Sixty-five minutes into the fourth round FA Cup Tie at Old Trafford, West Ham manager Glenn Roeder went for a short walk. From his pitchside technical area, which he had worn thin with worry, he made for the elevated visitors’ dug out.
He climbed the six steps to the top. Ahead, to the left, sat his coaching staff. They kept their eyes fixed firmly ahead. Avoiding the boss. Avoiding answers to unanswerable questions.
Roeder, as if sensing the wall of discomfort emanating from his staff, stopped. He put his hand over his mouth, looked back out onto the pitch and retraced his steps.
There comes a point that the umbilical cord, the life force, the electronic tissue which connect space walking astronauts to continued existence, is stretched so taut that it will snap cuting them adrift from the mothership.
At that point there might be little left to do except weep and pray. At Old Trafford, with West Ham six goals down, Glenn Roeder appeared to experience such a seminal moment.
Yet we might have sensed such a breakdown would occur. In the pre-match Guardian interview Roeder confessed,’ the hardest thing for them is to take criticism in front of their mates’.
Such an admission sets off warning bells. It suggested an excess of fragile egos and an absence of team spirit. Their inability to take criticism indicated that players didn’t feel it safe to have their weakneses exposed in company, in case their colleagues used it as evidence against them. A blame culture had developed.
It is hardly surprising that any setback on the pitch would see them fall apart.
Some managers still use a full-on roasting to burn off the veneer of failure, but this can only work with mutual trust and respect.
If the manager fails to instil the right values, the players soon fall back into old unproductive ways. Roeder recognises they are not machines, but he would like to think he gets them pulling in the same direction.
Earlier in the season after West Ham’s one all draw with United, Roeder shakes hands with Alex Ferguson, then walks down the players tunnel. Suddenly he stops in his tracks and returns pitch side to shake hands with the United first team coach, Carlos Quieroz.
Roeder had forgotten this small courtesy in the midst of his team’s troubles, but still made sure that due ceremony was honoured.
The Sports Psychology Summary
Such traits of essential human decency may be perceived by his team as a weakness which, like school children, they will mercilessly exploit, and by so doing, deflect the heat of failure from themselves.
Roeder is their personal heatshield, left both to explain a disaster not entirely of his own making, to pick out some truths from the wreckage and to rebuild for an uncertain future. Who, we wonder, comes out of this a better person?