Emotions In Football

(Part 1/3)

Emotions are not limited to crying or feeling upset. Emotions connect us with people and experiences on a daily basis. They activate our reactions and thoughts, guiding us through the good, bad and everything in between. Used mindfully, they are a human’s greatest asset. However, too much or too little emotion can cause difficulties – both on and off the field. 

In this three-part series, I evaluate emotions in football through its three human components: managers, players, and fans. The relationships between each component are compelling. The effects of these relationships are central to the emotions that football evokes.

A focus of the articles is Dan Goleman’s framework of ‘emotional intelligence’. The concept is built around five principles: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and relationship management. This framework is pertinent in most professions, and a tool accessible to everybody. Identifying emotions is challenging, especially for men, yet football allows us to digest and understand emotion easier.

Part One: ‘Modern Managers’

The nature of football management has changed. They are the most disposable part of a football club. ‘Head coach’ has entered footballing lexicon and overtaken ‘the gaffer’, denoting pure responsibility for football coaching and results. This merely scratches the surface of the job requirements. 

From the dressing room, to the training ground, to the players’ heads, it is necessary to form effective relationships. Dressing rooms are an evolving environment and require greater nuance and mastery of persuasive and motivational skills. The relationships formed between manager and player are crucial, with positive relationships typically having positive results

Today, Brian Clough may not have been as successful in exhibiting his most acerbic lines. David Currie, signed from Barnsley for £650,000 in 1990, played eight times for Nottingham Forest. Clough asked him if he had bought a house locally yet, Currie responded, “no not yet but I am looking”. Clough scorned: “don’t fucking bother, son”. Currie didn’t last much longer, and Clough definitely wasn’t considering persuasive techniques. The new age of holistic coaching is underlined by empathetic and motivational coaching: Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino are two great exponents. 

Rodgers’ office at Leicester’s training facility in Seagrave is the nucleus of the Foxes’ upturn under his leadership, owing to his ‘open-door’ policy. Rodgers emphasises managing stress, pressure and consistency through setting performance and process goals for his players. Rodgers is a facilitating manager, gauging which methods extract the best from his players, understanding their ambitions and endeavouring to enable them. Whether it’s knowing that Harvey Barnes performs much better when angry, or holding analytical one-to-one sessions with James Maddison, Rodgers knows how to approach each player. 

James Maddison – A modern player reaping the benefits of a modern Manager’s approach?

An open dialogue is crucial to Rodgers. Each player meets with him pre-match to emphasise their individual role in the upcoming game, and then post-match to discuss the performance, highlighting mistakes to learn from and ‘what went well’. When delivering post-match medicine, Rodgers channels his inner Mary Poppins and serves criticism with a spoonful of sugar: giving praise, emphasising strengths and acknowledging progress. These positive, open relationships allow for effective team unity and group cohesion, and therefore a greater likelihood of success – supporting Goleman’s framework. 

Similarly, Pochettino endeavours to improve the technical and psychological make-up of each player in his squad, through a statistical, scientific approach merged with hugs and handshakes. In encouraging every member of the squad and treating them as human beings rather than just athletes, their bond supports his work on the field. Without these strong, respectful relationships, it would make the implementation of his tactical blueprint far more challenging. 

The antithesis to empathetic management is the post-Madrid Jose Mourinho. His belligerent approach to the media and the majority of his players coincides with a relative dearth of success – in trophies won and adulation received. His naivety with modern players is remarkable, and counterproductive. Mourinho’s cold shoulder and public criticism worked at Chelsea and Inter Milan where he had robust, experienced squads from the 2000s. Publicly blaming “individual mistakes” after playing Liverpool, and then blaming “low self-esteem” against Brighton should have been a ‘light-bulb’ moment. 

The essence of management is understanding how players respond under pressure, assessing the situation and anticipating their needs. Dele Alli is a case in point. Following a troubled childhood and a fractious relationship with his father, the best way to extract the best attitude and application from Dele is to comfort him as Karl Robinson and Pochettino did. Mourinho is not devoid of empathy, but he must show care for his players rather than merely results. Results do not stay on the pitch, though. They follow you home and impact your personal life.

Brian McDermott, whilst managing Reading, used alcohol to medicate himself to relieve the pain of defeat. Following the overwhelming impact of losing the 2011 play-off final to Swansea and feeling that he had let so many people down, it had reached its worst point. He found it harder to get out of bed and hid his negative thoughts from everyone but his wife. Like many, McDermott portrayed a figure who was motivated to succeed and win promotion – which they did as champions in 2012. However, when McDermott avenged the despair of losing the play-off final the previous season, his overall emotion was relief rather than jubilation: indicative of the emotional demands of management. There is a prerequisite for managers to manage their own emotions too.

When thinking of managing emotion, the words “he’s gotta go to Middlesbrough and get something!” echo in my head with the image of one man. Of course, it’s Kevin Keegan in April 1996, responding to Alex Ferguson’s indirect jibes. His rant, exclaiming “we’re still fighting for this title” and ending with “I will love it if we beat them, love it!”, is renowned as the most notorious manager meltdown. Keegan’s Newcastle drew the next two games, whilst Fergie went to Middlesbrough and got three points – winning the league by four points. 

