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Pele. Maradona. Ronaldo. Messi. It’s rare to go a day on social media without a debate about the greatest player of all time. The arguments are well-known: Ronaldo’s aerial ability vs Messi’s dribbling skills. Pele and Maradona’s major tournament record set against that of their modern-day counterparts. But what about the psychological characteristics of the ‘perfect footballer’?

It’s a topic that Simon Clifford has thought long and hard about. The former head of Southampton’s sports science setup is a man well-versed in discussions about the mental side of football. 

Aside from his time on the south coast, Clifford has spent years talking to figures such as Juninho, Sir Clive Woodward and Sócrates about the psychology of sport, as well as founding Integer Football, a venture focused on developing ‘complete’ footballers.  

Clifford’s interest in the subject stems in part from his fascination with Brazilian football, which he credits with focusing on psychology years before the English game invested in the field.       

“It was far more professional and science-based: even in the 1958 World Cup, Brazil had psychologists that travelled with them,” says Clifford. 

“I don’t think we matched the level of detail and the preparation that went into that ‘team behind the team’ until possibly around 2010.” 

Clifford’s forward thinking – as founder of the Brazilian Soccer School franchise, he is credited with introducing futsal to the UK – and interest in psychology were in evidence during his spell at Southampton, when he challenged a group of talented young players, including Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale, to think about what the ‘player of tomorrow’ would need.

“I used to say to them, ‘Let’s not imagine Pele. Let’s not imagine Maradona. Let’s imagine something better. What has that player got?’,” recalls Clifford.

“I would say to them, ‘We’re not preparing you for football this season. We’re preparing you for football in four or five years’ time, because the game is going to be different.’”

Clifford has identified around 150 attributes which he thinks the ‘perfect footballer’ would require, approximately 60% of which are psychological. In this interview with Beat The Press, Clifford talks about five of these mental characteristics and gives an insight into how some of the players he’s worked with – from Micah Richards to Juninho and Gareth Bale – epitomize those qualities.  

Psychological characteristics of the ‘perfect footballer‘ (with Simon Clifford) The Football Psychology Show

Goal setting

“I got involved with Micah when he was pretty young, maybe about 11 or 12. Micah was part of our soccer schools and his father and I became good friends. From a very early age, his dad, Lincoln, and Micah had a belief that Micah would play for the England national team. In fact, Lincoln thought that Micah was going to end up captaining England.

“At the time, there perhaps wasn’t a lot of evidence to support that. Before turning 13, there wasn’t a professional club that wanted to sign Micah, but he worked hard and had a goal or vision – a sense of destiny almost – that he was going to fulfill his dad’s thoughts.

“I used to work with Lincoln around once a week on strategy: it wasn’t necessarily about Micah’s training. We looked at wider, longer-term stuff. Eventually, Micah signed for Oldham, aged 14, and did really well. 

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“Not long after that, he joined Manchester City and then things started to speed up a little bit. He went very quickly into the reserve team and then made his debut (for the first team). In that period, Lincoln and I would sit down and say ‘Well, if we are aiming for the England team, let’s have a look at who’s in front of us or who’s going to be’.

“At the time, these people were way in front. At centre half, you had John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, who was still pretty young and going to be there for a while, as well as Jamie Carragher. 

“Then, in the right back position, there was Gary Neville, who was a little bit older, and not too many other options, so we thought, ‘Let’s have a go at right back’. 

“They (Lincoln and Micah) fixed themselves on this England objective. At under-16 level, Micah broke into the England team and scored on his debut in a tournament in France. From there, he made his debut for the England senior side, aged 18, and was the regular right back for quite a bit.

“Micah had a great rise at Manchester City and did incredibly well. I look back on that and compare with other people that I work with and I’ve come across, who might say, ‘I want to be a footballer’. The problem with that is when you get to be a footballer; what’s next? Micah had a goal: he was intent on playing for England.

“I’ve seen players that don’t have a goal and don’t have an aim and some of them get to a reasonable level. But I think having a ‘chief aim’, to use Napoleon Hill’s turn of phrase, and sticking to it is important. 

“Some players that I work with will make it into a mission statement and read it each day. Then you break that down. You can have smaller goals within that.”

Clarity and a singleness of purpose 

“With young players, we want to be very careful that we are not making football the be all and end all, because the statistics tell us it’s highly unlikely that they will make it. Even if, like Micah (Richards), you’re playing for England aged 16, 17 and 18, there’s still a very small chance that you’ll be in a first team when you’re 23. 

