The dark arts

Richard Keeling talks about a recent development in the Aston Villa gameplan.

It is always interesting to find something new in football. It doesn’t happen very often, but I have been intrigued for a while over discussions among the faithful about ‘shithousery’, a football term that I hadn’t previously come across. It seems to mean the ignoble art of gamesmanship, particularly in relation to timewasting and trying to influence the referee, so as to gain an advantage over the opposition.

A few times this season Villa have upset the opposition by adopting tactics designed to frustrate them. Leeds like to play at a high tempo (cliché time, yawn, yawn) so we did what we could to make them play at a slower one. We left with a goalless draw from what was a tricky away fixture and managed to annoy them in the process, so the tactics might be counted a success.

For our recent trip to Brighton, we were playing under a different manager but were accused of time wasting. Again, we came away with something, three points this time. However, it doesn’t really sit comfortably with me that football folk might start saying: “Oh, we’ve got Villa next. We won’t be seeing much football then, just lots of timewasting”. I console myself by reflecting that, for most of the last twenty years, these same people have been saying: “Oh, we’ve got Villa next. That should be a straightforward three points.”

I am sure gamesmanship has been around ever since football was invented. In any competitive sport people will strive to steal a march over the opposition. I remember watching a rugby match years ago (not something I have done very often) and witnessing a scrum in which a tall second row forward picked up a handful of mud, lifted his arm over the teammate in front of him and rubbed the mud into the eyes of the opposition hooker just as the ball was being put into the scrum. No doubt there are other ‘dark arts’ which can flourish in rugby, provided the referee doesn’t spot them.

Well before the billionaires decided to dump the Premier League on English football, Leeds had a very successful team, managed by Don Revie from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. One thing you could certainly say about them was that they weren’t angels. In fact, Brian Clough famously described them as cheats and called for their demotion to the Second Division after they had been fined as a club for the players’ poor disciplinary record.

They certainly had more than their fair share of hard men but the Leeds players themselves at the time and over the years since have protested that they were no dirtier than the majority of sides at the time, that they were merely sticking up for themselves and ensuring nobody took advantage of them. According to The Football Pink website, it is not just the physicality of that Leeds side that others objected to at the time. It was also the abject gamesmanship. Players were seemingly taught to question decisions en-masse a good two or three decades before Manchester United gained notoriety for doing the same under Sir Alex Ferguson.

With Leeds, it seemed that such contesting of decisions was done in an orchestrated manner with players taking it in turns to get in the ear of the referee on an individual basis before getting together for a mass contretemps at least once per game. Added into the mix were the perceived negative tactics and time-wasting that Leeds would invariably employ once a lead had been taken. Revie seemed to distrust his own players at times, and he was often unwilling to let them have their head and trust in their ability to win matches comfortably. This would lead to the side shutting up shop and playing for simple one-goal victories long before George Graham’s Arsenal arguably turned it into a work of art.

The reasons the Elland Road club wasn’t everyone’s second favourite side should now be a little clearer. For all of that, however, there was a real unity in the Leeds team. There was a real sense of togetherness and family spirit that saw the team through year after year. By the time Revie left Leeds to succeed Sir Alf Ramsey as England manager in 1974, Leeds had won the league twice, in 1969 and 1974, the FA Cup once (1972), the League Cup in 1968 and the Inter-City Fairs Cup in 1968 and 1971. An impressive haul by any reckoning, but once the vast array of runners-up and near misses had been factored in, there was an overriding sense of what could have been. Mind you, some saw it as poetic justice for a side that often took gamesmanship to the very brink.

So ‘shithousery’ has been around for a long time, though, if I remember rightly, in those days that wasn’t what it was called. While I am concerned about the Villa’s PR image if we go in over much for skulduggery of one sort or another, I am conscious that we have been unable to compete effectively with the top sides over most of the last thirty years. Part of me says that we need to start matching these clubs in every respect. Who can forget the huge number of times that we have been turned over by Manchester United in the Premier League era. They were very good at getting late goals, one way or another, and I have often wondered if we have been a bit too naïve.

Big Emi seems to be one of our leading exponents of shithousery, which is great provided he doesn’t get sent off. He was probably given a good grounding in dubious tactics when he was with Independiente’s youth side and, who knows, perhaps he has been matey with Maradona! I am looking forward to seeing what sort of dark arts we will see over the next few weeks in Qatar – and whether the players get away with them.