Aidan Smith: Wait for football’s moral re-awakening goes on

Jamie Walker goes down, a decision he may have cause to regret after facing the SFA on Thursday, below.  Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Jamie Walker goes down, a decision he may have cause to regret after facing the SFA on Thursday, below. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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So let’s just have one more look, shall we? The ball spins up in the air and back into the box after an incompetent Celtic clearance. Tony Watt dinks it to his right where it’s picked up by Jamie Walker who nudges it past Kieran Tierney with the intention of … well, what exactly?

Is Walker aiming to play a one-two with Conor Sammon? If so, his delivery is a bit skew-whiff. Is he trying to touch it past Tierney on the defender’s right-hand side, then run round the other side to collect? Is he hoping to flip it up and over Tierney, then evade the opponent with a pirouette to set himself up for a thumping right-foot volley – a goal which would bring Tynecastle to its feet and even have the Premiership’s starry newcomers purring their approval, Brendan Rodgers and Scott Sinclair included, to launch the new league season with a bang?

Or does Walker have no intention of doing anything else meaningful with the ball? Is he merely moving it on vaguely so it’s out of the way for the real business of the 35th minute of the game last Sunday, namely to win a penalty? And does his plan go awry when Tierney fails to thunder into him or really touch him at all, only it’s too late to stop now and the Hearts man, having made his bed, must writhe in it?

We didn’t get that great goal, of a kind well within Walker’s capabilities, but we got our explosive start to season 2016-17. All week the row has raged. Right away Scott Brown accused Walker of being a cheat. The Celtic captain might have suggested Walker’s theatrics were more in keeping with the Edinburgh Festival, which has been providing scope for clunky gags in match reports of capital city football played in August ever since the great cultural extravaganza began in 1947.

Instead Broony said of Walker: “He’s really good at that – he should be in Rio.” Given the Parkhead skipper’s dim view of the incident, therefore, it is highly unlikely these two shared a shower together after the match, a macho ritual of the male synchronised diving contests at the Olympics.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson was angry at Brown’s remarks. He was angry at the SFA’s compliance officer for issuing Walker with a notice of complaint and vowed to defend him “100 per cent” because: “I believe, from the footage we have seen, there is slight contact.”

Then Walker played for Hearts at 
St Johnstone where his every touch was booed by the home fans.

He had to put on a shirt and tie on Thursday to attend his hearing where he was found guilty of simulation. Neilson expressed disappointment at the decision and said he hoped his player hadn’t now got himself a reputation which in future could influence referees’ decision-making.

A fair old stairheid rammy, then, and Walker can count on more choruses of disapproval at away grounds when his ban is over, but how can such incidents be cut out the game? You’ll probably say they can’t. You’ll probably say: “That’s football.” But really, does it have to be?

A footballer throws his legs at those of an opponent to cause entanglement. A footballer “draws the foul”, turning a well-intentioned and probably legitimate challenge into an illegal one. A footballer invites contact when it would be the easiest thing to avoid the tackle and keep playing. A footballer anticipates the challenge, there’s no contact, but he must make it appear he’s been caught and there’s a fair bit of ingenuity involved – thought and effort you think could be better used in a positive way. Can we not just stop all of this?

When was the top-level summit of football administrators which decided to let these ruses continue? Have referees ever spent the summer locked in intense discussions about how they can be curbed or are they these days too busy acquiring tattoos and Twitter accounts? Why wasn’t the first player-turned-pundit who declared that simulation was “all part and parcel of the game” not taken to task by the TV presenter?

If you’d been cryogenically frozen in mid-munch of your half-time pie back in 1973 then woken last week, you would hardly recognise football now. You’d be thrilled at the speed at which it’s played and marvel at the greater skill – because sadly when you look back fitba ’73 style could be quite clodhopping – but you would quickly ask: “What’s wrong that fellow? Why’s he just gone down? Who’s he trying to kid?”

When a player doesn’t go down, rides the challenge, decides that valour is the better part of valour and is willing to take his chances of a goal coming from open play rather than hope for a penalty or a free-kick in a threatening area, then he’s lauded. It’s portrayed as a “Eureka!” moment, as if he’s just invented the ball, or discovered the the ball is round.

What we have now is a sport that’s speedier with a higher quality of technique and of course lots more money involved – not entirely unconnected to players trying to con the officials – but is less noble, less brave and in a way less beautiful because there isn’t the same flow and rhythm when play is broken up by so many fouls or would-be fouls.

We all know the teams who like to engineer free-kicks just outside the box or out on the flanks from where they can fling crosses to their big men. And here a horrible thought occurs: what if footballers can’t dribble anymore? What if they can’t trust themselves to go round an opponent and so choose the path of most resistance – that is, resistance they invite or contrive?

Last week at Tynecastle, I wanted to believe that Jamie Walker was opting for the third way – lifting the ball over Tierney, spinning through 180 degrees, hammering the ball home – and had been stopped in the act. But I can’t. He didn’t look like he had that intention. Tierney didn’t touch him. After Walker claimed he had, Neilson was obliged to back his man, and then the ludicrous argument was perpetuated that the hint or even the rumour of contact was legitimate grounds to go to ground.

Walker will take the rap for a while but he’s far from being alone in seeking to gain unfair advantage. Meanwhile the wait for football’s moral re-awakening goes on.