English Football

Hair-dryers to clip-boards – the cult of the dressing room

Some managers don't need a dressing room to get their point across...
Some managers don’t need a dressing room to get their point across…

Can you imagine Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger using the half-time interval as an opportunity to shout and scream at their players? To utilize that precious 20-minute period as a time to throw expletives in the air and hope they fall on willing ears? Would Sir Alf Ramsey have swept cups of tea off the table, risking that he might burn the legs of those his future depended on? The answer must be no.

Some call the modern breed “lap-top managers” and given that some take copious amounts of notes during the game, clip-boards and interval readings may be the new norm behind closed doors.

But many football managers of the “old school” type still use the half-time interval as an excuse to stir up the testorone of young men and shame them into performing better in the second half.

It seems that footballers understand this code of near sado-masochism that the game, in some quarters, stubbornly refuses to discard.  For starters, it seems to be an unwritten law that the manager must be known as the “gaffer”.  This language of the building site or the factory floor must seem strange coming from muti-national dressing rooms, but it prevails. But do managers like Mourinho and Rafa Benitez, for example, insist on their players calling them gaffer? Or would it be more appropriate to use the term, “El Jefe”?

Many managers use the shock and awe tactics of volleyed expletives. In putting together a “fly on the wall” article on a couple of occasions, I have stood, open-mouthed and watched young men sit in blind obedience to listen to the rantings of the management team. I was amazed at the ritualistic way in which it all takes place.

Before the game, there was good natured banter between the players while the manager and his assistant/coach distanced themselves for the immediate period before kick-off. Then the “gaffer” nonchalantly strolls in, the buzz quietened and he stands before the semi-dressed players.  Set-pieces are drawn on blackboards, arrows suggesting the direction the ball should be kicked. Then just before the referee signals that the gladiators should take the field, there seemed to be a flick of a switch.

The intensity of swearing, war-cries and posturing picked up, all shouted at the highest possible volume – to ensure those outside the dressing room can hear, and be impressed. I witnessed normally quietly spoken men suddenly become extras from a gangster film, every word an expletive, every cliché screamed. By the time the team filed-out, they were all doing likewise, like a bunch of apes jostling for leadership. It was all great content for someone like Dr Desmond Morris (author of The Naked Ape and the Football Tribe).

Half-time was no different. With the team struggling, the management began its verbal assault as the players, lining the sides of the dressing room, sat heads bowed in anticipation of a ticking off. Sarcasm is used to emphasise a point or two. One or two players looked like their eyes were welling-up, embarrassed by being singled out for under-performance. But they sit and take it.

This still goes on at some levels of the game, although it seems unlikely that at the top level, thanks to the more cerebral approach of some managers, that it translates well in dressing rooms that are likely to contain Brazilians, Germans, Italians, Serbian and Frenchmen.

Of course, we are all aware of the “hair-dryer” treatment that Sir Alex Ferguson used to swear by. But he was “old school”. I heard of one manager who, 15 minutes from time, walked into the dressing room in disgust and paraded naked to shock his players as he tried to express his disappointment in them – surely worse than any hot-aired admonishment.

These antics all go hand-in-hand with the game, though. It’s like the reference to players or managers as “winners” when most of them are far from it. I have heard players who have turned out for the same struggling club for years being called “winners” or managers who have experienced no success insist that “I’m a winner, always have been”, when what they mean is, “I want to be a winner”. All very X-Factor – “I deserve this because I want it so much”.

We could go on. But the latest jargon to emerge makes me smile – an exceptional goal being called “a worldy”, a reference to being comparable to a “world-class” goal.  But then, football has always been a game of cliché and jargon (it is not the only aspect of life that is deserving of this tag, either)….just ask the “gaffer”.

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