“Juninho, when I met him, was the Brazilian and South American Player of the Year. His only interest was football. He didn’t have any interest in cars or clothes. People used to say to me, ‘Why does he drive that?’, and point to his car, which I think was a Vauxhall Frontera. He didn’t care what it was. 

“Somebody had given him the clothes he wore. I think somebody in Brazil had given him shirts and jeans for free and he’d just wear them. He had no interest in anything other than being the best footballer he could be.

“If you asked him to do an interview, he’d say ‘No, I’ll play football: then, the words will follow.’ His dad was always there behind him, watching. He was very wary as to who he let into Juninho’s life. 

“He used to sit with me and say that being a footballer isn’t success. It’s common. He’d say that in 20 or 30-years’ time, if you’ve got kids opening books to see a picture of you, that’s success. 

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“He lived with clarity and a simplicity. Not anything that came towards him, that he saw, was taking him away from that goal. He also had a really acute interest in his own physical development. Middlesbrough, at the time, trained once a day, as every club in England did, and he was like ‘What is going on? In Sao Paolo, I trained twice or three times a day’.

“All of his levels were down in terms of his testing and he had a real awareness of that. In England, we were not too bothered about weighing players: there wasn’t really any testing that went on at all.”

‘On the outside, looking in’

“When I pitched up for my brief stint at Southampton, Gareth (Bale) was a first-year scholar. Clive Woodward (Southampton’s Performance Director, at the time) and I were given a group of players to work with, who, in essence, were going to be the first team of the future. 

“We had players like Theo Walcott, Nathan Dyer, Leon Best, David McGoldrick, Matty Mills and Martin Cranie. But Bale was not part of the group.

“He’d only got a scholarship by the skin of his teeth. In the match which I believe decided whether he’d get his scholarship, he played his first good game in about three years. 

“He’d had problems with growing and various other things, but I think there were some people there who maybe didn’t rate him. In fact, after his ‘make or break game’, I think there were still a couple of people who voted against him getting a scholarship.

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“As I started to work with the group, everywhere I went, every corner I turned, Gareth Bale was looking at me. Then he’d look away. I realized it was because he was hoping to get an invite into the group, but he was very much on the outside looking in.

“Gareth is now one of the best players in the world. From what I saw, I think that rise had its birth in the fact that he wasn’t at the front of the queue (whilst at Southampton). At the time, people would say to me, Leon (Best) is the next Ronaldo. Bale came from the bottom, all the way through to the top.”

Work ethic

“You do not need to be anywhere near as naturally gifted as people might think. Work will take you a long, long way. I’ve seen people, who, at a young age, were not the most talented, go on to play at a high level because they worked and worked and worked.

“When I was 16 or 17, I worked as tea boy for BBC Radio Cleveland, alongside Harold Shepherdson, who was the trainer of the England national team when they won the World Cup in 1966 . 

“He said to me, ‘Footballers stay the same age psychologically throughout their careers’ . I didn’t quite know what he meant at the time, and of course that’s not true, but in a way, footballers do get quite a fair bit done for them.

“It’s becoming a little bit better now, but, certainly in the nineties, everything was done for you. We used to have players at Middlesbrough who would ring the club because the remote control wasn’t working and stuff like that. 

“A friend of mine in coaching said to me – and I don’t think it’s too far off – that a young pro, before they make their first team debut, will almost do anything you tell them that will help them to get there, but once they’ve made it, they’re not so interested in doing as much. 

“I have seen innumerable examples of this over the years: some of the most industrious, tenacious, hardworking people, who – when they have got to a level – stop. I never used to be able to understand it. I used to think to myself, ‘Well, do you not want to be the best player in the world?’ 

“I remember a friend of mine, Brian Marwood, whose son was playing for Newcastle’s academy side, saying ‘Every night when I watch the academy teams, James Milner’s still there, hitting balls’. Look at the career that James Milner has had. He’s kept working, but it’s quite rare.”

Be a reflective practitioner 

“We hear people say ‘I don’t have time to think’ and I have the odd person say to me ‘I don’t have time to reflect’, but I encourage players to take one hundredth of the day, around 15 minutes, just reflecting on the decisions they made, such as the interactions they had with other players. 

“Players are going to have a life after football and they need to, perhaps emotionally, start preparing for that now, so that they can enjoy the journey a little bit and hopefully enjoy the bits after, as well.”

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Psychological characteristics of the ‘perfect footballer‘ (with Simon Clifford) The Football Psychology Show