It was difficult not to raise an eyebrow when Stoke manager Tony Pulis called for Luis Suarez to be retrospectively banned for diving, and then another when one of his players – Michael Kightly – took up the baton of painting a gloomy picture of how divers were ruining the game. As far as bringing corrosive influences into the Premier League is concerned, Stoke rank up there with the best of them in how they have successfully managed to gain acceptance for a brand of play that pushes some of football’s most important laws to breaking-point. For every time Suarez tries to con the referee with one of his fairly hopeless dives, there will be at least five occasions on which one or more Stoke players are successfully pulling off a cynical foul either in full view of the officials or behind their back. If these are full-blooded enough to rough up the player, so much the better as it will knock them off their stride and lead them to fear holding onto the ball with quite so much confidence later on in the match. Such are the bully-tactics that Tony Pulis has instructed his team to go out and play with – and on at least two occasions, it has resulted in one of his players breaking an opponent’s leg and perhaps irreversibly altering their career paths for the worse (Francis Jeffers in 2007 and Aaron Ramsey in 2010 – both by Ryan Shawcross’s boot).
For a club who have steadfastly refused to take any blame for the hurt and trauma their style of play has inflicted on other players, it is galling that they should now seek to lecture the Premier League on the framework in which the game should be played. It may be to Pulis’s advantage to ride the anti-diving wave that deflects attention from the kind of on-the-limit tackles that his team routinely make, and perhaps even loosens the protection that referees are prepared to grant players on the receiving end of them. It is noticeable that Michael Owen, now a Stoke player, also chimed in with his own take on the issue and carelessly added a xenophobic element to the discussion by accusing foreign players of bringing it to English shores. However, if Stoke see themselves and the kind of football they peddle as quintessentially English, and worthy of protection against divers, then English football has hopelessly distorted the notion of a ‘contact sport’ and muddled up its morals. Diving will always pale in comparison to the importance of keeping a tight leash on the kind of tackles regularly dished out by Stoke players that carry the brutal power to cause permanent physical and psychological damage. The theatrics of Suarez and co may affect the outcome of matches, but English football seems to have forgotten amidst the current furore that this is a small crime when compared to what the likes of Ryan Shawcross and Dan Smith have wrought on their fellow players in recent years. Some perspective would be gladly appreciated – especially as referees are doing a better job than ever of hauling up divers in matches – and a refocusing of scrutiny on eradicating tackles that result in broken legs (which are still made on a regular basis on weekends in the Premier League) would not go amiss.