Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Mind games: An evolution

It's April the third, which means only two things:

First, I'm going to have to get used to doing a hell of a lot of gardening.
Second, the Premier League season is headed for it's conclusion.

I've often commented/moaned/joked about it, but the "title-race" is slowly approaching its end. Following a wonderful start to the season, Manchester City headed the table for almost six months. However, as Sir Alex Ferguson recently said, the season is a little longer than that. 

Of course, no race to the top would be complete without some performance-enhancing verbal warfare. Continuing this tenuous drug-related theme, Sir Alex again looks likely to test positive but again get away with it, while his counterpart Roberto Mancini looks likely to get caught and abused, with a spell in the sporting wilderness a dangerous possibility. That said, with this being the abuse of performance-enhancement in professional sport, there is every chance that Mancini will emerge from his "difficult moment" and gain redemption, a bit like Dwain Chambers, but with great hair.

So why is it that as soon as we approach spring, we are greeted with the blossoming of mental tit-for-tat? How come whenever the clocks go forward, the light seems to go out on the competitors while Manchester United bask in the glow once more? I decided it would be fun to take a look at the progression of mind games.

My first example reminds us just how long ago the 90's really were.

In the 1994-1995 season, Manchester United went head-to-head with a Lancashire side thrust from utter mediocrity to sudden competition for the highest honours due to a major cash injection. How times have changed.

That year, United were aiming for a third straight league triumph while Blackburn were looking to crash the party and become English champions for the first time in over 80 years. With Blackburn ahead going into the final stretch, Ferguson piled the pressure on Blackburn, saying that the title was theirs to lose, when in reality, it was United who cracked under the pressure, missing numerous chances to claim the required win at West Ham on the final day.

Those days seem a long time ago now as not only was Ferguson beaten in a battle of wits and nerve, his rival was none other than current Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish who, as we all know, could now be outwitted by a donkey with dementia. Or Wigan.

One year later, mind-games took one small step forward to glory for Ferguson but one giant leap into oblivion for his newest rival, Kevin Keegan. By January 1996, Newcastle had opened up a twelve point lead over United. However, Newcastle, who played brilliantly in the first few months of the season (sound familiar?) began to lose their nerve, and their away form stuttered (sound familiar?), including losing against an irrepressible, ambitious and clinical Liverpool side (sound familiar?..haha.)

Seeing Newcastle falter, Ferguson chose his moment, criticising the Leeds side that United had just beaten, accusing them of raising their game due to the opponents...which, to be fair, is something Leeds would do. Anyway, Keegan took objection to this and - upon his own side beating Leeds - delivered his famous "I hope we beat them" rant. Whether the race was run for Newcastle at this point is open to debate, but Ferguson had heralded in a new era of football, using booming media attention to this sides advantage.

Keegan can now be found rustling in bins
somewhere near Manchester
Let's jump forward a few years to the 2008-2009 season.

That season, Liverpool were the best team in the land...I know. Anyway, after a series of late wins early on in the campaign, the Merseyside team were growing in confidence, culminating in the ending of Chelsea's ridiculously good home record, winning 1-0 at Stamford Bridge. Through the imperious form of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Liverpool were able to couple attacking flair with defensive solidity thanks to the brilliant Jamie Carragher. However, what contributed to Liverpool's form was what some could argue was the implementation of the 4-2-3-1 formation which has since seen widespread utilisation across Europe. Thanks to the passing of the excellent Xabi Alonso and the terrier-like tackling of Javier Mascherano, Liverpool had a system which was proving almost impossible to overcome, taking them to a five point lead by Christmas, despite a few dodgy home performances along the way. Ferguson had to act, and act he did.

Seeing that United's grasp on the title they had won for the last two seasons was slipping and Liverpool were suddenly a force to be reckoned with once more, Ferguson decided to dust off his box of tricks and unleash them on Rafael Benitez, who had been so influential in guiding Liverpool into their lofty position. Bemoaning issues as wide ranging as kick-off times and injury problems, Ferguson was almost clutching at straws. Fortunately for him, Benitez took issue with Ferguson's biggest rant, the scheduling of league fixtures.

