It must be bad when Sir Alex Ferguson admits a Manchester United player "played for" a penalty, "overdid" the tumble to the floor and made it look "dramatic". Ferguson rarely criticises one of his own in public but he would have left himself open to accusations of defending the indefensible if he came to any other conclusion after watching Ashley Young's theatrical dive against Aston Villa.

The United manager was wrong, though, when he said later in an interview with MUTV, "it is not an habitual thing with him". Young, as those who have followed his career closely since he left Watford in 2007 will tell you (and this football reporter watched more than half of his games in an Aston Villa shirt), has been diving for years, not just in the past two weeks.

Indeed, within minutes of the United game ending, a Midlands reporter with another newspaper texted me with the following message: "Been at it again, hasn't he?" And that is how Young's behaviour at Old Trafford will be viewed by many, including some of his fellow professionals. "Ashley Young is an absolute DISGRACE. He's the biggest cheat in the league. His antics are a joke …" tweeted by, before being deleted at half-time, the Newcastle United defender Ryan Taylor after Young made a meal of Ciaran Clark's challenge on him at Old Trafford.

Young is clearly a talented footballer. We can all appreciate the brilliant free-kicks, adroit passes that open up defences and vicious inswinging deliveries with his right boot (even if it would be nice to see him go round the outside of the full-back a few more times, much like Antonio Valencia). But his diving has become a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

Although the subject has come to prominence now, on the back of controversial penalty incidents involving Young at Old Trafford on successive weekends, the reality is that the winger has been booked for diving while playing for Villa and England. He received a yellow card for the offence while playing against Arsenal in 2009 and was booked for simulation in an England shirt, against Montenegro at Wembley, the following year.

At Villa Park, the unsavoury side to Young's game became a source of annoyance to the supporters who recognised his significant contribution to the team but grew increasingly frustrated with the way that he often exaggerated fouls by throwing himself in the air.

It became a popular theme on Villa message boards, where fans expressed their anger at the sight of him diving (after all, who wants to see one of their own players cheating?), and the subject was also brought up in pre- and post-match press conferences, much to the annoyance of Martin O'Neill, the manager who signed him from Watford and always defended him.

Young pleaded his innocence but the evidence against the winger was, and continues to be, compelling. His signature dive, which we have seen against Villa and Queens Park Rangers in the past two weeks, and on numerous occasions before, ends up with him being spread-eagled in midair, often after minimal contact. It is quite a position to get into and requires the arms to be outstretched to cushion the landing, especially as the head is closer to the ground than the feet. Some photographers have proved particularly good at capturing the moment.

Here's Andy Hooper's picture in the Daily Mail of the dive that earned Young a booking against Montenegro. And here's the Reuters photo on the Guardian website, showing Young's tumble against Aston Villa on Sunday. This Getty Images picture shows Young flying through the air while playing for Villa against Portsmouth. And, finally, here's a United supporters' site showing, lower down the page, in stages, Young's "theatrical" fall against QPR.

Of course, still shots like those above can be deceiving and do not prove anything on their own, but watch the footage that preceded each incident and it becomes harder to fathom what the justification is for Young taking flight and getting into such an extraordinary position. Philip Beard, the QPR chief executive, made his own thoughts clear the Sunday before last when he tweeted: "Difficult to take after watching numerous replays but Ashley Young could partner Tom Daley at the Olympics."

It should be acknowledged that Young is not alone in practising the darker arts, although, rightly or wrongly, we expect better from an England international who has been brought up playing football in a culture where the offence is frowned upon by players, managers and supporters. It is certainly not in keeping with United's traditions, which perhaps helps to explain Ferguson's reaction.

It is not surprising that there has been little sympathy for Young. Gary Neville and Jamie Redknapp agreed that there was no need for him to fall to the floor against QPR, when Shaun Derry was harshly sent off despite making only slight contact, and Ray Wilkins and Dwight Yorke both felt that Young "made a meal" of the challenge that led to the early penalty in the Villa game.

Some will argue that Lee Mason and Mark Halsey, the referees in charge of the QPR and Villa matches, should have spotted that Young was guilty of simulation and booked him. It is a fair point, although Wilkins made a better one when he said: "These young men have got to make it easier for referees."

In other words, point the finger of blame at the players who cheat, rather than the referees whom they intend to deceive. Young, in short, needs to clean up his act.