You hear the saying all the time. It’s trotted out as an all-encompassing explanation of everything said by a manager with an agenda. If it’s coming from a manager at a struggling club, or one with boardroom pressure and a sense of insecurity in their job it can be deemed a sign of weakness.
If it’s coming from a charismatic, silver tongued Portuguese manager it can be treated like a Jedi mind trick.
Mind games - they seem to be everywhere nowadays.
Spin is an absolutely vital part of top-level management in the 21st century, and has probably been integral to man-management since before I was born. If a manager can use something they say in an interview to their advantage, why wouldn’t they?
This has all been thrown into the media spotlight this week as Jose Mourinho, the enigmatic Chelsea manager, put on a melodramatic performance for the press following his team’s 1-1 draw at home to struggling Burnley.
Following the match Mourinho completed his television requirements by simply pointing to the minutes of the match in which key incidents had happened in the game where he was clearly aggrieved and in disbelief at what had happened. Mourinho was clearly looking to highlight his grievances while trying to avoid yet another FA fine for criticism of officials, complaining of a campaign against Chelsea this season.
He then went on to appear on Goals on Sunday the next day, giving a frank interview to Chris Kamara (a close friend of his) and Ben Shepherd, who was a rabbit in the headlights when Mourinho turned on him over one question which riled the coach.
Mourinho is synonymous with mind-games and rightly so, he is an excellent case study into how a squad mentality can be crafted by a manager willing to spin opponents and the media in certain ways. He is an artist in siege mentality. He creates a sense amongst his squad that the whole world is against them, winding them up into animals willing to run through brick walls for their manager. Or in the case of Diego Costa, willing to push/kick/stamp/shove his way through those aforementioned brick walls.
All of the theatrics and histrionics wind people up, they make him into a pantomime villain that he is more than happy to play. If anybody thinks that ANYTHING he says on television isn’t crafted and calculated then they are naive, but this is by no means exclusive to Mourinho, every single manager uses it when and where they can.
If you believe the papers then Mourinho, Ferguson, Benitez and Villas-Boas were the main users of this manipulation in recent years, and good old ‘Arry Redknapp is just an honest geezer from the South Coast who tells it how it is and wouldn’t harm a fly.
In my view Redknapp is a wiley old dog who uses distraction and charm to ease pressure on himself and his often under-performing sides. Never has this been more painfully evident than after QPR’s home defeat to Liverpool this season.
The west London side lost 3-2 to Liverpool conceding two goals in stoppage time on the counter-attack, it was a showing that looked like school football, not professionals playing at a struggling side using their brains. It was a thoughtless performance.
After the game Redknapp was looking for a way out of the firing line…’How can I avoid being in the firing line?’ ‘How can I make sure all the headlines on the back page tomorrow aren’t about me?’ oh okay I know!
This is what he said: “I don't need anyone to tell me that they were lucky, I could see that for myself. There is no way we deserved to get beat today.” When that wasn’t really getting him anywhere in the interview he pulled out an absolute gem, an ace he had up his sleeve. “Look at Adel Taarabt, he played in a reserve match the other day, and I could have run around more than he did. I can’t keep protecting them, when he’s three stone overweight and on 60, 70 grand a week and don’t train. What’s the world coming to?’
There you have it, there was your sound-bite with a readily made list of pun headlines asking to be written.
So the term ‘mind-games’ should not be thrown around by football analysts as it encompasses too many different things and is done for a wide variety of aims. To put pressure on an opposition, to encourage and wind-up your own players, to distract from events on or off the pitch, to make a point of perceived injustices and so on. It is everywhere.