Rafa Benitez’s ‘facts’ rant in January 2009, sitting top of the Premier League ahead of Fergie’s United, also springs to mind. Rafa listed instances of Fergie escaping punishment for criticism of referees and fixture lists; Liverpool drew the next three games against Stoke, Everton and Wigan whilst United went on a nine-game winning run. Liverpool ended the run with a 4-1 win, but United secured 52 points out of a possible 60 following the interview: securing the title by four points. Gerrard and Carragher were embarrassed, thinking Benitez had humiliated himself; United fans chanted “Rafa’s cracking up” to the tune of ‘Give It Up’ by KC and the Sunshine Band.

The rants were fuelled by anger, frustration and desire – all powerful emotions. Both were attempting to put pressure on Sir Alex but instead had an adverse effect on their team’s psychology and results. Their lack of self-awareness and self-regulation, arguably, cost them a league title each. Whilst their heart was in the right place, a cool head was required.

When Southgate was appointed England manager, many pundits were calling for an authoritarian, implying that Southgate was too soft and too humble for the job. Conversely, his humility and confidence to listen and admit his own areas of development highlight his greatest strength. 

In building a cohesive side, regardless of his apparent tactical conservatism, Southgate’s measured approach allows the players to shine, and be reprimanded when out of line. Southgate is so self-aware, and so in tune with his emotions that he engineers responses from players, guiding them to increased levels of performance.

Pep Guardiola, touted as a more technical than emotional coach, displays the benefits of being ruthless and empathetic. His early exclusion of Joe Hart indicates Guardiola favouring results and suitability to his own philosophy over the impact of his actions.

Pep Guardiola pictured speaking with Joe Hart in training

However, except for Zlatan, he has seldom acted so ruthlessly. Guardiola never blames his players publicly; any recriminations are held privately but with the sole intention of the ultimate goal: winning. Pep respects his players and under the pressure to play Phil Foden in previous seasons, he handled the situation expertly. 

With many clamouring for the brightest English talent to wear a City-blue shirt more often, Pep understood his aging process. He knew with his tactical and technical input, added with that of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne et al, Foden would mellow in City’s oak container, maturing physically and absorbing knowledge. 

Whilst playing him sporadically, Guardiola outlined his praise for Foden as the “most, most, most talented player” he had worked with. A fine endorsement given the excellent vintages Guardiola has coached (Xavi, Messi, Xabi Alonso, Iniesta etc). Guardiola decided to ‘bottle’ Foden at the right time and feature him regularly, solidifying the trust of all but the most sceptical of City fans. Foden has matured from a Stopfordian ‘plonk’ to a fine continental vino, only improving with age. 

It would be remiss to write an article on the emotions and psychology of football managers without referencing the Premier League’s incumbent Meister. Jürgen Klopp has unified Liverpool to new, 21st century heights through intense passion, charisma and trust. Interested in Psychology since his playing days, the subject was part of Klopp’s diploma in Sports Science at Goethe University, Frankfurt.

Klopp has built a culture at Melwood of instilling trust in all players and support staff, reciprocated by full-throttle, emotional performances on the pitch. This enhances Klopp’s capabilities to inspire; his genuine care for his players, and the infectious impact of his displays of positivity and emotion, illustrate the importance of this optimism to pursue goals despite life’s curveballs and challenges.

Klopp similarly finds inspiration in adversity. Perhaps making this season, and the next, the most compelling. Since his arrival, he has placed importance on the confidence and trust of the fans. Additionally, his first instruction to his players was to ignore negative comments about their ability to play for Liverpool and the scarcity of trophies. The approach was unsuccessful initially, having collapsed in their first title race halfway through the 2016-17 season. Klopp’s behaviour demonstrated confidence, and exuded authority and intensity: ultimately leading the club to a Champions League and their first League title since 1990.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s adage of achieving greatness when people question you most has historical roots. ‘Fergie’ used the 1958 Munich air disaster as a precedent, showing how the club can reconstruct success from disaster – drawing more parallels with Liverpool than either fan-base would dare admit. Being involved in both the Hillsborough and Heysel Stadium disasters, Liverpool’s values highlight the significant connection between humanity and football and what it means to be a football fan. The emotions felt with every kick of a ball are insurmountable when remembering such tragedies and being abundantly thankful for all we have. 

There is a fine balance of using emotion effectively, especially when it informs how one acts, or what one says, in order to achieve the best results. Unfortunately, nothing can protect any human being from suffering with their mental health. The stresses of managing a football club are incessant: the despair of defeat ruins your entire weekend, and whatever plans you and your family may have. However, the overwhelming relief and ecstasy of victory can galvanise your week. 

Whilst the League Manager’s Association proclaim the paramount importance of health and wellbeing, more could be done in helping managers deal with their emotions, their stresses and the external human impact that football has. The LMA does provide annual medicals and access to mental health professionals such as psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. However, a greater encouragement of these services could see a positive impact on how managers regulate the various elements of their job. Only last week, Cesare Prandelli stood down at Fiorentina due to a “dark cloud” inside him, preventing him from being himself and ultimately enjoying his job.

Cesare Prandelli’s ‘dark cloud’ lifted the lid on an unspoken problem in football

There is a direct link between football managers and you, the reader. In life, everyone faces challenges on a daily basis: at work, at home, with children, with partners, with friends. These challenges inform certain emotions. Often, we do not channel them in the most beneficial nor effective way. From shouting and arguing, to being acquiescent and apologetic, or remaining completely silent and bottling it up.  The only difference between the person in the post office, the pub, or the school playground to football managers is three things: the public scrutiny, the wages and the demand for results at 3pm on a Saturday. Everything that we, and football managers, do has a profound impact on those around us.