Pre-match rituals: from Kenny Dalglish trimming toenails to scotch at Old Trafford

Embed from Getty Images

Players, just like fans, have their own quirky habits and routines ahead of a match, including Lev Yahsin smoking and Ian Wright preferring something stronger

17 December ~ It didn’t matter how many times Bob Paisley asked him to stop, pre-match at Liverpool meant one thing for Kenny Dalglish – trimming his toenails. As his manager, Paisley worried doing so before a game risked sore feet for his star player, yet Dalglish remained defiant: “Nail clipping had been a beloved tradition at Celtic,” he said. “My nails probably didn’t require attention, but I needed to give it to them because of my superstition.” Such mundane rituals, which play a significant part in many players’ pre-match routine, are carried out in an attempt to control the nerves caused by the anticipation of kick-off.

Given match day is the opportunity to put the week’s work into practice it’s reasonable to presume it would be anybody at a club’s favourite day of the week. Not so according to Sam Allardyce. “I don’t like match day at all. I’m always so nervous,” he said while manager of Sunderland in 2016. Not that Allardyce was being facetious. Tests of his heart rate at the time of confession revealed a classic example of psychological stress. He mitigates the worry with transcendental meditation, half an hour of which he says is as effective as two or three hours of sleep.

Others prefer a drink. Many enjoyed a shot of the hard stuff before games, especially if it was cold outside. A bottle of scotch was kept with the kit and boots at Old Trafford, with Bobby Charlton among those taking a nip. The influx of foreign players to British football in the 1990s brought a less adventurous approach to alcohol, but they weren’t all slaves to pasta and mineral water. In 1998, Gianluca Vialli marked his first game in charge of Chelsea by giving players a pre-match glass of champagne – they went on to beat Arsenal. Danny Dichio remembers Dennis Wise and Ray Wilkins doing likewise in an attempt to quash nerves before Millwall’s 2004 FA Cup semi-final with Sunderland. “They had a tray of pink champagne lined up for us,” he said. “We downed a small glass each and they just said go out and enjoy it.” They won 1-0.

Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin liked a quick smoke before taking to the field, a pastime in which Ian Wright also partook while at Crystal Palace – though Wright was a man of different tastes. “I’d been smoking weed since I was about 17,” he said. “It had become something of an end of week ritual.” Then drug testers visited the dressing room after Palace’s 4-1 win over West Brom in 1987. Fortunately for Wright, the testers chose two of his team-mates to wee in a cup and not him. He never smoked a spliff again.

If rivals in their 1980s heyday knew just how riddled with superstition Liverpool were, they might have focused on stopping the supply of biscuits to Merseyside. Steve McMahon was given what Dalglish described as the solemn honour of opening a packet of plain biscuits. “Of all the plain openers,” he said, “Macca had the best technique.” What this constitutes is an utter mystery, but the ceremonial nature of this task was performed every Friday before a game at their Melwood training ground, with players munching away while taking tactical instruction. Dalglish brought chocolate ones, alternating between consumption of the two biscuit types in a set sequence he would maintain the following week if Liverpool won. Although baffling, this routine does provide insight into how he gained what Brian Clough described as his “huge arse”.

Such habits die hard. Gary Neville was peeved on arrival for Michael Carrick’s testimonial. “They didn’t have my tape,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.” He was talking about Tubigrip, the elasticated support bandage you can get at the chemist. The brand alone wasn’t sufficient, Neville would only use one specific type – size D, designated to be used on large arms, medium ankles and small knees. Not that Neville was ever anxious pre-match. “I was always intense before a game, but hardly ever affected by nerves.” As long as he had his favourite bandages, which he seemed to expect someone else to bring for him. That said, it’s reassuring that footballers can get as worked up as fans do, even if they don’t always admit it. Mark Sanderson

This article first appeared in WSC 381, December 2018. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here