The Great Mind Games Myth

Posted: April 2, 2012 in Football
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“And now for my next trick, kids, I shall mumble a few barely audible words in my gruff Glaswegian accent. Then, stand back and observe in wonder, as a group of professional footballers, plying their trade hundreds of miles away, begin to make mistake after mistake, and all because of my few mumbled words”.

If Alex Ferguson ever does retire from management he should eschew the inevitable offers of TV punditry and instead focus on the kids birthday party scene. According to the media Ferguson has some sort of super power whereby his mere words inspire rival teams to make mistakes and thereby lose or draw games they would otherwise have won. It’s a trick the kids would go nuts for it. It certainly shits all over balloon animals.

Ferguson, himself, has very little to do with the Fergie Mind Games Phenomenon. The process works thus: the United manager simply utters some throwaway remark or other and the media, in their desperate bid to turn anything and everything into some sort of JFK moment, report the comment as being deliberately antagonistic towards another team/manager/player and hey presto, before you can say ‘this is the most laughable notion I’ve ever heard’, Fergie has begun the Mind Games!

Ever since Kevin Keegan used the opportunity of a post-match interview in 1996 to audition for the lead in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest II, football hacks have stoked the ridiculous notion of Ferguson exercising some sinister Scanners-esque mind control over fellow managers, whereby Fergie’s words compel his rivals to field the wrong players, employ poor tactics or forget to give a team talk. At least I think that’s how it’s supposed to work.

The idea that an individual’s words could lead to a completely unrelated group of footballers missing chances, forgetting to defend or even approaching a game in an altered state of mind is so absurd that believers of this phenomenon are surely the sort of people who confer with their psychic before deciding whether to get married or have kids. In fact, if anybody reading this actually believes Alex Ferguson’s words have a negative effect on other teams’ performances can you please get in touch as I have some magic beans for sale.

Ferguson sycophants (or the majority of the football media, as they sometimes like to be known) point to the aforementioned Keegan incident as proof of Sir Alex’s mind control prowess. But as others have noted, Keegan was so stressed that he probably would have reacted in a similar fashion had he been asked the time. In truth, Keegan’s meltdown first became evident a few weeks before at Anfield as he slumped over the advertising hoarding as Liverpool scored the late winner in that game. Indeed, Keegan’s infamous rant came moments after his Newcastle side had won at Elland Road, at the time one of the most difficult venues in the country to secure three points.

Keegan clearly didn’t appreciate Ferguson’s remark that teams were trying harder against Man United than Newcastle, but his outburst owed everything to an inability to deal with the stress of top level management, a failing that would resurface in the Wembley toilets a few years later when he resigned as England boss. Besides, Ferguson was right; teams then, as now, tend to try that bit harder against United and none more so than Leeds United. The Scots remarks were perfectly reasonable but the media would not be denied; Mind Games was born!

Of course the Keegan incident wasn’t the first time a slightly mischievous, but ultimately harmless, Ferguson remark was directed at a rival manager. One year previously he had apparently attempted to put pressure on Blackburn as they built up a healthy lead in that season’s title race. “It would take a collapse of Devon Lough proportions”, Ferguson commented, when assessing whether Kenny Dalglish’s men could be caught. Dalglish, for his part, laughed it off, (claiming – erroneously- to have never heard of Devon Lough) and Blackburn went on to win the title. Unfortunately this didn’t fit with the Fergie Mind Games Phenomenon so it tends not to get the same column inches as the Keegan episode.

Similar attempts to affect the results of other teams’ games via Ferguson’s vocal chords have come in the intervening years. When he supposedly tried to ensure Arsenal lost their games via his verbal weaponry in 2004, claiming United played the best football, all Arsene Wenger could do was suppress a laugh as he noted, “every man thinks he has the prettiest wife”. Did United play better football than Arsenal? Probably not, but Ferguson was most likely just letting off steam, frustrated as he was at being so far behind the ’Invincibles’ at the time. But, of course, that wouldn’t do for the media, who instead turned the comments into that season’s episode of Mind Games.

Similarly, in January 2009 the forth estate once again thought they had struck gold. Rafael Benitez, manager of United’s closest rivals that season, Liverpool, launched a broadside against Ferguson, highlighting what he perceived to be United’s favourable treatment by both the FA and referees. That Benitez’ outburst came on the eve of a crucial United-Chelsea game, and was clearly designed to put pressure on the ref, was lost on the media. As far as they were concerned, Fergie’s famous mind games had struck again and so the refrain went out, ’Rafa’s cracking up’ – sang with glee at Old Trafford until the Liverpool fans joined in, albeit sarcastically, as they went 4-1 up in a league game in March. Bizarrely there are still some on Fleet Street who claim Ferguson ‘got to’ Benitez, even though Liverpool’s points-per-game ratio remained identical post ‘Rafa’s Rant’. The simple fact was that, like every season, United had a better second half to their campaign and simply won more games. But the facts were no match for media fiction and Ferguson had won the contest by way of a Mind Games knock out.

Strangely enough, the media have been far more reluctant to cite Mind Games as the reason behind ManchesterCity’s title win last season, when they capitalized on a United collapse of, well, Devon Lough proportions. And this after Roberto Mancini had declared the title race over as late as April, such was United’s lead. Clearly Mind Games only work in the seasons when United win the championship.

Whilst the notion of the media making something out of nothing is hardly new, the Fergie Mind Games Phenomenon has taken things to a new level. For over twenty years now they have been salivating over Ferguson’s every last mumbled utterance, hoping, praying that it can somehow be moulded into an example of Mind Games. Even if Ferguson himself were to come out and dismiss the theory, the media would no doubt interpret the dismissal as yet another example of Mind Games, like Brian denying he’s the Son of God in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (“Only the true Son of God would deny it!”)

Ferguson has made hundreds of remarks down through the years that have no doubt upset rival managers and in some instances, has no doubt made them with that exact goal in mind. But the notion that somebody’s words can somehow negatively affect another team’s performances and results has more hot air than your average kids party balloon animal.

Article first appeared in Late Tackle magazine, November 2012

@pauliec77

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