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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.