Flint's Off on One

We’ve all been there before. Your team is one goal down heading into injury time, the tension is tightening to unbearable levels, and – BANG! Out of nowhere a sniper’s bullet shrieks through the air and embeds itself into the right knee (always the right knee) of an opposition player. The sheer terror scrawled across the poor dying man’s face is the picture of utter agony as he clutches onto what little life is left in his body, gasping for air like a poor defenceless kitten that’s just fallen in an icy lake.

Except then if one looks closer, it’s actually his left ankle that appears to now be crushed. Or is it his face? It’s becoming increasingly hard to tell with the frenzied arm movements and multiple rolls. When his teammates realise he has gone down, they remonstrate furiously with your side to put the ball out of play and let their poor companion be granted a dying wish. Eventually, the pressure tells and out rolls the ball.

A couple of minutes later, and the physio finally arrives to administer treatment that can’t possibly take place anywhere else but in the middle of the pitch. Lend a touch more attention though, and you might catch the moment his eyelids flicker open as he watches the referee. Has he?… Will he?… Yes! The pilgrims at Lourdes have never seen anything like it. The mind control exerted over the man in black is miraculous; free kick it is.

Variations include the old classics such as cramp, goalkeepers collapsing from catching a high ball, standing inches from the ball when defending a free kick – then acting surprised when the referee reminds you to stand 10 yards back – even substitutes walking at a snail’s pace. They may appear different, but scratch beneath the surface and they all share an identical purpose – obnoxious time-wasting.

This whole charade is like the pebbledash on the toilet bowl that you just can’t scrape off. Ugly, irritating, and stinking to high heaven. Football is (or used to be) a contact sport, so injuries naturally do happen, some horrifically so. Players have suffered genuinely excruciating atrocities on the pitch. How often, though, do we see those little turds rolling around at the end of games – regardless of the degree, or even existence, of contact – just to eat up time?

In my previous column I lambasted the heinous acceptance of diving on the ground that ‘everyone does it’. To be mildly fair to the governing bodies of football, that is a difficult plague to eradicate. Retrospective bans for diving open a bleeding Pandora’s Box of questions about what else can be punished. Cleaning up a deeply-embedded habit is nigh-on impossible.

This though? I have a simple answer. Like every malignant disease, the only way to conquer it is to eliminate the source. If we don’t allow the pathetic acting to stop play in the first place, then it loses all power. Take Rugby Union; if a player wants medical attention, the physio is allowed onto the pitch while play continues all around him. I propose very simply that football does the same. A stern look from an official as players bend the rules is a waste of space. Remember Hans Blix’s puppet from Team America threatening Kim Jong-il with a ‘letter telling you how angry we are’?

For horrific challenges or impacts to the head, obviously the current rules allowing the referee to stop play apply. Once scrupulous tossers have no motivation to roll around however, we’ll soon see fewer stoppages and a better flow of play. Or better still, we could just employ actual snipers…