Warning: this piece contains language which you may find offensive
For spectators, the blowing of the ref’s whistle at half time in a football match usually signals the start of discussion and analysis, or a chance to stand and stretch one’s legs, to look around, maybe weave a way past the people seated on the same bench in the direction of pies, Mars bars and hot, sweet tea or even an opportunity for a natural break. It’s a time to relax, to calm down after the exhilaration or disappointments of the game’s first half.
Meanwhile, in the dressing room, things can be very different …
The rant is a largely unremarked form of discourse, but it seems as capable of moving men to great feats of achievement as some of the finest oratory. It can be controlled or uncontrolled. Adolf Hitler knew a thing or two about the power of the controlled rant, as have many other dictators. Comedians sometimes use the rant as a format that they know can make someone look ridiculously funny. And, in everyday life, the uncontrolled rant is often an outpouring – in the home or business context – of feelings that have for too long been bottled up and can no longer be contained.
But the half time rant is different. First, it takes place within a limited time frame. The manager has just fifteen minutes to persuade his team that they can turn a losing situation into ultimate victory.
It could be suggested that the ranter should strike a balance. If the rant is too harsh, he perhaps risks doing more harm than good, making the team feel cowed and beaten, ashamed and de-motivated. If too weak, the players will brush it off and emerge back onto the pitch with the same attitudes as those they had when they left it. The manager’s objective should be to build his tirade to a crescendo, which peaks in its force as the players leave the dressing room, re-invigorated, determined, inspired. Only by so doing can he persuade these young men that they can and must win the game.
Aristotle was the philosopher who most comprehensively laid out a theory of persuasion. In Rhetoric, he reviews what he sees as the three types of rhetorical proof which should be used by the rhetorician (in this case, the manager) when attempting to win an argument: ethos, in which he must generate respect and credibility amongst his audience; pathos, in which he appeals to the feelings and emotions of his audience ; and, logos, whereby he applies logic and reasoning to the problem which is being faced. More specifically, Aristotle advises on how to handle different kinds of audiences. It is easy to change the opinions of the young, he says – they are creatures of desire and easily satisfied; but they hate to be belittled, longing to achieve superiority.
Well, that’s the theory … but sometimes a manager employs a less emollient approach, as here, when manager John “Sitts” Sitton pulls no punches with a team that is already 3-0 down.
Secondly, the rantees are in no condition to fight back. After forty-five minutes of physical exertion, the players are – or should be – in need of time to recover. Although there’s only one ranter and eleven rantees, it’s very much a one-sided contest of wills. The manager, sat in the dug-out or on the bench, has had plenty of time to discuss, analyse and rehearse. A good manager must know his players like a good general knows his troops. Clearly he needs to know the game – the moves and tactics that are available to him, his players’ strengths and weaknesses. But as a key part of his leadership role he must develop psychological strategies that he can adapt to different circumstances. After all, there will be good times and bad times.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu lays emphasis on the need for generals to adapt to different circumstances: “If generals do not know how to adapt advantageously, even if they know the lay of the land they cannot take advantage of it. If they rule armies without knowing the arts of complete adaptivity, even if they know what there is to gain, they cannot get people to work”.
No doubt the management teams of the more successful Premier League clubs are very skilled in adapting both physiological and psychological strategies based on sports science theories to motivate their players effectively. This short video demonstrates different approaches adopted by Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton at various points in Sunderland‘s 1996/97 season:
The touchline antics of some of the more high profile managers do make one curious, though, about what kind of conversations take place, even at the very top of the game, when the whistle goes for half time. I can’t believe it’s sweetness and light in many dressing rooms. Indeed, the half time rant has become so legendary in the game that it’s even found a place in TV drama.
In 2001, Ricky Tomlinson starred in Mike Bassett: England Manager, a fly-on-the-wall, comic “mockumentary” which satirised the way the England team was managed and the media coverage that it attracted. In 2005, it was turned into a TV series. One of the most memorable moments from the film was Bassett’s half-time team “talk”:
Bassett was resurrected in a piece in the Daily Mirror at the time of the ill-fated appointment of Sam Allardyce as the real England manager, offering this sensitively-worded piece of advice to the new general: “Like many of your predecessors: Steve McLaren, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Graham Taylor – you too have never won a major trophy, so you are ideally suited to the job”.
In his time as Peterborough United‘s boss, Barry Fry‘s was also a leading exponent of the ranting genre, though some might say that on occasions his real world rant was every bit as extreme as that of the fictional Bassett:
Maybe the greatest half time ranter of all time was Bryan Clough. Sadly, it looks as though we’ll never be able to make a proper assessment. I’ve been unable to find any videos that show him in action. But if one is looking for circumstantial evidence that he was the supreme ranter, it’s not hard to find …
Neil Warnock was appointed to manage my beloved Bluebirds (Cardiff City) earlier this season. He had some initial success, though the team is still perilously close to the bottom of the Championship. But there’s still a long way to go. Warnock is highly experienced and, as we’ve seen, a master of one of the most useful rhetorical arts, the half time rant.
I just hope that when the final whistle goes at the end of the season, all the ranting can be put aside and celebrations begin!
Image credits: Aristotle, after Lysippos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Art of War: original uploader was Kallemax at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons