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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.