Who is the master of mind games? Is it Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson? Is it former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho? It's safe to say it isn't Kevin Keegan. What are the pro's and con's of the manager's approaches?
Football managers are a curious breed – some are man-managers who focus on getting the best out of their players; some are coaches who train day-to-day with the players and leave their tactical imprints for generations to come; some are ex-professionals who have wisdom and experience to impart; and some are big big talkers.
In the modern game the media has been become a strange phenomenon and, if used well, a powerful tool for football managers. Those with the necessary communication skills can strike fear and doubt into the hearts and minds of the opposition long before kick-off.
Possibly the most infamous practitioner of what is now termed ‘mind-games’ is Sir Alex Ferguson. In his 26-year reign at Manchester United, Ferguson has slain referees and opposing teams alike, time and time again with his razor-sharp tongue.
The United man famously hit out at referee Alan Wiley in 2009, claiming the referee was unfit:
"I was disappointed with the referee," said Ferguson after his side drew with Sunderland.
"He was also walking up the pitch for the second goal needing a rest. He was not fit enough for a game of that standard. The pace of the game demanded a referee who was fit. He was not fit. It is an indictment of our game.”
Sir Alex’s battle with Kevin Keegan, then manager of Newcastle United, in the 1995/96 season went down in history as the season where Kev lost it on TV with his “I would love it if we beat them” speech. The Reds manager drove Keegan to despair with his constant comments on Newcastle’s title contention and, in the end, the Toon buckled under the pressure.
No mind-games episode would be complete without the mention of Jose Mourinho. The double Champion’s League winning manager has become an enigma over the years. His spell at Chelsea earned him a colourful reputation – hated by practically every other supporter in the land.
Now at Real Madrid, Mourinho has taken like a duck to water to the El Classico mind-games, most notably, against the former Barca boss Pep Guardiola. The Special One had this to say after his Inter Milan side beat Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate in the Champion’s League semi-final:
“This is the best loss of my life. It is a shame I couldn’t play: I would have been awful on the pitch but I would have shed blood as my players did”.
However, mind-games can backfire - it was possibly his reputation of verbal trickery that saw him ousted from both Chelsea and Inter Milan. The Italians also came to resent him much like the English, despite his success but, love him or loathe him, you’ve got to hand it to him – it works. But only as long as they can put their money where their mouth is.