Football and the ancient art of simulation: much ado about nothing? A historical perspective.

Matthew L. McDowell, University of Edinburgh

It’s time for the men’s World Cup again; and, with it, the usual hyperbole and moral hand-wringing over anything perceived as cheating. Rather than acknowledging gamesmanship as the inevitable outcome of keeping score, the popular discourse from the commentariat on ‘diving’, simulation, and feigning injury has come to have rather gendered and racist undertones to it. (Real men don’t dive. Diving is something that foreign footballers do, and they’re coming over here and teaching our players to do it.) There is an oddly Victorian ring to this stuff that jars with football being a working-class game, where winning (and money) do indeed matter. Simulation might be a problem, but does anyone seriously believe that it is as morally corrosive anything else which erodes sporting integrity in football: for instance, promoting institutionalised racism and sexism,  slave labour, child trafficking, and the allowance of football clubs to be used as money laundering schemes for dictators and criminals? A little bit of perspective would be welcome here.

It might also surprise the commentariat to hear that, in fact, gamesmanship is nothing new. It was a much-criticised, yet integral part of west of Scotland football culture in the late-nineteenth century, for instance. [1] Supporters were amongst its most keen exponents: pitch invasions, for instance, were often used by rival sets of supporters to end cup ties where the result was turning against their respective teams. (Local FAs typically cancelled the results of games where pitch invasions took place.) Local newspapers even insinuated that these FAs themselves often forced teams to replay ties under vaguely-defined justifications, the suspicion being that perpetually cash-strapped FAs desperately needed the money from gate receipts.

So what about the players themselves? In one January 1882 friendly between and Kilmarnock Athletic FC and Barrhead’s Arthurlie FC at the former’s Holm Quarry ground, the Kilmarnock Standard noted that: ‘The play of the Arthurlie forwards was strong, but at times they descended to the lowest of all football tactics practised – that of lying down in front of goal.’ [2] Cup competitions, and the later coming of leagues after the 1890 creation of the Scottish Football League (SFL), raised the financial stakes considerably. In a November 1888 Lanarkshire Cup tie between Coatbridge’s Albion Rovers and Larkhall’s Royal Albert Athletic, Rovers protested to the Lanarkshire FA regarding the apparent use of nickel studs in the Royalists’ boots. Some witnessed disagreed with this account, however, believing as they did that Rovers were ‘most assiduous in embracing mother earth’. [3]

Meanwhile, aside from simulation, the management of clubs also partook in gamesmanship. What one supporter thought of this differed on whether or not it was one’s own club taking part in what occasionally amounted to psychological warfare. At the start of one Larkhall Charity Cup match in August 1895, Royal Albert initially included four cup-tied players in their starting line-up. Motherwell, the opposing club, quickly pointed this out to the referee, and Royal Albert immediately replaced the four footballers with new players. ‘This piece of smart work’, stated the Scottish Referee, ‘was warmly applauded by the crowd of spectators’. [4] The Referee was less welcoming to one junior club, Glasgow Perthshire, whom the paper noticed in 1895 seemed to be saving their best players for the most important matches. The paper saw the potential for retaliation amongst clubs visiting Perthshire’s ground, thus drastically affecting the gate, and taking away players considered bankable draws. [5]

So as we currently watch football taking place at the highest levels, it is untrue and a bit unhelpful to think of time where the sport did not feature its more calculating side. If one wants to write a PhD thesis, however, on media discourses on diving and gamesmanship and what they ‘mean’ in the grand scheme of ‘fair play’ rhetoric, that’s another story altogether.


[1] Elements from below are used in my book A Cultural History of Association Football in Scotland, 1865-1902 (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen, 2013).

[2] Kilmarnock Standard, 21 January 1882.

[3] Scottish Referee, 12 November 1888.

[4] Scottish Referee, 2 September 1895.

[5] Scottish Referee, 17 May 1895.


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2 responses to “Football and the ancient art of simulation: much ado about nothing? A historical perspective.”

  1. Graham McEachran says :

    I am trying to find out information on my Grandfathers football career in Scotland. Dave McEachran (b. 1903).
    My father had told me (prior to his passing) that my Grandfather played for Rob Roy, Clydebank, Vale of Leven and Yoker in his junior career. I am having difficulties verifying this information. Any suggestions?

    • scottishleisurehistory says :

      Graham, thanks for your comment. My research from this project primarily examines pre-1902 Scottish football, and focuses less on individual footballers after that period. So the answer would be that I don’t know. Apologies.

      My first port of call regarding available material might be the excellent Dumbarton Library (especially re Vale of Leven), who have several newspapers from the region on file. Since Scottish football clubs kept records to highly varying degrees, it’s often difficult for them to verify whether or not certain people played in their first-team squads.

      Another place to ask would be the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park, but their archive on junior football is limited.


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