IT used to be Fortress Anfield – now it’s the place where a Liverpool side performed so badly it cost a legend his job. GARETH ROBERTS looks at home advantage – and asks whether the changing face of the average supporter has played a part in its demise.
IT goes without saying: good football teams generally win more games than they lose on their own turf. And so they should. The odds are stacked in the home side’s favour – studies have traditionally suggested a 60-40 swing to be exact. Psychologically, logistically and historically, the team at home has the upper hand. They wear their first-choice kit, run out in front of stands filled mainly with their own supporters; research has even suggested the home side is more likely to get favourable decisions from match officials.
Among the evidence for the latter is a study that exposed 40 referees to a recording of Liverpool’s match with Leicester at Anfield during the 1998-99 season.
Half watched the match with all crowd effects included and half watched a silent version. With the cries of the crowd ringing in their ears, the researchers found that the referees were less likely to call fouls against the home team than the ones who saw the game in silence.
The researchers concluded that referees tend to avoid making calls against the home team as a way of shielding themselves from the extra stress levels that come with winding up the crowd.
There’s even evidence of a deep-rooted physiological advantage for home players. This study noted “…we showed that salivary testosterone levels in soccer players were significantly higher before a home game than an away game.”
Throw in some of the snider tricks that have occurred in football – smaller, colder and less well-equipped away dressing rooms; no air con, faulty heating, highly polished floors; even lockers closer to the floor so players have to adopt a ‘submissive pose’ (yes, really) – and it’s no wonder that Brendan Rodgers, when setting out his plans for Liverpool at the start of last season, pinpointed the home form as crucial to any form of success.
According to the experts, it’s the little things that give professionals the competitive edge. The Rugby World Cup-winning coach and Director of Sport for Team GB Sir Clive Woodward summed it up well:
“If you’re playing at home nothing should surprise you. There’s a far better chance of staying absolutely fixed on what you are there to do. It’s just little things – when I was a coach, I would walk out at Twickenham and I’d always know exactly where my wife was sitting with the kids, give them a wave – it’s just a comfort factor.
“You go to a foreign ground and what you do is try and find them. You should be totally focused on this game that is about to start in half an hour’s time. What we’ve tried to do with the athletes, they will have been to the stadium beforehand and they will know your mum and dad will be in those two seats. So when you walk out you haven’t got to be wandering around going ‘hope they’re ok’, they’ll know straight away, they can give them a wave. Just things like that.”
Beyond the effect on the players themselves, home grounds are also where the majority of a team’s supporters see their team play ‘live’ – in the flesh, rather than via the media. It’s where the season-ticket holders form their opinions, show their support or vent their anger.
For Liverpool – players and manager – the expectation to win at Anfield is always huge. History and the standing of the club, regardless of the recent slump in performance, determine that.
In his first spell as manager of Liverpool, Kenny Dalglish enjoyed an imperious record at Anfield, only losing nine games in SIX YEARS, with defeats against Coventry, Everton (twice), Wimbledon, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Newcastle and Norwich. Dalglish’s record for that period boasts a 73 per cent win rate and reads: P145 W106 D30 L9.
Liverpool’s all-time record at Anfield is also remarkable. The Reds did not lose a league match at home in seasons 1893/94, 1970/71, 1976/77, 1978/79, 1979/80 and 1987/88. Liverpool won ALL their home games in 1893/94.
The club best at Anfield is an 85-game unbeaten run in all competitions – Liverpool did not lose on home turf between February 7 1978 and January 31 1981; 69 wins and 16 draws, scoring 212 and conceding just 35.
In more recent history, Gerard Houllier went close to taking Liverpool to the Premier League title in 2001/02 with a second placed finish on 80 points after winning 63 per cent of home games.
And under Rafa Benítez the club enjoyed their best results at home since Bob Paisley’s 1978/79 side, which won 90 per cent of home games.
