Where do you start with the shenanigans that happened at Elland Road on Sunday? Leeds United took on Aston Villa and scored a goal after a passage of play that went against the sportsmanship that English football is famous for (according to Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa).
Hiding behind trees near opposition training grounds to watch their preparation ahead of upcoming matches is not particularly sporting. Whether Bielsa actually believes that England is known for its fair play or is simply on a PR offensive after his tactics were rumbled is another matter. Whatever he thinks, he and everyone who watched Sunday’s game know that Leeds’s goal was not the only piece of gamesmanship on show.
Even after the outrage of Mateusz Klich’s opening goal, Patrick Bamford still managed to produce the most infuriating moment of the game. After Bamford went down pretending he’d been hit in the face, Villa’s Anwar El Ghazi was sent off. Leeds players who had seen what happened did not want to redress this imbalance. While they let Villa score an ever-so-slightly contested equaliser straight from the following kick-off, they did not get a player of their own sent off to even up the number of players on each side.
What is gamesmanship? What is unsporting behaviour? What is cheating? Are they synonyms or is one of them acceptable? Throughout this game, and indeed any other this season, Jack Grealish spent most of the game feigning fouls – sorry, making the most of contact – across the pitch while pleading with the referee to punish repeat ‘offenders’. A quick video on Twitter analyses Grealish’s performance and shows his vulnerability to the effects of gravity. There will be Villa players and staff who acknowledge that many of the clips in the video are not fouls yet they do not scream at colleagues to give the ball back to the opposition when the referee awards them a free kick.
Marginal gains is a buzz-phrase in modern sport. Football clubs spend huge sums of money trying to work out how they can maximise their own performance and results through making small adjustments to the way they train and play. The cheapest and most effective use of marginal gains has been around long before the days of sports science and video analysis. It is simple gamesmanship, as so well executed on the pitch by Bamford and Grealish.
Everyone does it to one extent or another and the lines are so blurred as to what is acceptable and what is not. Winning a cheap free kick in your own half is fine but diving to win a penalty is condemned. Accepting a goal that is clearly offside is the done thing while scoring because your opponents are not concentrating is unacceptable. The moral pontificating about sportsmanship in football is tiresome. In this case, let those without sin cast the first stone. Everyone is doing everything they can to win and anyone who claims otherwise is a liar.