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Opinions may differ as to whether a dive of any description can be described as “Best”, as opposed to “Worst”. Universally condemned as heinous conduct of immoral deceit, ‘diving’ is synonymous with the very worst characteristics of the sinister charade modern football has become. This particular dive was undertaken by an opponent and lead to a converted penalty scored against my team. However, in this case I can quite happily apply a positive spin in declaring it the ‘Best’ dive, given the sheer comic genius of it, and the fact that it added a glossy sheen to the brutal 6-1 win it played an unexpectedly gratifying cameo in.
Sunday 12th January 1992, and Leeds United were neck and neck with Manchester United in the First Division title race. The Yorkshiremen lay in second place and faced a Sheffield Wednesday side enjoying a fine season under manager Trevor Francis, that ultimately lead to a UEFA Cup place. Leeds were in the midst of the infamous trilogy of Elland Road encounters with Manchester United and four days earlier had been comprehensively beaten in a 3-1 Rumbelows Cup reverse. It was fair to say Leeds were licking their wounds, and at a critical point of the season their title credentials were being seriously questioned. Without the influential midfield pairing of Gordon Strachan (injured) and David Batty (suspended) few Leeds fans approached this tough Yorkshire derby with confidence.
What happened over the subsequent ninety minutes has entered into Leeds United folklore, and in a season punctuated with frequent examples of breathtaking football not seen in West Yorkshire since the Revie era, this afternoon probably ranked as the most impressive.
I can quite happily apply a positive spin in declaring it the ‘Best’ dive, given the sheer comic genius of it
Leeds already lead 2-0 as the game entered the 37th minute. In truth, but for Chris Woods in the Wednesday goal, they could have had several more. But suddenly the game and everything that made sense in the logical, free world was turned upside down in a moment of stupendous stagecraft that the combined artistry of Billy Smart and Gerry Cottle could not have dreamed up.
Wednesday’s Swedish international full back Roland Nilsson ambled forward and played an angled grass-cutter into the Leeds box. It split the defence and turned Leeds centre-half Chris Whyte back towards his own goal.
‘Huggy’ was a cult hero amongst Leeds fans, ironically nicknamed after the nonchalant and unflappable Starsky & Hutch character he vaguely resembled, ignoring the cruel onset of acute alopecia. Huggy had telescopic legs that rescued him in last ditch situations at some point in almost every game. Like a combination of Stretch Armstrong and Inspector Gadget his limbs possessed an ability to appear from nowhere to retrieve the ball or toe-poke it into touch when all appeared lost. Today, Whyte was confronted by Wednesday striker Gordon Watson, who appeared late on the scene in an attempt to get on the end of Nilsson’s speculative through ball.
Gordon Watson was a popular player amongst the Wednesday faithful; popular in a ‘Shola Ameobi’ kind of way. There was a hint of devilment to their affectionate nickname of “Flash”, as he was not known for his pace nor indeed goalscoring prowess. Nevertheless, everyone loves a trier and Watson was certainly that. He was one of those players that everyone would love to see score but you know very well, you never will. Like a Billy Mitchell kind of character; harmless, well-intentioned and honest but ultimately doomed to failure. Every club has a Gordon Watson, some have several. As their name appears on the team sheet, eyes roll and the body engages in a natural clench at the impending pain.
As the ball arrowed towards Leeds six-yard box Chris Whyte, having clocked the instruction “Go Gadget Go!” from goalkeeper John Lukic, stuck out a leg and prodded the ball away as Watson careered in to challenge for it. Here, however, is where the Bacon Sandwich-dropping moment occurred. Audible thuds were heard across the UK as the watching millions were locked in a jaw-dropping spasm.
As Whyte prodded the ball away from goal, Watson ran after it and took a clear two steps in pursuit before some maniacal force took over his very being, and without warning he was arching skywards in an athletically pained pirouette. Leaping an impressive three feet off the ground Watson collapsed in the mock pain of a snipered Taliban rebel. In the irrefutable time lapse between Whyte touching the ball and Watson beginning his ornamental flourish the Referee must have been subjected to a Jedi Mind trick, as he unbelievably pointed to the penalty spot.
Chaos ensued as the Wednesday players didn’t know whether to laugh or hide in embarrassment; Leeds midfielder Gary McAllister, not known for his pace, darted off to confront the linesman and Batty stand-in Steve Hodge took it upon himself to have a discreet word on professional standards in the prostate Watson’s ear.
Even 150 yards away in the Leppings Lane away end the gravity of Watson’s dive was clearly evident. The millions watching on telly were immediately privy to the confused pantomime of what had just happened. In a massive game that Leeds were controlling with an elegant swagger this was the ultimate injustice.
A number of things then combined to reduce the severity of this injustice to just a highly amusing sideshow. Former Leeds midfielder John Sheridan stepped up and saw his penalty tipped onto the post, whereupon he converted the rebound apologetically from a yard to add further farce to the circumstances and the scoreline. However, what followed five minutes later was the perfect antidote to Watson’s ignominious theatrics; stung by the am-dram atrocity that had cut their lead in half Leeds scored a goal of swashbuckling simplicity.
Lukic bowled the ball (one touch) out into the path of left-back Dorigo, who let it roll across his body onto his left side. At full pace he played a first-time ball (second touch) down the wing to the on-rushing Gary Speed. Applying a minor blemish to the aesthetics Speed had the audacity to control the ball (third touch) but then in the same movement, and with one look up, swung over a sumptuous cross (fourth touch) into the box. The ball, by this point, was lapping it up and was waving a flag bearing the words “This is bewitching, this is football utopia, stick me in the onion bag and the world will regain faith in the lucid austerity of the Beautiful Game”. Never one to resist such an invitation Lee Chapman rose above the defender and with the grace of a newborn salmon leapt full length and headed the ball (fifth touch) past Chris Woods with emphatic self-assurance. It wasn’t just a goal it was a statement, it was a manifesto of intent. It was a pure, undiluted demonstration of how football should be played. Five touches from Keeper to back of the net. Simple.
Leeds went on to win 6-1 with three second half goals. So as we approach the 20th anniversary of Watson’s notorious plummet there is talk of fans from both sides meeting at the exact same spot to swap photos, stories and grainy footage, dress up in period costumes, and gorge on ‘Mr.Tom’ peanut bars in honour of the shirt sponsor Wednesday agreed especially for the day. Auditions are taking place in the hope of engaging in full scale re-enactments of the dive. Chris Whyte has agreed to play himself, but sadly, Gordon Watson could not be found.
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