It is a staple of the football calendar but on Saturday, for the first time since its inception almost 150 years ago, the FA Cup final will be played behind closed doors before a few hundred spectators, from media to scoreboard operators and stewards. The lowest final attendance is estimated to be about 1,500 in 1876, a replay between Wanderers and Old Etonians at the Oval. Unwanted history will be made.
With so much at stake, how can players prepare and even possibly gain an advantage? At the League One play-off final, winners Wycombe used psychological techniques to ready their players. Pre-match motivational messages were played from people including AP McCoy, Anthony Joshua and Laurel, a cleaner at the training ground. They used visualisation, asking players to envisage celebrating alongside the captain, Matt Bloomfield, at the final whistle, and substitutes moonlighted as supporters at the request of their manager, Gareth Ainsworth, and his assistant, Richard Dobson, inspired by the approach of the England rugby union coach, Eddie Jones.
“He doesn’t call them subs, he calls them ‘finishers’, which suggests something different,” says Dan Abrahams, who worked as the lead psychologist under Jones. “But the whole squad is involved in the game, in the day, and those ‘finishers’ know they’re going to be involved and play a supportive role.”
Jones’s thinking resonated with Wycombe, who ensured there would be a continuous hum of encouragement from the sidelines. “When you’re left out of the side, you’re not left out, it’s just their role has changed and we speak about that quite a lot,” says Dobson. “We said to the guys on the touchline and even those not in the squad: ‘Your role is to be our fans. There’s not going to be any atmosphere, or is there? Can we create it from the touchline?’ Everybody was so vocal and every time there was a tackle, all you could hear was this wall of positivity. All of the players commented on it afterwards.”
Abrahams references the social facilitation theory, a study by Norman Triplett in 1898, whereby cycling performance often improved as a result of the real or implied presence of others, and the self-efficacy theory, whereby being pushed verbally can raise belief. “It is a mechanism for intensity of performance; it helps players retain that sense of intensity, which is really difficult to do for 90 minutes,” says Abrahams.
“The natural human state is to drop off with intensity, to drop off in focus and not retain the kind of intensity you’ve got to play at, not just a physical running intensity but an intensity of focus at all times. It’s a great solution for the current situation.”
Playing in a virtually empty stadium, particularly one as vast as Wembley, brings challenges. “The disadvantage is when players say: ‘I love game day because I feel up for it, I love the supporters there, I love the atmosphere, but we don’t have that atmosphere,’” Abrahams says. “They have to be able to deal with that. The interesting dynamic I’m seeing behind the scenes is that a lot of the players I’m working with are enjoying it because they don’t have the pressure of the crowd. There are some stadiums where it can be pretty toxic.”