Do we really need a psychologist?

Published : Dec 21, 2013 00:00 IST

The use of psychology in football, which goes back several decades, but has plainly increased, seems dubious, writes Brian Glanville.

Could this be hallucination? Could it really be true that, as one approving football columnist reported it, Football Association intended to have 10-year-old boys at its St. George’s Park headquarters addressed by a psychologist? What in the name of reason, could he tell them? Or would he merely puzzle and confuse them? That the boys should be playing team football at all at so early an age is deeply debatable. Though at least Trevor Brooking, once such a fine England and West Ham inside forward himself, now in charge of football development at the FA, has decreed that boys should no longer play on full size football pitches has been at least a step in the right direction.

But the tendency to involve younger boys in organised football has grown alarmingly. Recently, covering a match at the Southampton stadium, one saw a couple of boys’ teams — under-11s? under-10s? Schoolboys, anyway, in club colours — paraded and applauded. But how often have we been told by actual child psychologists how essential it is that young children should simply be allowed to play. Rather than play structured football.

Yes, there are certain outstanding precocious talents such as Jack Wilshere of Arsenal, in dazzling recent form, who began as early. Luton Town discovered him as a nine-year-old, only and quickly to lose him to Arsenal, where of course he has flourished. But he may be seen as the exception who proves the rule. It is surely dangerous to encourage boys so young to play organised football in the colours of a professional club, potentially raising ambitions, which, in most cases, will inevitably be thwarted but in the meantime could seriously affect their education.

It was in fact a famous Southampton figure, Ted Bates, at various times inside forward, manager and resident of the club, whose statue stands beside the stadium, who once cogently said to me of young aspiring footballers, “They learn to win before they can play.”

I am the last one to denigrate psychology as such, though I’d always prefer Freud to Jung, with his initial welcome to Nazism. Yet, its use in football, which goes back several decades but has plainly increased, seems dubious. A few years ago, Arsenal were employing a psychologist and when someone leaked his questionnaire to the club’s players, its sheer banality and irrelevance were startling. Simplistic was a word that suggested itself, and it was ridiculed by the club’s lively right winger at the time, Ray Parlour.

My own mind goes back vividly to 1958, the World Cup finals in Sweden, and the psychologist whom the Brazilians brought with them to Gothenburg, where I was reporting the tournament. I spoke to him. He was a small, bespectacled man, unshaven, in a grey jersey. The word was that the Brazilians had brought him in the hope of avoiding the shameful violence of the so-called Battle of Berne at the 1954 World Cup quarterfinals. Losing against the powerful Hungarian team, the Brazilian players ran amok. Two of them were sent off, others might well have been, by the authoritative English referee, Arthur Ellis, who also sent off a Hungarian. Brazil were disgraced and beaten. It seemed to be thought by their football hierarchy that their supposedly undomesticated players had the need of a psychologist to keep them calm.

Beside the Ullevi stadium training field, the psychologist told me that he didn’t believe in lecturing the players as a group; nor did he believe in addressing them individually since this could exacerbate their problems. He encouraged them to draw pictures of players. The more sophisticated of them drew players in some detail, the less educated drew the equivalent of matchstick men. They made good wing partnerships, the psychologist said.

Astonishingly, in retrospect, he advised that neither Pele nor Garrincha should be picked for the team. Pele, only 17 years old, was not, he said, remotely mature enough. Garrincha was hopelessly unpredictable. Neither player started in the team, but when they did come in, for the qualifying group game against the Soviet Union, they electrified the team and ran rings around the Russians. Brazil won comfortably, 2-0.

Pele, a prodigy, playing just behind the centre forward, was cool, skilled and incisive, far beyond his years. Garrincha, on the right wing, was simply a force of nature. His body swerve, leaving opposing left backs and whoever tried to support them hopelessly on the wrong foot, his blistering pace and his versatility made him almost impossible to contain. But he was a child of nature, utterly feckless, father of seven daughters, just as happy to play pick up football on a beaten earth pitch with a trench running across it in his village, Pau Grande, as to turn out in Rio for the Botafogo club.

Shortly before Brazil won the final, they gave a Press Conference at which the team manager, Vicente Feola, was asked what he thought of the psychologist, to which his interpreter replied, “Senhor Feola is not saying he wishes the psychologist would go to Hell, but he is thinking it.” But when Brazil had duly thrashed Sweden in Stockholm 5-2 to win the final, the happy psychologist joined players in carrying the Brazilian flag triumphantly round the pitch. Whether Brazil could have succeeded had his advice been followed seems uncertain at the least.

Soccer managers have traditionally needed to be amateur psychologists to deal with their players. The great Herbert Chapman, true architect of Arsenal’s success, (1925-1934) once called his young left half George Male into his office and astonished him by telling him he was going to be the new right back. “By the time I left his office,” Male recalled after years of success, “I knew I was going to be the best right back in the world.”

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