Paul McVeigh once played a match when he was still drunk from the previous night out. He once came back for pre-season so out of condition it cost him his place at the club. And he was once sent off for head-butting an opponent. Now he is a mentor for young players.
The reason he has been given that responsibility is that the key word in each example of his failings is “once”. McVeigh learned from his mistakes, successfully enough to play more than 300 professional games, twice win promotion to the Premier League and represent his country.
The Northern Ireland international was no star; he admits when we talk that he was given a free transfer from each of his clubs (Tottenham, Norwich, Burnley on loan, Luton, Norwich again) before retiring at 32, but he had a good career and, more pertinently, as good a one as his natural gifts allowed.
That, he believes, was not the case for many of the footballers he played with and against. Throughout his career McVeigh worked with sports psychologists and practiced yoga. He did both, for the most part, in secret to avoid the hostility and scorn (disguised as “banter”) of fellow professionals.
Yoga, thanks to the example of Ryan Giggs, is now accepted if not yet mainstream. Sports psychology remains on the margins, though link-ups such as Liverpool’s with Steve Peters, British Cycling’s shrink of choice, suggests attitudes are changing.
McVeigh hopes to accelerate that process by distilling his hard-earned lessons into print. The Stupid Footballer Is Dead is a self-help book with a killer title that, like its author, is ahead of its time. The phrase refers to attitude rather than intellect and as the England Under-21s’ disastrous European Championship appears to have illustrated, the stupid footballer is alive and well and getting rich – but he is not fulfilling his potential.
Several aspects of England’s Israeli misadventure, and the seniors’ failures in recent years, chime with McVeigh’s treatise. Suggestions seeped out from the Under-21 dressing room that some players would rather be on holiday while their on-pitch efforts were, said their manager Stuart Pearce, unrecognisable from their displays in training.
That inability to transfer performance at practice into matches was a familiar lament under Fabio Capello, especially at Wembley when he said the players seemed inhibited by fear of failure – a dressing-room mindset since alluded to by Michael Owen and Gary Neville. Players also admitted to being bored at their isolated World Cup base in South Africa in 2010.
When McVeigh heard the latter he was “completely flabbergasted”, adding that Germany beat England in the quarter-finals not because they had more talent but because they “had a winners’ mentality” and England did not. Part of the Football Association’s approach to tournaments is finding ways to keep players amused but McVeigh asked: “Do the Italian players need to be entertained? Do the Germans? Or are they going because it is their job, their profession?”
At tournaments boredom exacerbates the fear of failure because players prone to negative thoughts are left with too much time to think them. Cricket, athletics, cycling and rugby union use sports psychologists at international level, but would taking one to Brazil next summer, if England reach the World Cup, be too last-minute to make a difference?
“Not at all,” said McVeigh. “I first met Gavin Drake [now his business partner] when he came to talk to us at Norwich. We had been relegated and won twice in 10 games. He came in and shared with us the basic principles of performance psychology. We won the next game, and the next, and the next, we won five in a row. I was player of the month, the manager was manager of the month. Did he share with us how to kick a ball? Did he share any tactics? We didn’t suddenly get stronger. The only difference was our mentality going on to the pitch. It can have a huge and immediate impact.”
But would the players listen? “If you walk into any football team there will be five players who will say: ‘who is this guy? I don’t want to hear anything he says.’ Another five will say: ‘tell me anything, I’m happy to do it and see what happens.’ Then there will be 10 in the middle who will be like: ‘OK, convince me.’ You would hope with England, as they have got to the top of their profession, they would be more receptive but a lot of players are performing despite their mental attitude, not because of it.
“There is still a stigma in football attached to sports psychology. [If you do it] people ask: ‘what is wrong with you?’ Football is so backwards. The last I heard, there were only two full-time psychologists in clubs. They have more full-time masseurs. What is more important? In most clubs the support network is the kit man and the physio. They are not exactly best-placed to give advice.
“In football the feeling is: ‘we’ve got this far without using it, so why do we need it?’ That is not a culture of learning. I know a player who had an incredible career whose son is now in the game. I asked if his son would like to attend one of my sessions and he said: ‘why would he need all that rubbish?’ That’s a typical example of someone not open to the idea of trying to improve. Football has a prehistoric mind-set. There is a culture that it is uncool to learn.”
This is one reason McVeigh and Drake, through their company ThinkPRO, work with academy-level players who, they hope, will be more open to new ideas. Clubs have long been alarmed at the drop-out rate of young professionals, evidence of which McVeigh saw at first hand at Tottenham. “Some of the young players at Spurs were among the best players in England at 20, 21; by the age of 23 they were not even in professional football,” he said.
The Stupid Footballer Is Dead is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99) on 4 July. To order a personalised signed copy go to: www.paulmcveigh.co.uk/author
Here he highlights six ways in which players can maximise their potential through showing the right mental attitude
Focus on success
Teddy Sheringham told McVeigh of his successful penalty in the Euro 96 semifinal, ‘I knew I was going to score’. Other players focus on failure thinking, ‘I hope I don’t miss’. This makes them more likely to miss.
Create a positive self-image
Believe in yourself. McVeigh was fearful of public speaking, but wanted to pursue a media career after football. Every day he told himself, ‘I love speaking in public’. Eventually he believed it.
Define and work towards goals
In pursuit of a goal target McVeigh laid in bed before matches and visualised cutting in from the left wing and scoring. Ultimately 40 per cent of his goals came that way.
Take personal responsibility
You have a choice. If the choice is to go drinking before a game that is your decision, not the mates who invited you.
Too many players regard the coach as the teacher and themselves as naughty schoolboys, trying to do as little as possible in training. Treat the coach as someone you can learn from. Seek other means of improvement.
Learn from others
McVeigh sought out Gianfranco Zola to quiz him on aspects such as preparation and post-match recovery. He also learned from studying others such as Sol Campbell, one of the first players to have pre-match massage to optimise performance.