It says a lot about the English football mentality that when Roy Hodgson announced noted sports psychiatrist Dr. Steve Peters had been added to his World Cup backroom team at the beginning of March (BBC), thoughts immediately turned to the penalty spot.
Peters is, we are told, the man to cure England’s “disorder” from 12 yards out in major tournaments, the guru who can banish the “curse” which seems to afflict the country’s players every other summer and, by extension, the country itself.
That is understandable, of course. The exit to Italy at Euro 2012 was England’s third penalty shootout defeat in their last four tournaments, whilst stretching back to the 1990 World Cup makes that six in 10.
Talk of Peters helping the England players to stay cool and manage their emotions in Brazil—just as he has with the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Victoria Pendleton, Sir Chris Hoy and, most notably for England, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool in the recent past—will inevitably see the focus shift to those dreaded shootouts, but the Good Doctor will be offering so much more than that.
Having already worked with the six Liverpool players who are in the 25-man England squad currently in Portugal, the “formal introduction” between Peters and the players on Tuesday night would have been a lot more informal for some.
Indeed, as the doctor revealed in an interview with the Liverpool Echo this week, it was the England captain Steven Gerrard who proved to be the driving force behind his role at Anfield, where he doesn’t work on a full-time basis but has been seen in the dugout with Rodgers on occasion.
Liverpool’s fine 2013/14 Premier League season didn’t feature Peters playing upfront with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. It didn’t see him slotting in alongside Gerrard in midfield or providing competition for places in defence either (although a new face would have been welcomed there at times), but he was undoubtedly influenced by the doctor, who was given a huge amount of credit by Rodgers in a Daily Telegraph interview last month.
It is very easy to oversimplify just what Peters does and maybe even ridicule it—he didn’t teach Suarez and Sturridge to score 55 goals between them this season, for example. But, his ability to declutter a sportsman or sportswoman’s brain so that they can perform to an optimum level makes him a vital cog in a sporting machine; which brings us to probably the most vital cog in England’s.
Wayne Rooney has been in the adverts, on the front cover of magazines and followed around by the photographers, so it must be major tournament time again.
Now 10 years on from his burst onto the international scene with England at Euro 2004, Rooney finds his international career being questioned like never before. There are even those who claim that they’d like to see him dropped from the side to make way for the exciting breed of youngsters currently seen in the squad.
For those new and relatively new names—Sturridge, Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jordan Henderson, Luke Shaw—Peters’ presence in Brazil will be just another element added to their first senior international tournament, but for Rooney it will be something hugely different.
The injuries, the red cards and the underperformance of tournaments past probably still haunt the forward and will have been dragged onto the pitch with him in those theatres of English disappointment in recent years.
In Kiev against Italy two years ago, Bloemfontein for the Germany defeat in 2010 and Cape Town for the turgid, goalless draw with Algeria at that same World Cup, Rooney cut a depressed, isolated figure, the weight of the country on his shoulders and a slew of blame and disappointment to return to once he went back there—or before he did, in the case of that Algeria game.
The combination of Peters and Rooney’s new, fearless teammates can lift that in Brazil and, perhaps, spur him on to delivering the best tournament he’s managed for England in a decade.
That tournament might well end in penalty disappointment—and it will certainly end in some form of regret eventually—but by working with Peters, Rooney can at least ensure that he leaves whatever stage proves to be England’s last in Brazil safe in the knowledge that he’s done everything he can.
Peters can’t program him to play well, and this will require effort, understanding and a willingness on Rooney’s part to make it work, but at 28 years of age, if he’s not going to shine on a global stage now, then will he ever?
Preparing for penalties is just one of Peters’ jobs in Brazil, but getting into the head of England’s No. 10 is his most important.