Who’s brainwashing who?

Is Sir Alex Ferguson a master of mind games? Most of us would agree he is although, as David Runciman has pointed out in the London Review Of Books, the primary evidence for that belief is his much-mythologized contretemps with Kevin Keegan as the 1995/96 title race reached its pulsating conclusion.

Keegan had been incensed by Sir Alex Ferguson’s mischievous suggestion that other teams wouldn’t try as hard as against Newcastle as against Manchester United. This provoked the most famous outburst in English football history; a furious fusillade which is still mesmerising today.

The popular conclusion is that the Newcastle players, watching their boss gesticulating and shouting, “I would love it” live on TV, decided Keegan had lost the plot and, losing faith in their leader, surrendered the title.

Watching it again now, Keegan isn’t as out of control as my memory, shaped by the media’s interpretation of the event, had suggested. Indeed, when Keegan says of Ferguson “He went down in my estimation when he said that”, his honest eloquence strikes a chord.

As Keegan’s fury mounts, his gestures become more frantic and by the time he reaches the “I would love it” passage that has haunted him ever since, he looks undone by anger. True, he can barely get the words out, but he doesn’t, to me, look like the gibbering wreck of popular legend. The only point at which he sounds completely daft is when he warns United that they have to get a result at Middlesbrough. The words “straws” and “clutching” instantly spring to mind.

That speech was delivered on 27 April 1996. That was 24 days after the meltdown many think really cost Newcastle the title: the 4-3 defeat at Liverpool. One of the most enthralling Premier League games ever (I can still play certain sequences from that game like a video in my head), this loss was the fatal blow for Newcastle’s challenge and the turning point in Keegan’s reign. David Ginola has since said: “If we had kept the score at 3-2, we would have won the league – definitely.”

It’s always tempting to look for a single explanation for any mysterious event, but sometimes the truth is more complex than that. Freakish early season form had given Newcastle a 12-point lead at the top of the table in January. But on 23 March, they lost 2-0 to Arsenal. That was followed by that glorious defeat at Anfield, a 2-1 win over QPR and a 2-1 defeat at Blackburn on 8 April. After taking just three points from 12, Newcastle were six points behind their rivals (albeit with a game in hand) and the title was Manchester United’s to lose.

All of this happened long before Ferguson decided to underline his mastery of mind games. So what Newcastle players thought about their boss’s outburst is almost irrelevant: they had already all but lost the title by then.

Yet the media, inspired by its own misinterpretation of this denouement, has consistently insisted that Ferguson is some kind of Einsteinian genius when it comes to mind games, without really offering any other indisputable proof of his Machiavellian brilliance.

Jonathan Norcroft did suggest in the Sunday Times that, in the psychological wars between Wenger and Ferguson, “Ferguson was getting under Wenger’s skin more than Wenger was getting under his” but again offered no supporting evidence.

There is no telling anecdote to convince us that the Scottish master had the sensitive Frenchman fighting back the tears as United and Arsenal duelled for honours. Indeed, in the most memorable joust, Wenger seemed to win on points with his suggestion that every man believes he has the prettiest wife at home.

But heck, why let the facts wreck a good story? It was Josef Goebbels who observed if you tell people a lie often enough they believe it. And as it has been officially decided, on the basis of evidence so partial and flimsy it wouldn’t convince the most gullible jury, that Ferguson is a master of mind games no football writer worth their salt is going to waste their time suggesting otherwise.

So in January 2009, when Rafa Benitez took on Ferguson at a press conference, the media reaction was utterly predictable and as one-sided as Pravda in Stalin’s heyday. Norcroft characterised Benitez’s remarks as a “white-lipped saucer-eyed rant” and, presumably appealing to the nation’s collective memory of the Manuel, the inept waiter from Barcelona in Fawlty Towers, lampooned the Liverpool manager’s pronunciation of “Meester Fer-goo-son”.

Yet as Musa Okwonga notes in his impressive new book Will You Manage? Gabriel Marcotti saw Benitez’s speech not as proof the Spaniard had lost his cool, rather as oratory designed to make the media and officials think about how referees were treating Manchester United.

The fact the gambit didn’t work had little to do with the merit of his case, it was just that the press, brainwashed by its own deluded nonsense about Ferguson’s Zen-mastery of mind games, decided the real story was that the Liverpool manager had gone crazy.

And when Liverpool failed to win their first title since 1990, the media decided Ferguson had done it again – even if it wasn’t clear what exactly “it” was. Although Liverpool did the double over Manchester United, if you compared the depth and quality of the two squads, United looked the most likely champions, something the media conveniently forgot.

The argument that a) Ferguson is the Muhammad Ali of mind games and that b) such mind games decide trophies is a convenient fiction which flatters certain managers, denigrates others, and gives journalists a narrative they can use to make sense of the season and fill a few column inches.

But the delusion may be self-perpetuating: any manager thinking of taking aim at Ferguson should know that the outcome of such a contest is (at least as far as the media is concerned) already decided.

By the way, I should add that I believe Ferguson is a master of mind games – with his own players.

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