After leading the club to a fifth European Cup triumph in his debut season in 2005, Benítez’s side won 79 per cent of home games in 2005/06, while in 2008/09 his Liverpool side was undefeated at home.
Even under the much maligned Graeme Souness, who oversaw what was widely regarded as one of the darkest spells managerially in the club’s history, the home record was strong. In 1991/92, Liverpool finished sixth, but 13 wins at Anfield matched the home record of title-winners Leeds. The following season was another sixth place, but again the Reds clocked up 13 league wins at Anfield.
The legacy of decades of outstanding results at home has spawned a psychological monster for fans and players.
Little is made of context, opposition or form; most supporters arriving in L4 on match day seem to expect victory regardless. And why not?
But when things go wrong at home it can spell trouble; and what constitutes ‘wrong’ for Liverpool is very different to other football clubs: the fact the Reds were booed by many as they left the Anfield turf following a 0-0 draw with West Ham that put Rafa Benítez’s side top of the league in December 2008 seems even more ridiculous now in the setting of the mediocrity that has followed.
Dalglish too, suffered to the standards he helped to set. His return to the dugout gave many Liverpool fans a much needed injection of enthusiasm for the game after the mojo-sapping reign of Hicks and Gillett and the string of mistakes that followed.
So, when the club legend was unceremoniously sacked by a regime that had been open about its football naivety, it was tough to take. However, on reflection, to suggest there was no justification or arguable case for the decision is to engage in one-eyed romanticism.
The worst league finish for 18 years and the lowest points tally (52) since relegation in 1953/54 had much to do with an appalling home record; the Reds claimed just six league wins at Anfield all season, the worst record in a league season since 1948-49.
It seemed then that the much-heralded home advantage had become anything but. Fluffed chances to finish teams off and an alarming propensity to hit the woodwork combined to create a perverse football version of Groundhog Day. Frustration was palpable in the Anfield atmosphere, the words ‘Here we go again’ almost tattooed on the lips of the match-goer, and that anxiousness and simmering anger clearly transmitted to the pitch.
Rodgers spoke of that period as he tried to mastermind an upturn in Liverpool’s Anfield fortunes. He said early last season: “There can be a number of reasons why that (a poor home record) can be and sometimes it can play on players’ minds. They certainly had enough opportunities last year where they could have gone on and won games, and through whatever reason it didn’t materialise.
“It is a combination of everything. If you continually have bad luck and don’t quite get the result your confidence level can be affected.”
It’s a phenomena Antoinette Minniti, a lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Nottingham Trent University, spoke about in relation to British athletes competing in the London Olympic Games. She said: “Home advantage is really not always an advantage. Sometimes it’s a disadvantage. And often it’s about what the athletes and coaches expect, and how they embrace it.
“Arousal and home advantage are very interconnected. But while anxiety is a negative thing, arousal can be either facilitative or debilitative. It’s very much about how the person perceives it. The athletes who interpret the home game as a positive thing will do better.”
It’s something any regular match-goer will have witnessed in recent years. Rodgers has referred to the “heavy shirt” at Liverpool – and that garment takes on suit of armour properties at times at Anfield.
Some players have tried to hide, visibly scared to express themselves and seemingly taking the easy option time and again – a short pass inside or back, rather than something more incisive, or a turn back inside rather than trying to beat a man to the line.
Whether it’s the transient nature of the modern day support, ticket prices driving up the age – and the cynicism – of fans or other factors, the ‘support’ at Anfield no longer feels unconditional. There’s a ‘win and entertain me or be damned’ culture that has crept into the ground and washed over the stands.
Players no longer have their names routinely sang and expectation hangs heavy. Time was almost every first team regular had a song dedicated to him – the Kop would boom out each in turn and greet the player’s acknowledgment with a cheer.
Now it’s felt necessary to have a pitchside announcer to ramp up the pre-match atmosphere.
Liverpool players have also been booed by the home crowd in recent years, something unthinkable a decade ago, maybe less.
