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Mar 22, 2012

Taking only the positives?

He may not have invented it, but Sir Alex Ferguson's "hairdryer treatment" may well be the most infamous motivational tool in recent football history. A quick blast of his lethal Glaswegian flamethrower, wielded at close range, could ruffle even David Beckham's carefully conditioned feathers.

With 25 years of sterling service, the Ferguson hairdryer may also have been the most reliable device in Britain. But sadly, they don't make them like that any more. Earlier this year, Ferguson admitted to having hung up his hairdryer. He claimed it was a concession to his advancing years. In reality, its retirement was the ever adaptable Scot's response to a generation of young men who simply wouldn't be able to cope with its explosive force.

It can be a cliche to hear that modern footballers don't match up to the rugged pros of yesteryear. Tales of when men were men and how Joe Jordan would eat broken glass for breakfast and punch himself in the face for lunch are sometimes overplayed.

Nevertheless, the lack of testicular fortitude among our professional footballers does seem to have reached epidemic levels. So much so that managers now prefer to pander to the lack of moral fibre rather than attempt to develop it.

In a Radio Times interview conducted by Lord Sugar (no stranger to a stinging rebuke during his time as Tottenham chairman) Harry Redknapp admitted that the type of invective favoured by Sugar on The Apprentice would never wash with the hopefuls of the Spurs dressing room.

"They can't take it. In the old days a manager used to come in a slag you off and then throw a cup of tea over you...but now, if you say anything negative they can't handle it. They have become very precious now, the players, and we have to walk on eggshells."

Redknapp, who admits in his autobiography to once throwing a plate of sandwiches at Don Hutchison, is famed for his man management. In the dressing room, as Harry recently demonstrated to the BBC's Robert Peston, his players' egos are massaged.

"Hey Luka, they've got no-one who can live with you today... You can run this game for us... You can destroy this team, you're a different class to anybody they've got".

In public, Redkanpp's players are, to a man, "Triffic". Even those who haven't featured for Spurs for months tend to be "difficult to replace" or players he "doesn't want to lose."

While transfer values are a clear consideration here, Harry has also clearly learned a motivational lesson. A now infamous quip about how Mrs Redknapp could have stuck away a chance that Darren Bent had missed, went down in football folklore and is said to have precipitated Bent's departure from White Hart Lane.

One wonders how the fragile confidence of these sensitive souls can possibly co-exist with modern football's obsession with, so called, "banter". Perhaps only players are allowed to mock players? And only about their choice of fashion?

Earlier this season, quite by chance, I found myself in the company of the players and staff of a recently relegated club. Each and every one of them was convivial company, some even demonstrated a nice line in self-deprecating humour. But any mention of the previous season's relegation produced in the players the response of the proverbial rabbit in the headlights. This was no thousand-yard stare of still-vivid relegation trauma. Rather, it was the knowledge that any talk of the previous season was strictly forbidden by their new management team.

A chat with the assistant manager confirmed such a policy. I asked whether he and the manager had inherited a training ground demotivated by relegation. I was told flatly that they and the team simply did not discuss anything that had happened.

Logical enough, I suppose. There's no point crying over spilled milk. But how does one learn from their mistakes if they're encouraged to immediately disregard them? If you shield players from all criticism, negativity and sense of personal responsibility, how on earth can they be expected to grow as men? If we treat players like children, surely they will act like them.

Despite his well-documented meticulous and scientific approach to player preparation, Sam Allardyce has long been portrayed in some quarters as a 'no-nonsense' football manager of the old school. But last week 'Big Sam' took time in his newspaper column to warn fans of the danger of criticising his team.

In the London Evening Standard, The West Ham manager wrote, "Negativity is the worst thing in football," before warning the Upton Park faithful that they "need to support the team because, if they don't, they will frighten the players."

At the time of writing, the Hammers are still only two points off an automatic promotion spot with a game in hand on second-placed Reading. Can a team's self-confidence really be so fragile as to be unable to withstand the occasional groan from its supporters?

It would seem rather more likely that, in the attempt to maximise confidence levels, footballers are now so shielded from potentially destabilising emotions, that they have become increasingly vulnerable to them. If, as Allardyce suggests, players are indeed "frightened" of playing in front of their own supporters, then modern management methods have surely left them unprepared for the psychological demands game of football at any level.

Confidence and a positive frame of mind are, of course, essential to success in any performance-related profession. But such emotional states are clearly unsustainable if players have no opportunity to learn how to deal with criticism. While a protective bubble can be created in the closed environment of the training ground, expecting supporters to adopt the same policy is nothing short of fantasy. However, such is the modern manager's obsession with the minutiae of team preparation, there now exists an emerging belief that supporters' personalities can manipulated as well as those of the players'.

In any week, a study of interviews by managers in any of England's professional leagues will uncover remarkably similar sentiment. The need for "unity" is stressed repeatedly, while fans are requested to "get behind the team" (as if fans were considering supporting the opposition). The implication is that by failing to adopt the same level of unshakable positivity and the eschewing of all "negative" thought, the supporters are somehow letting down the players who have been doing the same in training all week. It is the mentality of "everyone pulling in the same direction" taken to an entirely illogical extension.

Brainwashed by their managers, players exhort fans via Twitter to "be positive" (as if any fan wants their team to lose a match) and, in the event of defeat, tweet ill-considered requests for better support and less criticism. It is usually unclear where they feel responsibility for the result lies.

A variation on the theme came from Joey Barton in the immediate aftermath of QPR's vital 3-2 win against Liverpool. Barton admitted he'd played terribly. However, the Premier League's finest cod-philosopher still found time to admonish the supporters. "Enough of the negative sh*t," he tweeted. "Great spirit shown by the boys and loyal fans tonight. Not the bells that booed."

The suggestion is clear. Loyal supporters never criticise the team. Those that do are not true fans. This awfully childish, cynical and self-serving statement will fuel furious debate on message boards, with the most zealous keyboard warriors desperate to prove themselves better supporters than their peers. Actual consideration of the team's performance is lost in an entirely artificial battle between self-styled "true fans" and stigmatised "boo boys".

Fans, it seems, can be criticised, but players cannot. If the latter had the moral courage to pass the ball as well as they pass the buck, nobody would have a problem. Unfortunately, players have been served very badly by the short-termism of their managers.

Hamstrung by the need to gain maximum advantage ahead of the next fixture, only positive vibes may emanate in the lead up to match-day. Over time this can only create personalities that reflect a diminished sense of personal responsibility and individuals who are morally unprepared to deal with anything but the most unchallenging set of circumstances - a clear self-fulfilling prophesy.

There's also a remarkably ironic double standard here. If criticising players affects their outlook and makes them less positive, why wouldn't it do the same to supporters?

The cliche of man management used to be that some players needed "an arm around them", while others needed "a kick up the arse". Football is, of course, entitled to its fair share of sensitive souls. I am not for one moment suggesting that John Sitton is the the man to sort out Fernando Torres. But surely there are still some players who fall into the latter category?

Equally, I'm not unaware of the shortcomings of supporters. Crowds can be fickle and they can get it wrong. In 1990, had some Manchester United fans had their way, the Ferguson hairdryer would never have achieved such prominence. But taken as a whole, crowds make fewer errors of judgement than the average player, and passing responsibility onto them is no way build the characters we are repeatedly told are missing from the modern game.

Is there anyone out there who wouldn't want to see Brian Clough clip Joey Barton or Carlos Tevez round the ear?

• Dan presents our weekly podcast. Join him on mostly Mondays and some Thursdays.

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