In the furor that surrounds Ashley Young’s dive against Real Sociedad on Tuesday night there must also come a mea culpa. The confession that Manchester United has benefited from cheating; that other United players have also and will also cheat; an acknowledgement that in different circumstances the outrage might be felt for very different reasons. United might, probably will, lose a game this season as the result of similar dubious tactics and equally malicious intent.
It is the game that we play.
It doesn’t have to be though. Young was under no obligation to “fold in half” as La Real coach Jagoba Araste so eloquently put it on Tuesday night. Nor did David Moyes have to so publicly back his player either; not after admonishing the former Aston Villa winger for similar theatrics earlier this season. And certainly not after spending much of the last decade as a strong voice in the campaign against diving.
Yet, Young goes on. Cheating, seemingly at will, and defying his managers with every turn and fall. It is, after all, far from Young’s first offence – the 28-year-old has been warned not solely by David Moyes, but Sir Alex Ferguson too. And in that Young’s tumble at Anoeta during United’s scoreless draw with Sociedad was barely believable, yet all too familiar in the collective memory.
Pundits lined up to add their voice to the general invective over Young’s antics. But none more so that United supporters, whose general sense of disenchantment rang loud. Young is not only an embarrassment, and a fraud, but – and here is the rub – mediocre with it.
Herein lies another group confession. After all, Adnan Januzaj was cautioned for simulation earlier this season, while Wayne Rooney and Nani have been known, on more than one occasion, to eat grass with the best of them. Few have found the spotlight quite as intense as United’s Stevenage-born winger. Not from the home crowd at least.
“Pathetic,” said former United midfielder Ray Wilkins. “This is as bad for me as all these over-the-top tackles we’re getting at the moment because that is a conning of the referee.”
“He’s conned the referee there,” added Roy Keane. “If you are a Manchester United player and you see a player getting tugged back you want him to go down, but Ashley Young has obviously gone down too much over the last few months.”
Yet, there is something about Young’s manner that grates more than others. It is the shamelessness of it all; the total failure to acknowledge his conceit. The charlatan whose audacity extends to a bare-faced refusal to speak out. An impostor in the famous scarlet shirt.
In that Moyes is culpable too. Words really do come so very cheap, not least if Young is selected to face Arsenal this weekend in the most crucial match of the Scot’s short time at Old Trafford.
United’s top man was certainly in no mood to lay blame on Tuesday following the Reds’ bore draw in Spain. It does not augur well.
“I’ve seen it and the boy certainly tugs him in the box,” said the new United coach. “The referee is two yards away from it and decides to give it. The referee is there and he gave it.”
In that Moyes brought forth a charge of duplicity – disingenuous outrage against diving in one corner, a blind eye in the other. After all, Moyes once advocated for retrospective punishment and even fined hil Neville for hitting the ground too easily. Not this time – it serves not the man on whose shoulder’s the club’s on-the-pitch ethic resides.
“I’m of the view that retrospective viewing of diving should be more important than some of the technology they are talking about bringing in,” said the Scot last season.
“I think it would make the referee’s job an awful lot easier if that was there. If you do it and you get banned for it, it wouldn’t take long before you cut it out. I think it could be easily done.”
So too, it must be said, might an internal review of his player’s actions. Young does not have to face Arsenal next Sunday, nor Cardiff City two weeks hence. Nor, for that matter, Bayer Leverkusen in Germany towards the end of the month. There are many supporters not keen on the Englishman’s return at all such is the monotonous regularity with which Young has brought derison to Old Trafford’s doors.
It is not as though Moyes is short of options either with Januzaj, Nani, Antonio Valencia, and Danny Welbeck available. Nor has Young conspicuously delivered during more than two years at the club. He probably never will.
Although one wonders whether punishment might ever get through – that Young is too callous, or too shortsighted, for the message to fully resonate. Certainly if Ferguson’s rebuke served no lesson, then what might?
“Going to ground too willingly was not something I tolerated,” remarks Sir Alex in his recent autobiography.
“Ashley ran into trouble against QPR in the 2011-12 season, when Shaun Derry was sent off and our player was accused of diving. I left him out for the next game, and told him that the last thing he needed as a Manchester United player was a reputation for going down easily. Ashley did it two weeks in a row but we stopped it.”
Young also serves as a reminder to those supporters whose stance includes a matter-of-fact assessment. It is, they say, just part of the game. Penalties are won, and lost, depending on a player’s momentary decision to stand or fall.
They are, but this is surely a zero sum game. Young’s gain could so easily be United’s fall. Inconspicuous, or decisive, there is little merit in defending the indefensible. It will only come back – kismet’s inevitable last stand.