Ashley Westwood should say sorry for stitching up Emiliano Buendía
Sunday July 19 2020, 6.00pm, The Times
The theatre was Carrow Road, the stage was the pitch, the thespian was Ashley Westwood. It looked to me like a bravura performance of ham acting.
Watching the Burnley midfielder writhe in agony, medical staff may have been caught in two minds, not knowing whether to give him the last rites or a standing ovation.
He had tangled with Norwich City’s Emiliano Buendía in the 33rd minute on Saturday evening. The Argentinian was in possession; Westwood lunged in and the ball broke away; a few afters followed. The English midfielder kneed Buendía in the thigh and pinned him momentarily using his arm and leg, preventing Buendía from walking away. Buendía turned to extricate himself and in the same movement dropped his elbow on to the back of Westwood’s head. Replays showed he applied moderate contact. One would doubt it left a skin mark, much less a bruise. The whole incident was nothing.
Buendía’s arm makes contact with Westwood, inset, who overreacts in a way that brought the Norwich player a red card via VAR
It was Westwood’s reaction that escalated it. Had he done the decent thing and walked away, it would in all likelihood have petered out. Instead he enacted a pitiful display of victimhood. Westwood collapsed on the floor clutching his head. He got to his knees clutching his head with both hands. Then he lay flat on the ground clutching his head. He executed one roll, then a second, still clutching his head. He managed then to haul himself on to all fours. At this point there was some sign of an improvement in his condition, for now he was applying just one hand, albeit he was using it vigorously to massage the afflicted area. From there he made it on to his knees and finally into an upright position.
By this stage, play was suspended and VAR was investigating for possible violent conduct. After multiple viewings in the video room, Kevin Friend, the referee, was advised to have a look for himself on the pitch-side monitor. It appears the incident was not shown to him in full on the monitor. It had been edited down to the split-second where Buendía’s elbow made contact with Westwood’s head. Without any context to complicate his considerations, Friend quickly made up his mind: red card.
Letter of the law? Probably correct. Violent conduct? Not remotely. Had Friend been able to assess the whole sequence, he’d have seen at least some possibility for mitigation in that Buendía was trying to extricate himself from the tangle – and that Westwood had been looking to extract a reaction. One would have thought the Burnley player was entitled to a yellow card for his part in the proceedings.
Instead he is entitled to a black card in the court of public opinion. In my view, his was the classic stitch-up job of long and ignoble tradition. It requires two acting roles, the first as the provocateur who goads his opponent into retaliation, the second as the injured party when said retaliation arrives. But this was a particularly shameless performance. The feigning on the floor was not so much laughable as contemptible. Westwood is 30, a senior professional who ought to have some sense of duty to the wider game.
And he ought to have it for another reason too: his own manager has previously condemned this kind of behaviour. In fact, Sean Dyche was preaching about it only last August. “The game’s in a really poor state for people diving, feigning injury, all sorts,” he declared. A few weeks earlier he had attended a meeting of the Premier League where he was told that a yellow card was the only sanction available for such conduct. “And I said, ‘So that means basically that every player in the Premier League can cheat at least once a game?’ . . . It’s about the greater good of the game. The game’s in a really poor state for people just literally falling on the floor.”
Did Westwood’s behaviour on Saturday therefore trouble his conscience? Or did he just think, great, Norwich are down to ten men? It would be taking idealism into pie-in-the-sky territory to expect that Dyche might publicly distance himself from one of his players. Even a charge of hypocrisy against him would be unfair, given there is no evidence that he encourages his players to cheat in this fashion. If the buck ultimately stops with the manager, it doesn’t mean that a player should be spared the obligation of taking responsibility for his own actions. This one is on Westwood. He owes Buendía an apology.
Notwithstanding the fact that one of his players failed dismally to practise what he preached, Dyche did the game a service last August.
As he also pointed out at that press conference, very few other people in the industry are talking about the issue any more. This form of cheating has become normalised to the point that it is barely even noticed, much less discussed. It continues to poison the water.
Maybe it is because there has never been more at stake for clubs financially, that players feel under greater pressure than previous generations to salvage results, by fair means or foul. In a time of supercharged professionalism, perhaps the ancient ideal of sportsmanship is seen as a dying relic of amateurism. But the game in its entirety is played overwhelmingly by amateurs, including the millions of children and juveniles who are daily watching their heroes behave with dishonour. And of course the behaviour becomes learned and replicated.
It is an abiding plague on the game, this particular brand of cynicism, and there is seemingly no desire to find a cure.