'Fifth official' to have say in the Highbury mind games

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The Independent Online

If there is one certainty about Tuesday night, it is that, at some stage, those dug-outs on that compact Highbury touchline will be permeated with a sense of high dudgeon emanating from managers Arsène Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson. Probably both.

If there is one certainty about Tuesday night, it is that, at some stage, those dug-outs on that compact Highbury touchline will be permeated with a sense of high dudgeon emanating from managers Arsène Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson. Probably both.

Only a fourth official will divide the factions, but in the background an Australian-born sports psychologist will look on, trusting that his contribution to the preparation of the referee, Graham Poll, and his team will ensure the powder-keg fixture is remem-bered for its aesthetic content, not for its malevolence.

They come by many epithets these days - the "mind coach", the "sports guru" - but where Premiership referees are concerned, Craig Mahoney, Professor of Applied Sports Psychology at Wolverhampton University, is the Fifth Official.

Over the course of a season, he advises Premiership officials, both as a group and one to one, on areas such as handling stress, managing pressure and body language. But he recognises that Tuesday's Premiership game could present specific problems.

"Graham's keen for me to be there to see the cauldron of pressure that they experience in that particular setting," says Mahoney. "It's partly a learning experience for me, but also I'll be there for the entire team [of officials], to offer them any support they want should they feel any necessity for that."

He adds: "Graham and his team have to be aware of what happened last time this fixture was played [in the League at Old Trafford, scene of the so-called post-match "pizza war"], be aware of any players who could be a particular cause for concern, and to be aware of the friction between the two managers.

"That could have the potential to cause quite a lot of trouble, and it is important to have strategies for dealing with that. I'd want an open discussion beforehand and for them to have dealt with any problems that may arise pre-match, during the match, certainly at half-time, and post-match."

Mahoney, 47, originally a semi-professional squash player and teacher from Tasmania, who has been in the UK for 18 years, has worked with the "select" group of referees as their official sports psychologist since 2000, when they went professional.

He smiles at the description of Fifth Official. "I've never thought about myself like that, although when I stand in technical areas, I often get drawn into things because the managers believe I'm actually anofficial. I'm standing there, trying to be invisible, and I get a voice in my ear shouting, 'What the f*** do you think your guy's doing out there?' "

He offers an example of a typical problem which he counsels. "I get refs saying, 'Craig, I made a wrong decision the other day. It hasn't caused me any problems in terms of my mark [from the assessor], but I can't get it out of my mind'.

"What do you do? Well, you have to recover the situation. You go through the incident on video, and break it down, and discover what is it about that situation they can't let go of. Very often it's a question of enforcing the point that, 'Yes, it was a wrong decision, but from your position, you couldn't have given any other decision'. "

You suggest that referees only undergo such self-doubt because of constant pressure from managers. "Managers are like players," Mahoney says. "The more experienced they are, the more likely they are to try and gain an advantage. Sir Alex Ferguson is pretty astute, as the most experienced manager, at making comments which he knows will resonate around the minds of other people, and in particular other managers."

And Ferguson's effect on referees? "They all respect him as a manager. But they don't hold him in awe."

Clearly, officials are prone to errors. Mahoney believes it is how they respond to the major ones that is crucial. "If you know you've made a bad decision, how are you going to use your body to best effect to disguise that fact and to get back the own focus of attention that you require?" he says. "We're all the same. If we make a mistake the first thing you want to do is to hide.

"Well, there's no way to hide out there, so they have to con-tinue to present themselves with shoulder back, head high and a positive outlook that says, 'I may have made a mistake. I'm not going to tell you about it now. At the end of the game I'm going to get penalised anyway [by the assessor]. We'll deal with it then'. In sport, if your head drops, your opponent will go for the kill. If referees did that the players would be thinking, 'The guy's under pressure. Let's really pin him down now and get decisions in our favour'."

Now, who can Professor Mahoney possibly be thinking of? Surely neither of Tuesday's Highbury combatants?

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