shown himself to be a willing exponent.

I fear for the future on hearing the thoughts of someone like Blades legend Brian Deane, a formidable striker in his day and a player renowned for his honesty who displays the same trait when he speaks.

“It used to be that British players didn’t know how to dive – now I feel it’s almost become a requirement of the modern game,” Deano tells me. “It’s a shame. I think the game has changed forever. So many players go down in the box – and a piece of you dies when you see it. Back in the day, my own supporters would be telling me to get up and calling me ‘nesh.’”

A crackdown on crunching tackles from the notorious warriors of yesteryear was welcomed by forwards like Brian and also helped the game by putting the focus on flair, but clearly there has been a downside.

He adds: “Although you don’t want to go back to, say, Steve Bould and tackles from behind, it’s a win-at-all-costs mentality now and that’s why I have sympathy for referees. Diving is accepted on the continent as part of the game and it could become the same here.”

Sheffield’s former referees chief Keith Hackett echoes: “The previous generation of strikers like Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand didn’t go to ground. They stayed on their feet and didn’t cause problems for referees. Great credit to them - and Brian Deane was the same.

“Nowadays, I see kids of eight and nine going down as if they’re shot dead, all because of the poor example they see on television. That’s another reason why the game at the highest level needs an official watching monitors in the stand to clamp down on this at source and improve the image of the game.”

Meantime, the players striving and straining for promotion can do their bit. The managers and players (and fans) of the Blades and Spireites set a terrific example last weekend.

Clough and Paul Cook could even be seen chatting amiably on the touchline straight after the Marc McNulty goal that was equalised by Ian Evatt. And then there was the managerial embrace at the end. No coincidence perhaps that the game itself was played in fine spirit. Let’s hope neither Swindon nor Preston stand in the way of another.