Among this column’s favourite interviews of 2016 was one with Billy Sharp. In-depth and honest on cutting out any histrionics when he is substituted and his duties as a role model in skippering Sheffield United.
Sharp, who also talked passionately about taking a big pay cut to rejoin the Blades, has equally candid views on the issue of diving. It’s been a perennial topic of recent years and particularly topical of late after the “cheating” rows surrounding phantom penalties won in the Premier League by Dele Alli and Robert Snodgrass.
Now Billy is a predator, and a natural one at that, so playing the percentages in the penalty area will always be part of his game. But there is a difference between that and going to ground without contact, as both Alli and Snodgrass did recently.
His comments are not related to either player because the conversation took place a few weeks earlier. They ARE related to a still painfully recalled personal experience when he was cautioned for “simulation” in claiming a penalty during an FA Cup defeat playing for the Blades at Hull in 2009.
Subsequently, the referee on the day, Peter Walton, phoned then manager Kevin Blackwell to admit he blundered both over Sharp’s caution and a Hull goal which did not cross the line.
Which is why Billy feels entitled to say: “I’ve never dived to try to win a penalty. It’s just not in my nature to do that.”
So where is the line? It’s certainly a fine one.
Sharp, honest again, adds: “I’ve probably gone down too easy at times – but I’ve always had contact to go down. There’ve probably been some penalties and free-kicks I’ve won which I shouldn’t have won.
“But I’ve never actually thrown myself to the floor without contact.”
Clever strikers can induce contact, of course. Again, it’s a very fine line. Managers encourage their forwards to be cute.
Very few condemn a player for conning a referee, even when the evidence is clear for all to see.
That’s another reason why it’s about time the Football Association took retrospective action to punish divers. And I suspect the leading goalscorer at Sheffield United would be fully in agreement. Because there are two sides to this.
The more that referees are duped, the greater the pressure on them to caution dive suspects. And with that comes a higher risk of error. As in Sharp’s yellow card at Hull all those years ago.
By punishing divers on video evidence, the FA should also be able to wipe the slate clean for those falsely fingered.