Sporting greats throughout the years have made the most of this very unique talent. It’s not taught on the training ground nor is it learned by running a drill over and over again. Only by understanding your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses can this art-form produce the desired effect. Well that, the confidence in your own ability, and the knowledge that you have the backing of your team around you, are critical in using the art of gamesmanship to its full advantage.
Not confined to football, gamesmanship plays a pivotal role in all of the biggest sporting events across the globe. Muhammad Ali wore down opponents before they even met in the ring by getting in their heads. Legendary cricketers Merv Hughes and Shane Warne amongst others used “sledging” to gain an advantage when on the field. Footballers and coaches are no different in using this talent. Some fail, but others – like Scott Brown – continue to produce a masterclass in working every advantage to deliver the results for his team.
The now legendary tale of Bertie Auld in the tunnel of the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon on the glorious night in 1967 starts our look back at winning or losing a match not on the pitch but in the minds of the protagonists.
With the Celtic and Inter Milan teams lined up in the tunnel, there was a short pause before entering the arena. This could have caused nerves to grow in the Celtic team, but for Bertie Auld it was the perfect moment for him to galvanise that team spirit that had been so crucial in conquering all in front if them that season. With both teams waiting the signal to make their entrance, Bertie started to sing ‘The Celtic Song’ and was soon joined by the rest of the team in the rendition. In that moment, the superstars of Inter would have witnessed the unbreakable spirit of a team united as one. Without a ball being kicked, Bertie had planted another seed in the heads of our opponents.
Jock Stein wasn’t only a master tactician, coach and manager, he also had the know-how in working his way into opponents’ thought processes. In the days prior to his untimely death in 1985, Jock appeared on Grandstand along with the other home nation managers. The discussion was on the crucial Scotland versus Wales match three days later. Jock slowly and methodically smiled, nodded and spoke about how Wales had already lost some advantage by moving the match to Cardiff instead of playing it in Wrexham. The Wales manager, Mike England, in his response was animated and agitated, before Jock gently reminded him it would be the players on the pitch that would settle the result. Again, in that moment, the psychological seed was planted.
Even the richest league in the world is no stranger to getting one over an opponent without taking the field. We watched Kevin Keegan buckle on TV under the pressure of Alex Ferguson’s mind games, and Jose Mourinho famously announced his own Chelsea team and that of opponents, Barcelona, in the days leading up to their Champions League match. Mourinho was in control, took the pressure off his own team and placed it squarely on to Frank Rijkaard.
Back in Scotland, many pretenders have presented their petitions to the public on how they will topple Celtic and Brown from their perch at the top of the Scottish game. Joey Barton and Bruno Alves came with big ambitions and words to match, but both left empty-handed. All the while, Scott Brown has cemented his role as tormentor in chief. He continues to take the hits as the focal point of our opponents’ frustration and this lets his fellow teammates weave their own magic elsewhere in the match.
Brown does his talking on the pitch in more ways than one, what he dishes out he receives in equal and often more crude measures, but he takes the hit gets up and continues with the plan. He perfectly demonstrates the benefits of gaining a psychological edge. The opposition fans and players might loathe him and his actions, but every one of them would have his artistry in a heartbeat so that they might dictate the physical and emotional pace of the game the way only Scott Brown can.
So here’s to gamesmanship – the art of winning games by using various ploys and tactics to gain a psychological advantage.
Martin DonaldsonListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast