The Fan: Sending psychotherapists onto the pitch

How often have we heard a manager say that the trouble with his star striker is that “his head is not in the right place”? Fergie frequently observed that today’s players are fragile.

It’s so good to see Luis Suárez back in fighting form, sorry, in full football form, scoring lots of goals for Liverpool, happy and smiling.

Just to remind you, it was at the end of last season, on 21 April, in the Liverpool-Chelsea game, that Suárez had a bite on the arm of the Chelsea player Ivanovic, which resulted in his being banned for ten matches.

A lot of work has been done on Suárez behind the scenes, such as counselling, but one of the results is that next season, in a trial run agreed with Fifa, we will start seeing psychotherapists in white coats rushing on to the field of play.

In the past, when a player went down, a man with a towel and a wet sponge rushed on, slopped water all over him and hissed into his ear, “Gerrup, you lazy bastard.” This worked perfectly well, even with a broken leg. Today, with a physical injury, the physios rush on as a team, wired for sound, carrying loads of ointments and instruments, often accompanied by stretchers and oxygen. They attend to the injured player, writhing in agony, which can often take five minutes, and eventually he moves his poorly knee.

But as we well know, modern, highly strung, highly trained footballers suffer just as much from mental injuries.

How often have we heard a manager say that the trouble with his star striker is that “his head is not in the right place”? Fergie frequently observed that today’s players are fragile. They suffer from a lack of confidence, a lack of belief. At the top level, the difference between them is not always physical, as they are so well trained, but mental. Who wants it most, who is up for it, whose mind is in the zone? Uncontrollable fears and anger can suddenly envelop them and ooof, that’s it, they’re no use, get them off the pitch.

But wouldn’t it be better if they could send on a psychotherapist, once they see the signs, recognise the twitches, to attend emotionally to the troubled player?

They learned a lot from treating Suárez and now think they can distil it, speed up the process, so that the team therapist will be able to run on as soon as he or she – because loads of the rapists are women – detects a problem. They know all their players, had them on the couch, analysed their childhood dreams, documented the various types of emotional malfunction.

Suárez Syndrome, for example, is the inner self uncoiling. It’s usually associated with deprivation and starvation, because most footballers come from impoverished homes. They experience a sudden desire to eat an opponent. Tests have shown they can be calmed with a cuddle, plus words in their ear from a white coat: “Just tell yourself, ‘No thanks, I’ve eaten.’”

Other players get frustrated with their team-mates, unable to accept that they are not as good as they are, lose interest, go all lumpen. This is called the Berbatov Complex. The player has to be talked through it. “We need you, Dima, only you can do it. Now get your fugging finger out.”

Some players need to be allowed to express their anger, by use of the Craig Bellamy Primal Scream Therapy. When a player starts mouthing his frustrations, his jaw twitching, his face contorted, you quickly lay him on the ground. You then get him to scream blue murder. This can be alarming for the referee but it does work and takes only three minutes, max.

Players are very superstitious and can worry that they didn’t wear their lucky underpants to the ground, hence the Ronaldo Routine. Therapists need to reassure them, perhaps bring on their favourite hair gel or comfort blanket. Not the whole one, of course. Just a corner will do, for them to touch.

The Bergkamp Breakdown refers to the great Dennis Bergkamp. His fear of flying manifested itself while young during actual matches. He would look up at the clouds, see them looming and imagine a dreadful flight home. It got so bad that he refused ever again to fly. The history of Arsenal would have been different, had a therapist been allowed to come on and talk it through in the early stages.

So, good luck, Fifa. The magic talk could soon be as accepted on the football pitch as the magic sponge.

Luis Suarez: back on fighting form? Image: Getty

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.