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Jan 28, 2014

The Stupid Footballer is Dead

Rating:

Paul McVeigh was always a decent player, and was also -- the earliest days of his career apart -- one who made sure he maximised his talent. The Northern Irish forward knew he wasn’t one of the game’s outstanding performers but, by paying close attention to every mental and physical aspect of professional sport, he could play at (or close to) his best on a regular basis.

And, as “The Stupid Footballer Is Dead” reveals, the approach works. McVeigh blossomed as a Norwich player after arriving from Tottenham and got to where he wanted to be by setting a series of targets: become a first-team regular, start scoring goals, get a certain number of goals. He achieved all of them. If you know what you want to do, keep telling yourself you can do it, he says -- and you've got every chance. He has used the same approach in his media career, he explains -- he didn’t like speaking in public, but told himself, every day, that he loved it. Now he thrives on it.

Without the right approach, McVeigh argues, even the highest ability will fail to translate into consistent success (Mario Balotelli is the example cited at this point). English football falls down because it puts a huge emphasis on physical coaching but very little on what psychology can do. Being an England international shouldn’t be any more pressured than playing for Germany -- yet England use the “pressure” argument to explain away failures that could equally be blamed on a lack of proper mental and technical preparation. Penalty shootouts loom large here.

Other countries are unquestionably ahead of the UK in terms of helping a sportsman or woman use their mind to help their body, and perhaps there’s a deep-seated English suspicion to be overcome here. The game’s profound unease with the issue of mental health is perhaps the darkest spin-off of the narrow attitudes McVeigh detects in a game in which dismal machismo still rules the roost all too often, and in which broadening your approach might mean you don’t fit in. When McVeigh left London, the then Spurs manager George Graham told him he was too small to make it at White Hart Lane. He may not have liked the Norwich chant for him ("We love you Paul McVeigh, and if it’s quite alright, we love you Paul McVeigh, despite your lack of height"), but his determination to prove Graham wrong meant he earned the fans’ affection.

He scored a brilliant flying header in the playoff semifinal win over Wolves in 2002 (and his description of the thrill it gave him shows why some players have problems after quitting the game). He was on target at Old Trafford when Norwich spent a year in the Premier League in the mid-2000s. He worked constantly on his game, telling himself he could make steps up as the team did. He visualised the things he wanted to do -- “Focus on winning that tackle, scoring that goal” – although, as he explains, he found it genuinely impossible to tackle Thierry Henry (he wasn’t the only one).

Throughout the book, he uses role models to illustrate the points he makes. Striker Grant Holt, briefly a Carrow Road teammate when McVeigh returned for a second stint with the team in League One, embraced new challenges fearlessly and went on to score goals in the Championship, then the Premier League as Norwich won back-to-back promotions. At the other end of the spectrum there was Rory Allen at Tottenham, a gifted player who didn’t actually enjoy playing football. He eventually gave it up and, McVeigh says, was right to do so. What would have been the point?

The Stupid Footballer Is Dead won’t be to everyone’s taste. Some will dislike its motivational, occasionally very earnest tone and its message that, without excuses, every player at every level could do better. But this is a superb book -- and it's unlike anything anyone has written about football in this country for quite a while. Read it and (as McVeigh might urge) make up your own mind.

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