Top shrink owns up to United fetish

Jim White meets Professor Hans Eysenck, an Old Trafford regular who has a good mind to solve Cole's scoring problems and give Gazza an IQ test
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The Independent Online
The other day at Old Trafford a most unexpected announcement came over the public address system. Amid the usual messages - "Greetings to the Dublin branch of the United supporters' Club", or "Would Darren meet Julie after the game outside the United Megastore to help her carry the souvenir bags home" - came the following: "Happy 80th birthday to Professor Hans Eysenck, who is sitting in the Stretford End."

It was a toss-up who was more surprised: the rest of the crowd to learn that the country's most eminent psychologist, the man who coined the phrases "extrovert" and "introvert", the academic who pioneered intelligence testing, was sitting there in their midst; or the country's most eminent psychologist on hearing his name broadcast to the masses.

"I had no idea who organised that," he said a couple of weeks after the event, sitting in his study in south London, books like "The IQ Controversy", "The Language of Genes" and "Madness and Modernism" jostling for space on his shelves with copies of Rothman's Football Year Book.

"I was so surprised, suddenly hearing my name over the transmitters. It was very strange, particularly as now everyone knows it was the 80th birthday." Professor Eysenck was born and brought up in Berlin. He is thus a dyed- in-the-wool Manchester United supporter.

"I used to play football as a child and started to watch games at about eight years old," he said, "and even then we knew of Manchester United. I have been recently in Egypt and Taiwan. The moment they hear I am from England they say the name Manchester United without even knowing I support them. When I retired 12 years ago I could go more frequently and I became a season ticket holder and try to go to every game, British Rail permitting. It is a good time: this United team is almost the best I have ever seen."

Professor Eysenck has spent a good portion of his career combining his hobby with his academic work. He has written papers on the benefits of psychological preparation for sportsmen, to which end he and his colleagues conducted considerable research in dressing rooms.

"We didn't get much encouragement from players. They said: `We are not screwy, we don't need you'. Shrinks have a bad reputation in England. In Germany they were much more receptive. Though, even over there, you always got problems with managers, they saw you as trying to usurp part of their function."

He is particularly fascinated by the psychology of form, the way in which confidence ebbs and flows (and thus he has plenty of opportunity to undertake field work from his seat at Old Trafford on the subject of Andy Cole).

"A great deal of the game is played in the mind, obviously," he explained. "Look at Le Tissier. Last year he was outstanding, this year he has lost heart. Loss of form must be a psychological phenomenon, because physically he is exactly the same. Cole obviously has ability, but he worries about something. That is easy to see. But helping solve those problems, that is different."

Perhaps he should volunteer his services. "No, no. Most academic pyschologists and psychiatrists are very poor on practical psychology. People always get quite the wrong idea. At parties I meet a girl and she says: `You must be able to read my mind.' If only I could. I think Alex Ferguson is a very astute natural psychologist. To be so successful he must be. I'll leave it to him."

In any case, there is, Professor Eysenck reckons, a role model for Cole closer to home, a patient who apparently cured himself in a manner so successful his example could make the entire psychiatric profession redundant.

"Cantona," said the Professor, eyes twinkling at the very mention of the name. "He is absolutely fascinating. As a player he is the tops. And now he has calmed down, he's perfect. I am very surprised he managed it. It is a very hard thing to change your personality like that and all honour to him. I wish Gazza would imitate him."

Ah, Gazza. Since the Professor is most famed for his work on IQ (his son, with whom he attends all United matches is a computer expert, and at present the pair are engaged in developing a program for intelligence testing), what does he think Gazza's rating is?

"I don't think Gazza is dumb," he said. "He has emotional problems, which is a different kettle of fish. In any case, sadly, a high IQ does not protect you from doing stupid things. Actually, I don't think many top footballers are dumb, they lack education. I once talked to a chap who used to play for Everton - I forget his name now - who was doing a PhD in psychology after he retired. And you only have to hear old players talk about the game to realise they have a very intelligent grasp of what is going on. Actually I'd love to be able to test footballers for their IQ. It would make a fascinating paper. But now I am retired I don't have the students to do the leg work for me, so I don't have the time." Particularly since so much of his life these days is taken up by visits to his spiritual home...