15 May 2009

Bill Shankly’s legacy - The psychology of football

There are certain angles of the game that I think often get overlooked by the average football fan. For example, football psychology is of particular fascination to me, but it often gets swept under the carpet, or else ridiculed a la Glen Hoddle and his faith healer. But it should be of great interest to us, especially since the first really great football psychologist was one of our own.

People often like to argue over who was the greatest manager our great club has ever seen, and while I don’t really like to hold one above the other, I find it hard not to place Bill at the top of the pile.

While he achieved less in terms of trophy returns than Bob Paisley, he did what very few mangers can do - he created an aura around the club. He built up a living, breathing legend, with the ultimate aim of creating a ‘bastion of invincibility’.

And this legend lived on after him. Indeed, even through the relatively dark days of the Souness era, Anfield was still a special place, and that was down to Shanks. But how did he do it? The answer lies in psychology.

I’d like to digress briefly by drawing on two apparently unrelated examples. First, let’s go back to our childhood and think about the Incredible Hulk. The story goes that Bruce Banner was involved in a car crash, and while he was able to escape from the car, he was unable to get his wife out.

He concluded that this was due to a chemical imbalance in his body, as there were many reported cases of people drawing on resources of superhuman power in situations of real stress, an example of which being people lifting up cars single-handedly following a crash.

And this is where fiction borrows from fact, as there are indeed cases of this very occurrence. But how can humans, who ordinarily would be completely incapable of such a feat, suddenly rise to the task? Let’s look at my second analogy.

There are people across the world that are capable of walking on burning hot coals, driving nails through their hands and pulling lorries with their... well, use your imagination.

Like the example above, they rise to a task apparently beyond human capacity. But how do they all achieve it? Three words: mind over matter. In the case of Bruce Banner, it’s a subconscious thing fired by a stressful environment; the others consciously reach a heightened state of awareness.

The end product is the same – apparent superhuman feats, for which there should, realistically, be no chance of achieving.

Now, if I may stretch the analogy and return to the matter at hand: how on earth did Djimi Traore get a Champions League Winners medal?

I’ll tell you how. A moment of tireless endeavour, built on the foundation of a firm belief, led to a kernel of hope, which in turn led to another goal, which then led to a snowballing belief that the impossible was possible.

This groundswell of positivity reached a pinnacle, as the majority of the Ataturk crowd sensed, and then willed on, that third goal. The collective Liverpool overpowered Milan for a brief time, built firmly on belief.

It was, after all, the same team that had dejectedly walked off at half time three nil down. But there was more to come.

Football commentators often talk of “chasing lost causes” or “running down blind alleys”, but this persistent and some may say misguided belief that you can reach that ball first, or get that block in is based on psychology.

How else can you explain that save by Dudek, that cramp-inducing tackle from Carragher? They believed that they would make the save/tackle. If they didn’t believe, there’s no doubt in my mind that they wouldn’t have made it.

And here’s where we come back to Shanks - he was able to make a man of diminutive stature feel six feet tall; he instilled unwavering belief in the players, the fans crammed into Anfield and the people of Liverpool, convincing them that they were superior to the opposition in every way.

If there was a tackle to be made, they’d make it. If there was a goal to be had, they’d get it. In effect, he made the 50:50 balls into 60:40 balls in Liverpool’s favour. Sounds simple, but you try convincing your Sunday League left back that he’s Premier League standard.

I and others firmly believe that Anfield (or rather, the Anfield faithful) is Liverpool’s proverbial 12th man, and Shankly was so very, very shrewd in the way he drew on this huge resource.

Indeed, it’s still evident today that a hostile home crowd can destroy the confidence of their own side if the vitriol is aimed at them.

Shanks ensured that the players knew who they were playing for, and that the fans knew their idols were playing for them. It was just one aspect of his psychological armoury, but a vital one; and it’s an aspect that is close to being lost in the current age.

It’s hard not to lose that connection when you have players earning movie star wages, while the man in the stand continues to struggle to afford the ever-escalating season ticket price.

But sometimes, just sometimes, that special Liverpool spark returns, and the players remember who they’re playing for. The fans remember that their collective voice can make the difference, and Liverpool explode into life.

That’s why we had Istanbul. And that’s the legacy left behind by Shankly.

Billy Fisher is one of Liverpool-Kop's new writers. You can view his profile here


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  1. Excellent article. Completely agree with your view. People go on and on about how great Ferguson is at mind games and blah blah blah but he's a mere pretender next to Shankly. Same goes for Wenger and Mourinho.

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  3. I strongly urged the writers of this website to write and research about the philosophy, psychology, spirit, etc in the making of a champion team, not just about who to buy that will makes us a champion next season.

  4. Nice potted history: though there's nothing at all that's new here.

  5. True, there's nothing new here, but it's important to remember our proud history and stay connected to it. That's one of the things that sets LFC apart from the rest.

  6. Great article! Shankly truly was the master of this very underestimated non-tangeant - psychology. Though it must be said that it is a very hard thing to communicate to modern players in a modern game. They are more removed from the reality of fan-life, and are generally foreigners. So if one is of greater tactical nouse and has to ability to big-up already bigged-up egos - combined with the Anfield heritage - who knows what could be achieved.

    And also - "melis", your spam is not welcome!

  7. Anonymous 7:37PM, May 14, 2009

    Have you ever heard of Djimi Traore getting compared with the Incredible Hulk before?? It's a new one on me :)