My experience of mind games under Fergie
In a professional career spanning almost two decades, Simon Smith has played for over sixty-seven clubs. The ultimate utility player, as his pace has diminished Simon has managed to reinvent himself time and again, from poacher to holding midfielder, centre-back to goalkeeper. Now that his website has been closed down, we have exclusive access to his weekly column.
Football of late has been dominated by mind games and I don’t just mean The Times Fiendish Su Doku Book 2 that I was working my way through on the bench at Chesterfield on Sunday. First of all Patrick Vieira described Sir Alex Ferguson as ‘desperate’ for bringing Paul Scholes out of retirement. Fergie responded with the age-old classic, ‘I know you are but what am I?’ claiming that the real sign of desperation was allowing Carlos Tevez to play for City once more. Ferguson continued by suggesting he could bring Roy Keane back too and Vieira’s riposte was to imply United get the benefit of favourable decisions at Old Trafford. It has been like watching two grandmasters stare each other down across the chessboard before knocking it to the floor and instead make snippy jibes in a series of press conferences in front of the nation’s football press.
Some have wondered whether Ferguson really is a master of kidology or simply a man answering questions to the best of his ability. I have heard it said that people often fell about laughing when Tommy Cooper asked them for the time. Is this a similar situation, a matter of someone’s reputation preceding them? No, definitely not, I know first hand just what a psychological genius Fergie is. And I can only assume Tommy asked for the time in a very funny way.
Some of the older readers will remember when I broke through as one of Fergie’s Fledglings. Giggsy, Butty, Becksy, Nevilley and co. Great days. I came through under Sir Alex at Aberdeen of course so I’m very much one of the original Fledglings though I still think those Man United lads deserve the tag too. I was a pacey frontman back then and I recall the bossman singling me out for particular attention after one training session.
‘You’re ******* ****’ he said. ‘The biggest pile of **** I’ve ever seen in all my years. **** knows how you’ve got this far you lanky streak of **** but you’ll never play for this club, there’s no doubt about that, you utter ******* ****. Now **** in the ******* or I’ll **** in your *****.’
What a man. Strong words, but effective. He knew what he was doing. Sure, he could have put an arm around me and told me where I was going wrong. Sure, he could have actually played me and not released me on a free transfer. But he knew the best way to motivate me. He understands the human psyche better than anyone. I’d have died for the man from that day forth. OK, maybe I didn’t end up playing for Aberdeen and winning the title but would I be where I am today, sub keeper at Chesterfield, without those wise words? Somehow I doubt it. Cheers Sir Alex, I owe you one.
A great manager will aid his players like that and protect them when needs be. Roberto Mancini did exactly the right thing this week when he revealed that the man they call Kun, Sergio Aguero, had picked up a ‘stupid injury’ but he wouldn’t divulge what. I have a lot in common with Sergio (beyond the uncannily similar nickname) and I recall the time Fergie did the same for me. I did my cruciate ligaments in training and was sidelined for a year. Do you know, and this is a mark of the man, Sir Alex did not mention me once in any press conference? He even shied away from talking about the injury or anything else about me in any of his autobiographies. I have tried to thank him many times over the years and he’s simply shrugged it off as though it were nothing. On some occasions he’s even gone as far as to pretend he doesn’t know who I am! It took me a while to understand but as I look back through a career almost entirely uninvaded by the press, I know it’s been for my own good.
Speaking of true legends and stupid injuries, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the knock I picked up under Brian Clough at Forest. A few of us lads had decided to hit a tearoom after training. Four of us were in my Rover and another five in Psycho’s Mini. We arrived at the place, everyone took their seats and I got up to go to the loo. Unfortunately I slipped over a banana skin on the way to the lav and fell headfirst into a custard pie on the counter. Fearing a potentially fatal corneal abrasion I knew I had to get to a hospital immediately but was clearly in no state to drive. Nobody wanted to leave me so we all nine of us just about bundled into the Mini and set off for the hospital. Everything was alright thank God but when I told Cloughie the story he simply stared me up and down and called me ‘a ******* clown.’ I really have led a charmed life and worked with some of the greats.
Luckily for us, there seems to be more and more sport on the box these days. Sometimes it can be hard to work out exactly what to watch as we’re really spoiled for choice. Every now and then I’ll point you in the direction of a game or programme you just might not know about for whatever reason. This week’s recommendation might seem fairly obvious but it’s the match of the day on Saturday. The match of the day this Saturday is of course Lincou versus Selby in the squash. You just can’t beat a bit of the PSA World Tour. Set your sky + to record (or if you’re like me, the VHS) and enjoy a festival of fun on Eurosport 4.
Follow me on twitter, @simon9smithpro