As Blackburn Rovers’s equaliser went in at Fulham on Tuesday, people around the country will have been silently punching the air.
I include various footballers in that. When you’re in the game you pretend not to give other clubs any thought but it would take a robot to ignore the results that affect you.
Back in the day you needed Teletext or maybe the morning’s paper to see what had gone on the night before. It was conceivable that you’d get in for training without knowing how the division had changed.
These days we’ve all got mobiles and we’re all as bad as each other at fiddling on them on the sofa at 10 o’clock at night. Everything’s at the touch of a finger and players are as curious as the next man.
Over the next few weeks you’ll hear a lot of talk about clubs and coaches focusing on themselves. It’s the party line and, as professional football brings you into contact with the media, you learn to toe the line quickly.
I was quite an open person when it came to the press but I didn’t take long to find out that the more interesting I was (or to put that a better way, the more interesting my quotes were) the more they got used. That’s not a complaint. With hindsight it’s extremely obvious.
Make a declaration about promotion in September and people will hold you to it. Start puffing your chest out in March or April and you draw attention to yourself, some of it needless. I don’t think I was ever told by managers, media officers or anyone else what to say in relation to the table, but most of us end up getting bitten on the backside by something we’ve said now and again.
Some players make a career out of it.
Behind closed doors it’s slightly different and, for a coach, there’s a fine balance to strike.
On one hand I’d never have wanted a manager to pile on the pressure by constantly talking about ifs, buts and maybes in relation to results and league positions, but on the other, you do want to feel like your manager is as desperate to make the play-offs or seal promotion as you are.
In a lot of ways spring is more about managing excitement than it is about managing pressure.David Prutton
As daft as it sounds, there can be a danger of being uninspiring at this stage. At some stage the anticipation of it all has to become a weapon and a driving force. My experience of play-off or promotion years was that the collective element came into play more than ever during the run-in.
In the better groups I was never really aware of pressure getting to individuals or changing them drastically.
Some people do need a bit of help or encouragement and I saw it as my job to provide some of that. The players who scored goals, the match winners, the guys who were able to pull rabbits out of a hat: I won’t pretend that list included me but I was more than happy to blow as much smoke up their you-know-what as I could, to make them feel 10 feet tall. At the end of the day you needed them to believe that they’d have the magic touch when we needed it.
You’d have the odd bad egg too, the sort of person who can find something to moan about on the most perfect of days, and it’s amazing how you zone out from them when promotion comes into sharp focus.
On the outside you see this as a time of tension but actually it’s a period of natural optimism and this week reminded me why. I went down to Brighton to interview Glenn Murray about tomorrow’s game at Elland Road and the weather was absolutely glorious, the weather footballers live for.
Training in the snow and the rain is no great hardship in the grand scheme of life but the feeling in spring, when you’re able to ditch the gloves and the snood and get outside in a T-shirt, is fabulous. It lifts your mood and increases your enthusiasm.
In a lot of ways, spring is more about managing excitement than it is about managing pressure.
Needless to say, that excitement only exists if you are where Leeds are in the table. By the end of March you can split footballers into three categories: those who are fighting relegation and feeling that sense of creeping death, those who are going for promotion, and those who’ve got their flip-flops on.
If you’re on the beach then you can switch off but everyone else will be consumed by it all.
Take Tuesday night: if Fulham don’t concede, they’re into the play-offs. That’s a massive statement with nine games to go. But they let one in on 94 minutes and Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Reading breathe a little sigh of relief. That goes for the players of each club too. After all, they’re only human.
Upcoming Sky-televised Championship fixtures include:
Tonight: Bristol City v Huddersfield Town (Sky Sports 1, 7.45pm kick-off).
Saturday: Leeds United v Brighton & Hove Albion (Sky Sports 1, 5.30pm kick-off).