Saturday, 14 May 2011

Recognizing Player Behaviour: 1991 FA Cup Final

In addition to knowing team tactics, it is also important for Referees to understand individual player behaviour. This blog has previously mentioned the importance of the former (see Referees in Tune With Team Tactics), but the latter can be useful for Referees too.

I was reminded of this recently when I read Paul Gascoigne's poignant remarks, in an interview leading up to this year's 2011 FA Cup Final on Saturday 14 May, about his feelings as a 23-year-old English star footballer immediately prior, during and after his self-destructive 1991 FA Cup Final appearance for Tottenham Hotspur. Here are some important quotes from Gazza, that gives some insight into player behaviour and on-pitch value judgements, who was speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live:

"... before Wembley we got the pillows out in my hotel room and were kicking them all over the place. Bouncing off the bed as high as we could and then trying to do tackles on pillows, two-footing lamp shades and half-volleying anything we could get our hands on. Getting a bar of soap out and doing a cross volley into the window."

"I remember lying in bed and the doctor came in and said, 'Look Paul, we've heard the noise, you're going to have to take these tablets'. It was a nice feeling. I think that's how I ended up in rehab!"

The tablets were Valium (or it may have been an injection, depending on which interview of Gazza one listens to), so no wonder Gazza had a "nice feeling".

Anyway, this reveals the youthful, irresponsible and uncontrolled mindset of professional footballers in the 1980s and 90s. They did not know what the word "professional" meant. These were young men—immature men—who needed guidance and quite often a good kick up the backside, rather than more money and adulation. Footballers caught up in the whirl of celebrity and the whole media circus were ill-equipped to handle the crash-course in opulent and excessive lifestyles that their working class and poorly-educated backgrounds could never practically prepare them for.

Paul Gascoigne was a poster boy for the generation of professional footballers in England who did not know how to behave like a "professional". At that age and stage, it would not be surprising if Gazza had thought he had had it all—and that it would last. Gazza was simply excited about the prospect of playing in Wembley for the FA Cup, which was possibly every English schoolboy's dream at that time. He never thought about taking care of himself and taking steps to prevent himself from picking up serious injuries. At that age and stage in his career, Gazza simply felt invincible.

In the opening seconds of the Cup Final, Gascoigne sunk his studs into the chest of Nottingham Forest's Garry Parker. Here are the freeze frames:

Gazza said:

"I wish I'd got sent off for the first tackle on Parker. I remember he'd clattered me in one game but I waited two years to get him back."

"He was one of their playmakers and what you try to do is injure his legs. If you're going to challenge him, make sure he can't kick a ball as well as he can if you hurt his feet or legs. But I nearly took his windpipe out! It was a terrible tackle I suppose."

This is how some footballers, nurtured from a tough street-smart insecure-adolescent background and surviving in tough "British-style" physical football matches, view the world around them. If a player perceives that he has been the victim or loser of previous encounters, or believes that his macho or footballing reputation has been sullied and tarnished (especially in front of his peers), oftentimes he will seek retribution on the football pitch.

Similarly, in his autobiography (ghost-written, naturally), Roy Keane famously admitted to seeking revenge on Alf Inge Haaland. Here's Keane's quote:

"I'd waited long enough. I f***ing hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you c***. And don't ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries."

"Even in the dressing room afterwards, I had no remorse. My attitude was, f*** him. What goes around comes around. He got his just rewards. He f***ed me over and my attitude is an eye for an eye."

These are extremely powerful on-pitch value judgements that some players harbour, often for a long long time. Referees need to be aware of this as best they can; but primarily coaches and those closest to players should be more aware of these powerful emotions in players. All players, particularly those who play each other regularly, have a built-in tit-for-tat counter. Some counters, whether based on factual sleights or perceived sleights, become skewed and may make a player snap, just like that.
[Note: as an outside observer, watching Emile Heskey suddenly snap last weekend made me think of the possible reason(s) for his "uncharacteristic" behaviour. It may have been Alcaraz that set off Heskey, but there may be a deeper-lying cause too; we simply don't know. It could also be non-football-related. Perhaps with time, the truth will out?]

Back to Gazza:
Minutes later [following the chest-high collision with Garry Parker] Gascoigne lunged wildly at Gary Charles and ruptured his own cruciate ligament in his right knee. In the words of the great Jimmy Hill: "He [Gazza] just takes a fly-kick at his shins. Whack!" Here are the freeze frames:

Gazza's move to Lazio was put on hold while he was out of the game for a year. Gazza said:

"I didn't go into that challenge to try and really hurt Gary Charles. I said sorry afterwards and wanted to make sure he was alright and still had a career ahead of him, and he appreciated that."

"I tried to get a good challenge on him to let him know he was in a game. I just mistimed it. It was daft and I'm gutted about that. I'm just probably one of those players who couldn't tackle. When I see the challenge I cringe myself. It's the biggest regret of my career."

So, for Referees, it is important to have an understanding of the footballing culture of the country, region or locale where one is officiating in. What things upset players and what things, within the Laws, can players accept? And why players make certain challenges. During a match, if a Referee can sense something is definitely up in a player or between certain players, it would be proactive to try to sort it out before it blows up.
Disclaimer: This advice does not apply to the minority of players who are just plain idiots who cannot learn to control themselves. But, for the majority of players who are willing to listen, what's the worse that can happen to a Referee who is trying to manage the match?

The Referee for the 1991 FA Cup Final was Roger Milford. His reflection on the events of that Cup Final are interesting too. A future post about that beckons, I reckon.


An excellent contrast to Paul Gascoigne would be Ryan Giggs. By the time Gazza was in his early 20s, it was probably too late for an authority figure to control and manage him. However, when Giggs emerged on to the scene as a wiry and talented teenager, Alex Ferguson was shrewd in allowing Giggs to be exposed to the excesses and dangers of his celebrity. Sir Alex Ferguson is to be applauded for the way he carefully developed Giggs from his teens (Cristiano Ronaldo and others have benefited from this in their early professional years too).


  1. If Gazza was on valium how could he be expected to time any challenge properly? You can't play a high-speed contact sport on valium and expect not to injure or get injured, even if you have no malice whatsoever and go into every challenge with honest intent.

  2. Thanks Anon. Whether on valium or not, Gazza couldn't tackle. But when you are young, admired by your peers and worshipped by fans, it is difficult not to believe you can't do anything on the pitch.

    Here's another fascinating insight into Gazza's world: