Acting Like A Dickhead And Trying To Explain It Later: Football's Chimp Paradox
by Gareth Roberts
REMEMBER Professor Steve Peters? Famously, he penned the million copy selling self-help book, The Chimp Paradox, but the psychiatrist was also involved at Liverpool for a while.
As well as working with a range of sportsmen and women from different disciplines, Peters took a part-time role with The Reds while Brendan Rodgers was in charge in 2012.
During his time at Melwood, he spoke with staff and players about their stresses and worries with The Independent reporting that at least 10 footballers had chosen to knock on his door and take a seat for the voluntary sessions.
The Chimp Paradox, for the uninitiated, explains how our brains are made up of a rational ‘human’ part, an emotional, reactive ‘chimp’ section and a ‘computer’, which stores information and our experiences.
It felt like a wise move to involve Peters as evidence of the chimp running amok in this game we love is there every weekend, with the one just passed no different.
I was fortunate enough to interview Peters while at the club and I asked him if his ‘chimp’ still escaped despite him writing the book and having a passion and a profession centring on controlling it. Fair play, he admitted it did.
Since reading his book, and interviewing the man himself, I spot the chimp all the time, in myself and in others. Keeping it caged is no easy task.
Also common are the mental gymnastics that follow a cameo from the chimp. Both are visible in football all the time -- the action and the reaction.
It’s why managers are contractually obliged to speak precisely at the moment that their emotions are flowing and the chimp is swinging through the synapses. Remember this one:
“Let’s not take the piss here.”
“Well I certainly wasn’t.”
“Well I think you are.”
Look at Mikel Arteta right now. His actions from Saturday are still news. After his rant about referees was followed by a club statement, he has now doubled down on his stance himself.
"It is my duty to stand in front of you and give a clear and honest assessment," Arteta said on Tuesday.
"My duty is to defend my players and my club in the best possible way. It is what I intend to do time after time.”
Plenty have pointed out that the Arsenal manager’s comments post defeat by Newcastle when he deemed the officiating “not acceptable”, “embarrassing” and “a disgrace”, said “we are wasting our time”, and said he was “ashamed” and “sick”, didn’t really chime with his stance when Liverpool challenged what unfolded at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in September.
Then, Arteta said: "I don’t know. It’s something that we don’t have a say on, we don’t manage. I think they are trying to make the best decisions, they are trying to protect the game, they are trying to get as much support and be ruthless when they need to be.
“At some point as well we need to give support and understand that mistakes happen. We’ve made mistakes as well and if the pressure is so much then it’s very difficult to manage.”
Looking in with hindsight, and with calm consideration, wouldn’t Arteta’s words from this weekend have carried more weight if he’d fallen in behind Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp and said the whole thing needs examining when he wasn’t on the wrong end of things?
Because now, it just looks like chimp behaviour. He’s wronged. His club and team have been wronged. He’s angered. His ego doesn’t want to back down now. And so he is bending and shapeshifting to make it look like considered and reasonable behaviour.
The same applies to all the Premier League managers and clubs by the way, not just Arteta.
To bastardise a famous Delia Smith moment, “Where were you?”
🗣 - "LET'S BE HAVING YOU!"— Sky Sports (@SkySports) February 28, 2020
It's been 1⃣5⃣ years since this 𝙞𝙣𝙘𝙧𝙚𝙙𝙞𝙗𝙡𝙚 moment!
Take it away, Delia...pic.twitter.com/WG63zU8HFO
Despite the tribal nonsense that unfolded online following that *unprecedented* (key bit that, lads) failure to give a goal scored by Luis Diaz that had been ruled onside, most could see how wrong and how worrying that decision was.
The audio released only served to underline it. So why didn’t other managers put their hands up and say it was wrong and push for change?
Why did they all sit on their hands? Did the ‘human’ and the ‘computer’ say no? Does it only matter when the ‘chimp’ is out of the cage?
Collectively, the message would have been stronger. And as a group they would have been well within their rights to demand the intended steps towards a higher standard of officiating.
Instead, what did we get? That renowned hard-line, no-nonsense interviewer Michael Owen asked Howard Webb a few questions on the telly. Sound. That’ll do it.
It’s not just managers and players who get wrapped up in this chimp-like myopic tribalism either. There it was in full flow at Kenilworth Road on Sunday.
Again, you don’t need me to tell you what was sung there by some of the home supporters.
It’s the contortions to explain it afterwards though.
Well-followed accounts online explained they were new to the Premier League so therefore didn’t understand the songs related to Hillsborough and Heysel.
Others said they had managed to miss the well-supported and well-referenced campaign to crack down on tragedy chanting.
And as for Luton’s statement…chimp’s feet all over that particular keyboard.
From the bizarre mini match-report to “may have taken part without knowledge that the words used were in relation to the Hillsborough and Heysel tragedies”, to the appeal for video evidence when it was on TV to the apology to “anyone offended”.
Here’s a thought. If supporters were referencing “not getting into Europe because of you” - which they were - isn’t it much more likely they knew exactly what they were singing about?
Isn’t it also likely the intention was to trigger, annoy, madden, upset, or however you would like to term it?
The tragedy chanting messages have been well thought out and well presented across a range of media platforms. And, no, they don’t just relate to Liverpool.
But chimps fling shit don’t they? And that’s exactly what this was. So why not, when the emotion has left the moment and the fans have left the ground, acknowledge it properly and look to defuse it?
Some of the Luton statement hit the right note. But it was largely drowned out by the noise of them sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting: “LA-LA-LA”.
We have released a club statement regarding yesterday’s match against Liverpool.— Luton Town FC (@LutonTown) November 6, 2023
I like the stuff from Peters. It can help to keep you grounded. It can help you recognise that, ultimately, many things in life are out of our control and all we can do is try our best.
The campaigns are commendable. Jamie Carragher calling out the Luton fans live on Sky Sports was admirable. Education campaigns - centred around schools, but also around people singing such songs post arrest/admonishment - are a great idea and it’s particularly heartening to see other sets of fans leading the way, Forest as a recent example.
Nottingham Forest fans have held up a banner honouring the 97 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough 👏— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) April 22, 2023
"Respect the 97. Solidarity with survivors. No to tragedy chanting" ❤️ pic.twitter.com/YzwKD5MRQo
But myopic managers and supporters who can’t see the wood for the trees will likely always exist, the emotion around football, the tribalism, the back and forth between benches and stands, between supporters, players and managers, all of it will set chimps on the loose time after time.
We don’t have to accept the behaviour, or like it. But we do have to acknowledge that controlling it is incredibly difficult.
"If you start going into the realm of the uncontrollable with a pre-defined goal then you are going to start to stress," Peters said, in his first interview about his Liverpool role back in 2013.
He was talking about obsessively targeting the title. But it can be applied to so much more.
We can appeal to humans. We ask for acknowledgement and understanding. We can talk, educate and try to calmly walk to a better place.
But football will make sure there is always a chimp with a keyboard. And if by magic, as I write this…