Offside, 19 June

The pros and cons of pre-match Eminem.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Whenever I drive my friend Dan to our weekly seven-a-side football match, we always argue about what music to play in the car. While I’m perfectly happy to whistle along to a wide selection of tunes ranging from Johnny Cash to noodling electro-jazz, Dan is firmly in the banging techno camp.

Dan’s argument is simple: you can’t get psyched-up to kick footballing ass by listening to a geriatric cowboy droning on gloomily about falling into a burning ring of fire. Johnny Cash is music to get drunk to and fall into a ditch, but never to put you in the right frame of mind to play football.

Maybe he has a point. New research by Dr Neil Todd, a music psychologist from Manchester University, seems to support his argument. According to the survey, white trash rapper Eminem is the motivational music of choice in Premiership dressing rooms.

The Premiership playlist falls into three broad musical categories: rock (U2, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Oasis), uplifting pop (Kylie, Robbie Williams, Justin Timberlake, J-Lo) and rap (Jay-Z, Nelly, Eminem). So what does this tell us about how music helps footballers get themselves pumped up on a matchday?

‘Eminem’s music may play a role rather like The Haka in helping players reach an aroused competitive state’, suggests Neil Todd. ‘Some players will be motivated by the determined, repetitive dance rhythms combined with cutting lyrics that are often themed around reclaiming pride and self-confidence in the face of difficult circumstances.’

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. To me the survey just goes to show that professional footballers find motivation in the mainstream pop music of the day. It is a well-worn cliché that footballers tend to like dull middle-of-the-road music. As the former Scottish international striker Andy Gray once put it: ‘People say footballers have terrible taste in music but I would dispute that. In the car at the moment I’ve got The Corrs, Cher, Phil Collins, Shania Twain and Rod Stewart.’ Yeah, rock on Andy!

You might think that a penchant for bad boy rappers shows that footballers are becoming hipper. But you’d be wrong. There was a time when listening to rap music might have been construed as left field. In the early 1980s, when the mullet was the king of soccer hairstyles, most footballers would have probably been tapping their toes to Dire Straits or Billy Joel rather than Grandmaster Flash or Afrika Bambaataa.

But by the end of the decade, rap music had left the New York underground and gone mainstream. When Liverpool footballers wore back-to-front baseball caps and rapped that ‘Liverpool FC is hard as hell’ on the comically bad 1989 Cup Final record Anfield Rap, it was pretty clear that rap music was about as dangerous as Rolf Harris. Rap is now so bland and formulaic that it has taken over the mantle from Phil Collins and Simply Red as the middle-of-the-road music of today.

But is it inevitable that footballers must necessarily like dumb feelgood music? Yes, says music journalist Steven Wells, who argues that a cool taste in music is the enemy of sporting excellence. ‘Athletes don’t want to be listening to clever, cool, intelligent music about how terrible life is and how we’re all going to die so-oh-my god-what’s-the-point-even-trying?’ writes Wells. ‘No way! That’s not going to get the endorphins buzzin’ and the adrenaline a-pumpin’ is it?’ (2)

You can count the number of footballers whose taste in music could be described as counter-cultural on one hand. Former England defender Stuart Pearce used to get himself psycho’d-up by listening to the Stranglers. Former Chelsea and Everton winger Pat Nevin was hailed as the first ‘indie’ footballer because he liked Joy Division. Deportivo La Coruna’s Brazilian star Djalminha is, for some inexplicable reason, a fan of The Smiths. Former Wimbledon midfielder Gareth Ainsworth namechecks The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and The Who as his influences (not on his football one assumes). And that’s about it.

On the face of it, Wells’ thesis that footballers need smiley-happy upbeat music to motivate them appears compelling. But then we in Britain have a very primitive grasp of how to motivate footballers. Uplifting music is fine for rousing players on an emotional fight-them-on-the-beaches level. There is certainly a place in football for stirring anthems to get the adrenaline flowing. Indeed, if I were Sven, I might be concerned if I found young Wayne Rooney listening to Nick Cave’s murder ballads rather than Robbie Williams before a big match.

But the modern game requires footballers to engage their brains as well as their hearts. Sometimes it’s better for players to reflect on the task in hand while listening to something more serene and introspective – maybe some Massive Attack or Nick Drake. The last thing we need is footballers getting excessively psyched-up and then charging around the pitch like dogs on heat. Better that they chill out to a bit of Johnny Cash in the dressing room and then go out and play a cool, calculated and, dare I say it, Italian-style tactical game.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Eminem is No.1 in the Dressing Room Top 10, Barclaycard press release

(2) Why Radiohead are the enemy of sporting excellence, Guardian, 15 January 2003

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Topics Politics


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