Do team talks mat­ter?

The an­swer might sur­prise you

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS - ‘The Five STEPS to a Win­ning Mind­set’, by Damian Hughes, is out now. (RRP $29.99)

Christ­mas Day 2008 is a day Ian Ash­bee strug­gles to re­mem­ber. Like squint­ing through a wind­shield smeared with Vegemite, the eight years in be­tween have ren­dered his mem­ory a bit dark and misty. “I guess it was like ev­ery­body else’s,” Ash­bee tells FourFourTwo. “Presents. Go for a walk. Din­ner. Queen’s Speech. Only Fools and Horses.” Back in ’08, Ash­bee was cap­tain of Hull City and, while he fails to rec­ol­lect what Santa left un­der the tree (“I dunno – a road bike, maybe?”), the then-mid­field mae­stro can fondly re­call hav­ing the day off. It was a timely fes­tive treat from the Tigers’ man­ager, Phil Brown. With 20 points from their first nine games, Hull had bucked the trend of newly-pro­moted clubs prop­ping up the league ta­ble, con­found­ing the book­ies who had pegged them as $1.30 favourites for rel­e­ga­tion. In Brown, Hull had a fresh-faced (if sus­pi­ciously sun­tanned-faced), coach who’d stud­ied at the Sam Al­lardyce School of Sci­ence. Fol­low­ing stints as Big Sam’s as­sis­tant at Black­pool and Bolton, where the duo spliced stats and em­i­nent tech with foot­ball at a time when Opta Joe was barely on solids, Brown ended Hull’s 104-year wait for top-flight foot­ball af­ter just 18 months in the dugout. That Septem­ber, he was Premier League Man­ager of the Month. For Ash­bee, while Christ­mas Day rec­ol­lec­tions are pretty hazy, his mem­ory of the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon is in glo­ri­ous Tech­ni­color. As the over­achiev­ing Tigers (sixth) clashed with Manch­ester City’s ail­ing su­per­stars (18th) at the Eti­had, the Premier League’s scriptwrit­ers threw up a dra­matic plot twist: Hull were trail­ing by four at the break. Crest­fallen, Ash­bee & Co. headed for the tun­nel. From the touch­line, how­ever, Phil Brown’s voice thun­dered back at them, call­ing the play­ers back to the pitch. He had other ideas. If you ever find your­self ques­tion­ing whether ro­mance in foot­ball is truly dead, then spare a thought for the team talk. En­cased in tra­di­tion, steeped in folk­lore and blan­keted by se­crecy so wa­ter­tight that foot­ballers take a vow of si­lence that’s still ac­tive decades later, this 15-minute respite be­tween halves is not about play­ers catch­ing their breath, chew­ing orange seg­ments or tak­ing on some flu­ids. Oh no. Half-time is a sym­bol for hope. In a mys­ti­cal no-man’s-land that ex­ists in the sweet spot be­tween first-half ac­tion and the fi­nal re­sult, the dress­ing room is like a tod­dler’s play­room – a place where any­thing could hap­pen. Men be­come gods. Zero points are up­graded to three. Ev­ery vic­tory is wor­thy of its own com­mem­o­ra­tive Blu-ray. Of these won­ders, each is un­locked via the stir­ring ral­ly­ing cry of a man­ager’s vo­cal cords – as they magic and wow and will their team to suc­cess in the sec­ond pe­riod. Or at least that’s what it’s like in our heads. In re­al­ity, though, how much dif­fer­ence do team talks re­ally make? Is bark­ing plat­i­tudes to gee up play­ers overblown in its im­por­tance? Or are these snapshot ora­tions what truly sep­a­rates teams from death or glory? “One hun­dred per cent, one hun­dred per cent,” says Brad Bur­ton. A 43-year-old bald ball of en­ergy, and for­mer pizza de­liv­ery­man, Bur­ton traded in a ca­reer in deep dish and dole cheques for a job as a mo­ti­va­tional speaker. Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, then, he swears that words have the power to af­fect ev­ery­thing. “I think a mo­ti­va­tional speaker is some­one that gets be­yond all the bulls**t and talks di­rectly to some­one’s psy­che. It’s their job to give peo­ple be­lief. Take boxing. If you came in af­ter a bad round and your cor­ner man said: ‘F**k me, you got a good hid­ing there, it’s not look­ing good for you…’ DING! DING! You wouldn’t be in­stilled with much con­fi­dence. But whether it’s tem­po­rary or sus­tain­able, you can ab­so­lutely bring the best out of some­one.” Not ev­ery­one agrees. “I think the first thing to do is to shat­ter the il­lu­sion,” of­fers Pro­fes­sor Damian Hughes, a psy­chol­o­gist whose 2014 book How to Think Like Sir Alex Fer­gu­son drilled into the psy­che of one of foot­ball’s most revered, and feared, con­ver­sa­tion­al­ists. While he ad­mits that “done well, they can change a game”, Hughes is quick to draw a chunky line be­tween real world speeches and those from our DVD col­lec­tion. “We can over­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of them, and Hol­ly­wood per­pet­u­ates it,” adds Hughes. “We watch films like Any Given Sun­day, where you have Al Pa­cino talk­ing about ‘one inch at a time’. It’s non­sense. In the en­vi­ron­ments I’ve been in, if a coach started talk­ing like that, play­ers would laugh at them. “The best team talks are about de­liv­er­ing clear, suc­cinct in­for­ma­tion, get­ting it over in the sim­plest terms and do­ing it in a calm way. This is foot­ball, not Dead Po­ets So­ci­ety.” Any man­ager study­ing a UEFA Pro Li­cence will sit through an en­tire mod­ule ded­i­cated to com­mu­ni­ca­tion, deemed as im­por­tant to a coach’s craft as tac­ti­cal un­der­stand­ing and com­mand­ing a club’s fi­nances. It fig­ures, given that each do­mes­tic sea­son will see coaches blather on in the dress­ing room for nine and a half hours – and that’s just at half-time. Arsene Wenger, who notched his 1,000th match in charge of Arse­nal, against Chelsea, in 2014, has now spent more than 10 days talk­ing tac­tics in the in­ter­val. The things Gun­ner­saurus must have seen... But un­like many foot­balling relics, such as pre-match drams of whiskey or a Marl­boro habit, team talks have not just re­mained a facet of the sport – they have evolved along­side it. To­day, team talks are be­com­ing a more col­lab­o­ra­tive af­fair, com­bin­ing the knowl­edge of the club’s anal­y­sis de­part­ment with a bit of Hol­ly­wood glit­ter. Once just a schmaltzy sta­ple of end-of-sea­son din­ners, mon­tages of a team’s suc­cesses, strong tack­les and barn­storm­ing fin­ishes are now rou­tinely cut to­gether and broad­cast to in­spire play­ers and boost to­geth­er­ness. Some coaches don’t stop there. Prior to the 2009 Cham­pi­ons League Fi­nal, Pep Guardi­ola mixed clips from Barcelona games with scenes from Glad­i­a­tor, screen­ing it to the team the night be­fore the match. “Play­ers came out of the room cry­ing, in a height­ened state of emo­tion,” says Hughes. Barça then claimed a 2-0 win at Rome’s Sta­dio Olimpico over Alex Fer­gu­son’s Manch­ester United. And yet tug­ging at a squad’s heart­strings or brain fi­bres can rep­re­sent a high-stakes game of Chicken. In­deed, for ev­ery Fergie plac­ing names in an en­ve­lope of the ti­tle-win­ning Manch­ester United play­ers that he thought would grow com­pla­cent, goad­ing his side to an­other league crown (only there weren’t any names af­ter all, were there?), there’s a Bren­dan Rodgers scrib­bling names of the three Liver­pool pros “that will let us down this year” – de­spite hav­ing just met them – be­fore the Reds splut­tered to a sev­enth-place fin­ish. Ac­cord­ing to Prof Hughes, Louis van Gaal once es­ti­mated that elite team talks can add an ad­di­tional 10 per cent to a team’s per­for­mance. But in any sys­tem there’s