Starting any rant or attempt at mind-games with the line "this is not a rant or mind-games" is not a great start. But, as I have alluded to before, saying "FACT" at the end of a sentence will destroy your own argument more often than not. If only Benitez heeded my advice, things could have been so different. As it happened, prior to a difficult game against Stoke, Benitez opened his tiny mouth as wide as he could and took a huge swallow of Ferguson's bait. Oh please, grow up, that's not a sex joke.

Shouldn't have had that curry. Fact.
Pulling out a ridiculous sheet of paper like a nervous supply teacher, threatening action to a higher power, Benitez reeled off a number of offences committed by United, moments of good fortune for United and moments when Ferguson had been in the wrong. The "fact" that most of the above is absolutely true is beside the point. Consistently saying that he was not "playing mind games" was technically true, he wasn't, he was the one being played. 

Watching the video back, Sir Alex must have been rubbing his hands or chewing his gum with added glee, while Liverpool fans watched in horror at Benitez's chubby face contorted with frustration as he claimed time and again that United were nervous. Anyway, Liverpool went on to drop point after point and fell ten points behind, which meant that their later spectacular return to form meaningless, as United claimed the title. 

I actually have the video on the background so I can talk about "facts" when writing this article. Boy, Benitez talked a load of rubbish. But then again, this is a man who said Roy Hodgson could not see a priest in a mountain of sugar. I have literally no idea what this means, but you know that donkey with a dementia I talked about earlier? Yeah. Full circle.

So, my crazy time machine takes us to the present. It's a crazy world here, very different to back then, when England's national team was rubbish, when Kenny Dalglish was a manager and a sub-standard United team kept fighting off more talented, but mentally fragile opponents. In 2012, it is totally different. Only it isn't.

After drawing with Sunderland at the weekend, Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini gazed into his crystal ball, the same ball which advised him that signing Mario Balotelli and asking Carlos Tevez to warm up on a warm, Bavarian night was a good idea. After the game, Mancini predicted that United would "probably do a draw" against Blackburn. I'm assuming he meant claim one point and not sketch the Blackburn first eleven. Anyway, neither came true as United were victorious, rendering Mancini's mighty prophecy incorrect. It could well be that Roberto's race is run. Erm, this has been proved to be totally incorrect. Sue me.

Of course, he wouldn't be the only one. Football (and indeed, sport) is littered with instances of players, teams and individuals losing the plot. Arsenal surrendered a significant lead in 2003, before falling apart after losing their 49 match unbeaten league run in October 2004. This collapse ultimately signalled the end of an era and the beginning of enough mental baggage to prevent you boarding an Easy Jet flight...but then again, that wouldn't be too much anyway.

Anyway, in 2008, Arsenal fell apart after that game against Birmingham, when Eduardo broke his ankle and William Gallas went a little bit mental. Four straight draws and a loss followed, and the best Arsenal side since 2004 finished a pitiful third. Two seasons later, faced with a three-way battle for the Premier League and a presentable run-in, Arsenal fell apart, before repeating the trick the next season after losing the Carling Cup final to bloody Birmingham. That same season, losing influential coach Ray Wilkins, Chelsea went on a miserable run of form which cost them a title which seemed certain even by October.

This may look stupid tomorrow.
What does this tell us? That football is not just a physical battle, not just about being the fastest, the strongest or the tallest. It's about keeping your head, when everyone about you is losing theirs. Unfortunately, this often means that the greatest go unrewarded, but that is sport. Sometimes, David beats Goliath and we are left with the tales of what might have been and near-misses e.g. every Arsenal season since 2004. Read into them what you will, but mind games and the trading of mental blows can often make the difference. We've come a long way since the handshakes of years gone by. The media is too big, there is too much at stake, and it's just too dam fun to ignore. Every advantage is sought and, if your advantage is outlasting your opponent, then take it. Alex Ferguson certainly does and he got a knighthood, Rafael Benitez didn't and is now only occasionally allowed on Football Focus.

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