Friday, 30 January 2009

Mind Games?

Last Saturday Bitton AFC beat Radstock Town 3-0 in a League game, all the goals scored in the second half. In the crowd was the Glossop North End manager Steve Young. His side's game that day against St Helens Town had fallen victim to the High Peaks inclement weather, and he took the opportunity to cast an eye over his FA Vase opposition. I was mildly surprised to hear what he had to say following his visit. He explained "I was happy with what I saw on the day" and went on to say that "We will cause them more problems than they will cause us". He said that he had seen nothing about Bitton to worry him and was confident that Glossop would win the tie.

Call me on old cynic, but that's a pretty brave statement. I cannot claim to know much about Steve Young, other than the fact he took over at Glossop at the start of the 2007-08 season and had a relatively successful first season in charge of the Derbyshire club, finishing seventh in the North West Counties Premier League. There are a number of ways his words could be construed. One: he really is extremely confident and he knows his players well enough to genuinely believe that there was nothing he saw at Bitton that unduly concerns him. Two: he is naive. Three: he is playing mind games.

Young has every reason to be confident. His side are currently fourth in the League having lost only 5 games in 21. They have had an excellent FA Vase campaign already this season, having eliminated Sporting Khalsa (5-0), Calverton Miners Welfare (4-1 away), New Mills (also 4-1 away), Biddulph Victoria (4-0), Winterton Rangers (2-1) and Stewarts & Lloyds Corby in the last round (2-1). 21 goals in 6 FA Vase ties are enough to inspire confidence in any manager. But Bitton are also riding high in their own League (3 points off top spot with 6 games in hand) and have had an impressive FA Vase run, as previously reported on this blog. But where does the boundary lie between extreme confidence and naivety?

Naive managers don't last long in football and in a League as competitive as the North West Counties Premier Division, that sort of character trait would not be tolerated by boards and fans alike. Naive managers simply have no place to hide. Young will know it is difficult to fully assess a team on the back of only one viewing. A 3-0 scoreline suggested a comfortable result for Bitton last Saturday. Maybe the Gloucestershire club had the luxury of being able to take their collective feet off the gas? Maybe Bitton had players out injured or rested and their strongest team was not on show?

Cometh the day, cometh the man, and it could all be very different on February 7th. Teams can raise their game to an almost unrecognisable level for Cup encounters, as if we need reminding. In last season's FA Cup, just think of Chasetown, Horsham, Staines Town, Havant & Waterlooville, Oldham and Barnsley. Against Radstok Town, Bitton had a crowd of 108. Expect triple that for the Glossop tie and a bigger crowd could influence proceedings. The pitch could play its part if there is rain before the tie. 'The Hillmen' will be making their long journey down from Derbyshire on the day, with no overnight stay the day before, and the journey could take its toll. Glossop could quite simply have an off day. It happens. Young will know all of these things and I hold no truck with the naivety explanation.

So mind games perhaps? If that really is the case, it's an awfully dangerous game to play. The national press love to report on the mind games of the Premier League managers. The comments of Ferguson, Mourinho and Scolari, Wenger and most recently Benitez are scrutinised, dissected, butchered and quartered to the nth degree. And the managers know this and use it to their advantage so much so that it has become a part of the job description. Mind games employed by the masters can wield amazing effect; the classic Keegan rant being probably the most famous.

But these kind of mind games can often backfire. The Bitton AFC manager will no doubt be letting his players know exactly what the opposition thinks about them. This could spur the team on and the comments could fuel Bitton with even more of an incentive to win the game. Comments pinned on dressing room walls can really galvanise a team and focus the mind, particularly if those comments are less than favourable.

The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding and we have to wait just over a week before we get to see the players on the pitch do the talking. Both Bitton and Glossop are at a similar level and my own view is that there will be little between them on the day. It was Wednesday when I heard Young's confident claims, but today it's a slightly different tone for the Glossop gaffer. Young is now quoted as saying “We’re going to have to be at our best to beat them, put it that way, because they’re a tidy outfit". More mind games or realisation that his midweek comments needed diluting?

In the meantime, the Bitton boss Andy Black remains quiet. When it comes to games of the mind, it is perhaps Black's silence that speaks volumes.

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