al­ways an out­lier, and it’s fit­ting that the man tran­scend­ing the facts to ce­ment him­self as a ver­bal vig­i­lante (even if he’s known as a dour Scots­man who would freely launch a size 10 at a player’s skull, or wet their brow with the hot spit­tle of his ‘hairdryer’) is the same one whose shadow Van Gaal couldn’t quite shake. Fer­gu­son’s team talks weren’t just re­served for puce-faced fury. He was also a mas­ter of the spo­ken word. At half-time dur­ing the 1999 Cham­pi­ons League Fi­nal, when Manch­ester United were 1-0 down to Bay­ern Mu­nich, Fergie opted against an abu­sive tirade, in­stead retelling a story he had heard from a fel­low Scot, Steve Archibald. The for­mer Barcelona striker had ex­pressed his an­guish at walk­ing past the Euro­pean Cup as a run­ner-up in 1986 and not be­ing per­mit­ted to touch it. Fer­gu­son passed this on to his team, in turn cre­at­ing “cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance”, ac­cord­ing to Hughes. While Hughes says Fer­gu­son is “a great sto­ry­teller”, it would ap­pear he’s also an ex­pert in the art of say­ing very lit­tle. When asked how many words a great coach should speak to his play­ers, if the aver­age coach said 100, Fer­gu­son replied: “Ten words. Even fewer if pos­si­ble.” A clas­sic ex­am­ple of this is a team talk that pref­aced a match against Spurs, re­told by Roy Keane in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It went: “Lads, it’s Tot­ten­ham.” United won 3-0. Con­versely, while tales of the ec­cen­tric icon Brian Clough will never be for­got­ten (punch­ing a young striker in the gut for show­boat­ing, blow­ing to­bacco smoke in a player’s face as he knew they’d per­form bet­ter if ir­ri­tated...), mod­ern psy­chol­ogy and prac­tice sug­gest that the iron fist ap­proach is fad­ing. “Fear just doesn’t work,” as­serts Hughes. “We like the il­lu­sion of it, be­cause that’s what sells news­pa­pers, but the re­al­ity is that peo­ple switch off. If some­body’s shout­ing at you, then you go into a fight-or-flight re­sponse, mean­ing you either keep your head down and hope the fury abates, or you go on the front foot and start blam­ing others. So, scream­ing, shout­ing and throw­ing tea cups around? No.” But are sweary, an­tag­o­nis­tic rants on their way out, or is it in fact just kick­ing off be­hind closed doors? On the very rare oc­ca­sions TV cam­eras have breached the closed-door pol­icy, the re­sults have been ex­plo­sive. In 1995, Neil Warnock in­vited an au­di­ence to breathe the Hud­der­s­field dress­ing room’s musky air. This air turned blue, as Warnock spon­ta­neously com­busted be­fore his play­ers’ eyes. The foul-mouthed on­slaught in­cluded the zinger, “You? You’re in f**king Latvia!” Yet Warnock’s bol­lock­ing doesn’t come close to the one launched by John Sit­ton, who starred in Chan­nel 4’s Ley­ton Ori­ent: Yours for a Fiver doc­u­men­tary that same year. Earn­ing his place in the pan­theon of irate (tee­ter­ing on so­cio­pathic) man­agers, Sit­ton de­cided the best way to rem­edy a 1-0 deficit at home to Black­pool was to sack de­fender Terry Howard at half-time, empty the dic­tionary of ex­ple­tives and pre­sent two more play­ers with the of­fer of a scrap. Sit­ton fin­ished with the now-im­mor­tal words: “And you can pair up if you like... and you can bring your f**king din­ner. By the time I’ve fin­ished with you, you’ll f**king need it.” He now drives a black cab. On Boxing Day, 2008, the Hull City play­ers sat down sheep­ishly in the penalty box next to the Eti­had’s away end. Phil Brown clapped the Tigers’ trav­el­ling sup­port – his way of apol­o­gis­ing for what he thought had been a scan­dalous first-half per­for­mance – be­fore squat­ting to com­mit the car­di­nal sin of team talks: he let the whole world watch. “Was it a bad team talk?” Brown won­ders aloud to FFT, shortly af­ter a pre-sea­son train­ing ses­sion in Southend, where he is now man­ager. “I don’t know. It was an in­fa­mous one, shall we say. Could it have turned into a 4-4 draw? Well, that is what I was try­ing for.” Brown claims to re­mem­ber ev­ery sin­gle word he said that day – they are crys­tallised in his mind – yet stops short of re­peat­ing them. “There were a few swear words in there,” he says. “I couldn’t re­peat it.” Of­fer­ing his an­a­lyt­i­cal eye, Hughes pin­points Brown’s most fa­mous mo­ment as a clas­sic ex­am­ple of how not to per­form a team talk, be­fore FFT even men­tions it. Brown iso­lated his team, Hughes says. Ex­posed them. Left them feel­ing hu­mil­i­ated. The psy­cho­log­i­cal toll on their emo­tions meant that they couldn’t per­form even if they wanted to. As it hap­pened, Hull lost 5-1 that day. While they tech­ni­cally drew the sec­ond half of the match 1-1, the Tigers then reg­is­tered just one vic­tory in the sec­ond half of the league cam­paign (and that was won in stop­page time), and barely sur­vived on the fi­nal day. The fol­low­ing sea­son, Phil Brown was re­lieved of his du­ties in March. Hull were rel­e­gated in May. “I didn’t think it was right that he sat us down on the pitch,” says Ian Ash­bee of that fate­ful day. “We’re grown men. Yes, we’d had a bad day at the of­fice, but let’s be re­al­is­tic: we were sixth in the Premier League af­ter half a sea­son. Did we war­rant be­ing sat down on the pitch and ridiculed? I don’t think so.” For his part, while Brown feels he is still judged by those fate­ful min­utes at the Eti­had, he in­sists that he has no re­grets. “No, no,” he says, with a smile. “I would never ever change any­thing that I’ve done, and I mean that sin­cerely. I was in con­trol of the chang­ing room, and I ex­posed it. I think that’s the only re­gret I have – that I chose to ex­pose the chang­ing room. But I don’t have any re­grets about do­ing it. Not at all.”



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