Fickleness is seemingly on the rise. Leaving Anfield early used to be a signal for abuse from your fellow fan. Last season there was a mass exit at 80 minutes when trailing 3-0 to Aston Villa and hardly an eyelid was batted. The players must know they face a barracking, boos and an internet pillorying if they put a foot wrong and that must surely engender a fear of failure in some and a propensity to take the easy option to avoid the finger pointing and the moans and groans.
Given the problems Dalglish and his underachieving side suffered, Rodgers’ appointment of sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters was an interesting one. Peters rates ‘fear of failure’ as one of the psychological states that must be eliminated before a team or an individual can be successful.
Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Ronnie O’Sullivan have all highlighted Peters as being key to their success. And in football Craig Bellamy was one to benefit from his knowledge.
Precisely which players he has worked with in his time at Liverpool is shrouded in mystery, but it’s clear the problems he has uncovered at Anfield.
The Independent reported in March that 10 of the 23-man squad had been to see Peters, and in the piece the doctor highlighted unrealistic goals as being a problem for the mindset of individuals at the club.
He said: “A goal is something you must be able to control and you can’t control [your place] in the league. It depends on how others play, not just you. You always like to influence things and influence as much as you can but accept that most things in life are a dream. They’re not guaranteed to happen.”
Some quotes from Peters in 2008 should also ring bells for Reds: “Everyone is different, but there are some common conditions that athletes suffer from. Anxiety is one, and reducing it is vital for performance. Anxiety is brought on by fear of failure, which can stem from fear of letting people down or being overwhelmed by the significance of an event.
“It can arise when expectations of you are high. It’s important to recognise it and reduce it. Fear of failure has no place in high level sport. Those who don’t manage to reduce fear to manageable levels find themselves being eaten alive by their fears and emotions.
“When I watch sport, it’s easy for me to spot when someone is under-performing for psychological reasons; they look as if their emotions are in full control of them.”
Peters’ involvement at Liverpool could clearly help the players to control their emotions and perform to their best of their ability, but how can fans play their part?
Will the concrete, steel and 101 x 68 metres piece of grass ever become ‘Fortress Anfield’ again?
Ultimately, no one can say. All that can be done is to make the preparations for that possibility the best they can be. And perhaps realism, perspective and a different attitude to the game would benefit supporters as much as players.
After all, for all the talk of improvement under Brendan Rodgers, the Ulsterman managed just three more league wins at Anfield last season (and three less draws) than Dalglish did in the campaign that ended his second spell as manager.
The all-time home records of the past that are still a source of pride for many are likely to remain untroubled for the foreseeable future, particularly in a stadium where impatience and anger rule over support and atmosphere.
Imagine – as idealistic as it may now be – that Anfield was a place that, on a regular basis, and not just for ‘big’ games, intimidated and chastised. Imagine the crowd collectively acted like the 12th man it was once dubbed.
Players often talk of competing in a bubble – they say they don’t hear the crowd and aren’t influenced by it. Frankly, that feels like a comfortable cliché.
It’s not often Joey Barton is a go-to man for a valuable opinion but he offered some interesting views on home advantage in a Radio 4 programme that is well worth a listen: bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01ks3vh/Advantage_Home
Talking about his time at Newcastle and a poor run of form at home, he said: “We’d really struggle at home and it became a vicious circle the other way. The crowd really expected us to win the home games.
“It can become quite vicious. I was really vocal about it when I was at Newcastle and the fans were not best pleased shall we say. What I was saying to them was, you’re not helping anyone by being negative. I’m trying as hard as I possibly can and I know all the other lads are and by being really negative you’re not helping.”
Barton’s never been backwards at coming forwards, so it’s interesting to ponder what some Liverpool players really think of the ‘support’ at Anfield at times.
Barton added: “The fans want success and they want it straight away, but unless they change that mentality and start supporting the side through poor results then things won’t change.
