The basics of football are exactly that: basic. Aside from anything else, you need to be able to trap a bag of cement. You need to be able to run for miles on end. You need the ability to read a game and adapt to what’s going on around you at any one time.
Talent varies depending on individual players but there is no-one in the Football League who can’t do their job in normal circumstances. What makes you as a footballer, and what can break you too, is the mental side of it. When the pressure of the game gets into your head, nothing feels as easy as it should. It’s a strange sensation.
Maybe that’s what we’ve seen at Leeds United in the past month: the momentous target of getting into the play-offs starting to play on a few minds. I can’t say for certain without being on the inside, but it certainly happens.
Sometimes it only takes the tense vibes of a few players to put everyone else on edge and I’m struggling to see any other explanation. How else do you explain the form of a group of players who, for months on end, were renowned as being consistent, hard to beat and mentally tough?
Let’s be honest, the scenario in front of them now is a quantum leap from where the club were at the start of the season. In my mind, the first target this season was for Garry Monk to make it past Christmas. If nothing else, by doing that he was breaking the mould at Elland Road. When you’ve got 15 or 20 games to go, the play-offs feel like some distant event, which is why no-one speaks about them at that stage.
On the outside you assume that managers and players are talking the talk by banging on about “one game at a time”. But, honestly, when you’ve got 20 Championship matches in front of you, the play-offs are as far away as winning the Champions League.
Then you hit crunch time; five or six games to go and everything on the line. Telling people what a good season it’s been – which, in fairness, it really has – starts to wear thin, and not just for the fans.
As a player you’re suddenly desperate to get there. You know it’ll feel like a massive kick in teeth if you don’t make it and that’s how it’ll feel for Garry if it doesn’t happen. He’s trying not to give that impression but we all know he’s an ambitious manager who’s coached in the Premier League and wants to get back there. Seventh place would really stick in the craw.
I’m talking a bit as if Leeds are out of the running and the truth is they’re not. I can’t think of many more unpredictable divisions, but what their recent results have done is put them at the mercy of a very topsy-turvy league. A few weeks ago it was basically a case of Leeds getting the results they needed.
Now it’s a case of trying to put points on the board and crossing fingers for a few favours elsewhere.
That changes the mindset because your sense of control disappears. Every manager I played for always stressed the need to concentrate on the things you can control; the old cliché of letting everything else take care of itself. That’s all well and good but when you’re in the position that Leeds are in with two games to go, you can’t avoid turning some attention elsewhere. The bottom line is that the club will have no chance of sixth if the teams above them all win tomorrow.
It goes without saying that the crowd at Elland Road will be keeping tabs on other results.
I’ve been there in similar circumstances and there’s nothing more energy-sapping than the collective groan which comes from 25,000 people as goals go in for rival teams. It sucks the life out of you. It can be quite subtle and if you weren’t looking for it you might not notice it, but the message transmits to the players straight away. At the same time, Garry’s team will be very aware if things are going for them tomorrow. There’ll be that extra buzz and that extra drive from the fans.
Norwich is going to be one of those bizarre matches which don’t come around very often.
Garry’s players are bound to be a bit downbeat. It’s only natural. They’ll know they’ve done well this season and they might feel like they’ve punched above their weight, but every chance of winning promotion is one you have to take.
All this stuff you’ve heard over the years about ‘too soon to go up’ or ‘building for the future’ – it’s b******s in my view. Leeds were talking about building towards the Premier League when I was there, six or seven years ago. A few managers get the chance to stick around at a club but most either deliver in a short timeframe or move on elsewhere. Football is now. Success is now. That doesn’t mean you can’t come again, but it does make a missed opportunity hard to take.
If you speak to Garry’s squad, not a single one of them will be anything other than gutted if they don’t make the play-offs.
Tomorrow is a hard challenge: to lift yourself when so much seems to be against you. But that’s professional football, that’s what you get paid for and this is when you find out who’s mentally strongest.
So often that’s where the game is decided – in a player’s head.
Upcoming Sky-televised Championship fixtures include:
Tonight: Cardiff City v Newcastle United (Sky Sports 1, 7.45pm).
Saturday: Brighton & Hove Albion v Bristol City (Sky Sports 1, 5.30pm).