Sheffield United: How to win at mind games

Graham Westley is a canny operator
Graham Westley is a canny operator

A tight pitch, partisan supporters and terraces so close to the playing surface every barb and insult can be heard, writes James Shield.

Tomorrow, at The Lamex Stadium, Sheffield United experience football in the raw.

Focus, graft and discipline will be required to negotiate safe passage through this vitally important contest. Laced, of course, with guile.

Stevenage, as visitors from Bramall Lane have discovered to their cost in recent seasons, are street-fighters. And, with Graham Westley taking charge for a third time eight months ago, ready to pull every trick in the book in pursuit of success.

The 45-year-old, whose side are two places behind United in the table, might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But not even his fiercest critics can deny that the former Preston North End and Farnborough chief has mastered the art of the mind game.

Westley, who labelled Steve Evans a “pussycat” before Rotherham’s latest trip to Hertfordshire, makes no apologies for being a very sore loser and is likely to be at his Machiavellian best against opponents also battling to drag themselves away from the relegation zone.

But can psychology influence the outcome of matches? Do words uttered during weekly media briefings and on the touchline have any tangible effect?

The answer on both counts, according to Professor Ian Maynard of Sheffield Hallam University, is yes.

“The classic example of how it works is what happened between Sir Alex Ferguson and Kevin Keegan in 1996,” Maynard, who has previously worked with Professional Game Match Officials Ltd, the Amateur Boxing Association and British Swimming, explained. “Fergie must have really upset Newcastle for Keegan to lose his cool in front of the television cameras like that.

“More recently, he (Ferguson) also called Newcastle ‘that small club from the North-East’ which was another tactic designed to unsettle and distract the opposition.

“A number of managers will also have a go at referees and the officials to slow the game down if the opposition are on a roll and gathering momentum. That stops and helps to break-up play.

“Some clubs also make the away changing room less comfortable than the home facilities which, once again, is designed to upset players.”

Stevenage, ranked 21st, triumphed 4-0 in the corresponding fixture last season but enter their latest meeting with United having won only once in five outings.

A record, Westley has acknowledged, impacts not only upon his professional life but also the atmosphere at home.

“I need to win every game I’m involved in,” he said. “As a human being I can’t sleep at night if I don’t.

“I get very frustrated and find life very difficult if I don’t win the game. I need to win every time I do something.

“It’s not a question of just needing to win because of a league position. That would be the last thing in the world that would drive me.

“What would drive me is my personal pride, hunger and desire.”

United have shown plenty of all three since Nigel Clough’s appointment and, despite being 19th, travel south having lost just twice in all competitions since mid-October.

Clough could recall midfielder Stephen McGinn following injury as United, who beat promotion chasing Swindon Town in their previous outings, look to complete a hat-trick of victories for the first time since February.

“The key is to control the controllable,” Maynard said. “You can’t do anything about the opposition or the opposition manager, hence the message for any sportsperson is to focus on the things you can influence like preparation, performance, individual goals and tactics.”

*Twitter: @JamesShield1