“Unless there’s a massive change, it’s going to be the same for this manager, the next manager and whoever comes in after that.”
It’s food for thought. The club is doing its best to make sure the players can make full use of home advantage, but are the fans?
Even the most optimistic supporter can see that the current squad isn’t a match for those that set records in the past, so why judge by those standards?
Instead, a tethering of sky-high expectations and a recognition that this is a squad aiming to challenge for the top four – and one that would probably be upgraded accordingly should it get there – could benefit everyone.
Players perform better when they’re not anxious. Referees favour the home side when they feel intimidated. If we want the fortress to return, perhaps it’s time to start shouting about it.
We asked MARK NESTI, a sports psychologist at Liverpool John Moores University who has worked in the Premier League with Bolton, Hull and Newcastle, some quick-fire questions:
TAW: First off, on a basic level, why should playing home or away matter, particularly to top football teams and players?
MN: It’s not one reason but several, but all common sense really. Some reasons are familiarity, less travel, being at home the night before, even the food players will eat.
TAW: Given the stats that show playing at home is such an advantage, what can clubs do mentally to prepare players to try to win an away game?
MN: As they do – take them away to high quality hotels, make travel as easy as they can, train at the venue if possible and set out with a specific mental attitude that allows you to impose your way on opposition. In other words, don’t wait for it to happen – have a plan and stick to it.
TAW: When dealing with mental preparation of football players, in general terms are things focused on the individual or the team?
MN: Both equally. But if you’re not doing it with the team then it is hard to be as effective with one to ones.
TAW: Can playing at home become a disadvantage? For example where a crowd has unrealistic expectations, is anxious, impatient etc?
MN: Yes, anxiety can be a negative at times. But often it is a positive
TAW: In that situation, say when a team is on a losing streak at home, what can a club do to change the mindset among players?
MN: It’s more about how they are set up to play, especially at the start of match: impose your plan and tactics on the opposition – this makes players feel more in control and reduces anxiety.
TAW: Having worked with footballers, what is your opinion on the influence of crowds and atmosphere in a ground, positively and negatively?
MN: Top players mostly love being abused by away fans. At other times, they rarely hear or are much aware of what happens despite what media say (and them sometimes). Generally they tell me they never hear the crowd when playing well.
TAW: In football, there’s a tendency to put everything, good and bad, down to the competency of the manager. as someone who has been involved behind the scenes at successful football clubs, how important would you say the manager is compared to the quality of the team behind them?
MN: Both important. If the manager does not have the players who can put his ideas into effect he is in trouble. But a good manager can make a less-talented team much more effective.
TAW: Given the successes of the England Rugby Union team, the GB Olympic team and so on that have at least in part been put down to the quality of the mental preparation, is football one of the most backward sports when it comes to recognising the importance of psychology?
MN: Absolutely, yes. It’s all down to the culture of the sport.
TAW: Aside from results, what would you look for performance-wise, collectively and individually, as tell-tale signs that a team or an individual had psychological issues?
MN: The list is endless, but breakdown in trust then poor communication of players to staff and vice versa, breaking up into factions among staff and players and the staff all saying one thing – in other words afraid to express diverse opinions. It’s very common this last one and usually after this it’s terminal and we will all be gone (sacked) very soon!
TAW: Finally, do you think the rewards in football compared to other sports have a bearing on how receptive players are to new methods that could give them a competitive edge?
MN: Yes in that they lose their edge to learn and improve quicker as the excessive extrinsic rewards can dull their intrinsic motivation and then when they need to change it’s too late and they become defensive, cynical and begin to hate the game. Quite common, unfortunately.
From issue three of The Anfield Wrap magazine. Issues 1-3 of the magazine are available to download now – FREE – for Apple iDevices from itunes.apple.com/gb/app/anfield-wrap/id583362683. Users of other devices – computers, tablets or mobiles of just about any flavour – can also view the magazine – FREE – here: app.theanfieldwrap.com.