I used to say to referees if they really want to understand the psyche of professional footballers they should take in a regular club training session anywhere in the country.
They’d probably turn up expecting drills and a kickabout but amazing things happen when nothing’s at stake. On a dull, blustery Tuesday morning you’ll find players arguing over whose throw-in it is during a meaningless eight-a-side. You’ll hear bickering after one team loses. Who cares? You might well ask. The only answer I can give you is that the players care.
There’s a good reason why you get ‘training ground bust-ups’. It’s the same reason why players have blazing rows with each other, square-up, fight and shout the odds at their manager. Human nature is competitive and when it comes to footballers, you can multiply that impulse by 10.
Before I look at Leeds’ defeat at Rochdale, let’s dispense with the idea that the players weren’t bothered. The automatic response to any bad loss – and I won’t dress the performance up – is to accuse the team responsible of lacking passion, commitment, desire or whatever but there’s a more simple explanation: the squad had a bad day.
Leeds have had a few of those recently, granted, but I didn’t hear any complaints about attitude a month ago. And you don’t go from impeccable professional to lazy passenger in the space of a few weeks. Rochdale away is a game a bigger club should win but they said the same to us at Leeds before we got turned over by Cardiff City in 2003. That was a huge shock, massive in the context of the FA Cup. Why did it happen? Because shocks do happen.
On reflection, the chances are that five or six of us fell short at the same time. That’s usually the case – a perfect storm of under-performance against a team who play out of their skin for one day only. But seriously, you’d have to be a lunatic to turn out in a Leeds shirt away to Cardiff and think ‘I’m not busting a gut today.’ That’s not how players think. You want to be top-notch every time because your ego demands it. With very few exceptions, no-one is ever happy to let themselves down.
Public perception is important to players at a high level. That’s why when footballers say that they don’t read the papers or listen to the crowd, they’re only telling half the truth. Very few of us read papers cover-to-cover but we all want to see that we’ve got seven-plus in the ratings. We all want to be given man-of-the-match. And nothing strokes your ego more than hearing supporters chant your name.
On the other hand, facing up to an irate crowd is a complete nightmare. It’s a horrible feeling. You get abuse on the pitch and you get it as you walk out to the bus or your car. It’s so much worse if you’ve got friends or family with you, people who aren’t so used to the emotion football stirs up. This isn’t a criticism of the public; it’s just my way of saying that players would never choose to subject themselves to an onslaught. You’d rather not embarrass yourself. In the grand scheme of things, Rochdale doesn’t change my view that Leeds have done pretty well this season. They’ve got issues to iron out and players to sign but I go back to a point I make so often about this game – there’s a big grey area between the black and white of sensation and disaster. The club are eighth in the table and one point short of the play-offs. Whether you think they’re going to make the play-offs is up to you but that’s where they are. And after 24 games, eighth place ain’t bad. All that matters in the short term is a big display at Sheffield Wednesday tomorrow.
This will have been a hard week for Brian McDermott’s squad. They’ll have had the rollicking at Rochdale at the back of their minds since Saturday. It makes you a bit nervous and a little apprehensive, and there’s enough pressure on games like tomorrow’s without knowing everyone with a Leeds connection is waiting and watching for a reaction.
These are the times when your big characters need to come to the fore. Experienced players get you through the bad periods. Because over a long career, you go through it several times – awful moments when it feels like the world is ending – then you fight back and recover. If Leeds win in Sheffield, take a look at the body language of the lads on the pitch at full-time. They’ll want this, I promise you.