SHOULD Boro’s first big summer swoop be for a shrink? The club have spent heavily on quality players but we need to maximise their potential and squeeze out that little bit extra out to get the kind of coherent and consistent displays that the outlay demands.
We need to toughen the mentality and instill a shared will to win that can bridge the quality gap between Boro and the big boys and open one between our heroes and the dead wood. We all know that.
So is it time for a new Bill Beswick?
Twice in the past month the boss has pointed the finger at the team’s lack of mental focus after disappointing displays at either end of the ‘typical Boro’ spectrum. Firstly after the sickening no-show against Cardiff when Boro, by Gareth Southgate’s own admission, “froze” when they felt the hand of history on their shoulder. He explained:
“Whether we froze or whether the occasion was too much for us I donÃ¢ÂÂt know but we didnÃ¢ÂÂt perform. IÃ¢ÂÂve got to take responsibility as a manager because whether IÃ¢ÂÂve pitched it right to them, whether weÃ¢ÂÂve tried to take some of the pressure off, whether we needed to put more onto them I donÃ¢ÂÂt know. IÃ¢ÂÂve got to look at everything I did because I know IÃ¢ÂÂve got a group of players who give everything and they werenÃ¢ÂÂt able to find that and whether that was the occasion, because sometimes in big matches you canÃ¢ÂÂt find the energy, thatÃ¢ÂÂs pressure and maybe we werenÃ¢ÂÂt able to deal with that today.”
The reasoning was that Boro perform better as underdogs and that when they were the strong favourites they crumbled under the weight of expectation. On paper man for man they were far superior to Cardiff, with a team packed full of internationals. Bar a few sentimentalists who would opt for Jimmy for old times sake, no one would select a single one of them ahead of a Boro player. Yet when it mattered Boro bottled it.
And there is an argument that it was not just on the pitch that Boro lacked mental strength, a total conviction in a positive outcome and a willingness to dig in and work towards it. The crowd too lacked it. There was a certain fear in the air, partly born of a lack of belief among some that this team has the edge, the ruthlessness or the quality to succeed when the chips are own, partly because of an age old ‘typical Boro’ cynicism that stems from previous kicks in the team delivered at the games against Orient, Wolves, at Wembley and at Eindhoven. Whatever, the crowd didn’t have the tangible confidence shown against Steaua when the odds were against us. For my part I expected to beat Cardiff and beat West Brom in the semi but lose to Chelsea in the final… them losing to Barnsley on the Saturday threw the world into flux. And if the crowd was riven with such uncertainty maybe it is to be expected that the team reflected that.
The question of mentality was raised again by Southgate after this weekend’s trip to Stamford Bridge when an awestruck Boro appeared to stand off Chelsea and “give them too much respect” and allowed them to bag an early goal.
Later when Boro got their act together and gave it a go they created enough to suggest that had they been totally focussed from the first whistle then they may have hurt the Blues and got a point, or even three. This time he said:
“The biggest thing we have to change as a club is our mentality and we canÃ¢ÂÂt go away from places like Stamford Bridge thinking Ã¢ÂÂwell, weÃ¢ÂÂve only lost 1-0 at Chelsea, greatÃ¢ÂÂ. We should go to places like that believing we can get results. One of the reasons we are where we are is because our mentality has to change. I thought first half we had just come to admire Chelsea and swap shirts at the end of the game. We said we didnÃ¢ÂÂt want to have any regrets and that was the case in the second half when we had a real go.”
Again, it was on the psychological level the manager believed the game was lost, this time by the other side of the coin with Boro resigned to being battered by the technically better team and unable to produce the defiant spirit of the snotty nosed underdog that Cardiff had managed.
So is that where Boro are losing games? In the changies?
Clearly it is not just about mental states. More importantly are training, tactics, fitness, preparation, organisation, the skill levels of the personnel and the ability to translate that onto the pitch. A team – whether Boro or Cardiff or the Dog and Duck – can’t win just because they are highly motivated. Being pumped up by gangsta rap and having a boss who gives out a stirring pre-match message that is Churchillian in tone but delivered with a side of expletives isn’t a recipe for automatic success and it is no substitute for the more mundane business of building a dynamic side at the top of its game. Nor are John Beck dirty tricks and painting the away team changing rooms monochrome dirge going to deliver victory every time.
But the development of strategies to focus the mental strength of individuals and the collective are hugely important in turning out a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Competitive sport at the top levels is determined by the thinnest of margins. Teams are closely matched in terms of skill, stamina and shape so if fine-tuning the psyche can squeeze out even an extra one per cent in performance it can be decisive.
Which brings us to Bill Beswick. The sports psychologist had worked with Steve McClaren at Derby, then Manchester United and was brought in at Boro as Mac’s assistant manager, guru and sounding board amid much talk of a revolutionary new cutting edge approach to off the field matters but with no football background (he had been the GB basketball coach) was an easy target for the traditionalists.
He became increasingly closely identified with the boss and was credited with creating his unpopular aloof public persona – the pair would go into a huddle before half-time team-talks or before the manager addressed the media – and eventually was seen as a joke figure at the Riverside among fans sceptical about his trade or hostile to its totemic role in the what became seen as the manager’s strait-jacket of scientific professionalism.
Beswick was the first victim of the post-Mac purge when Southgate took over at Boro and when the nationals started to put the knife into McClaren as England chief the semi-detached shrink became a proxy scapegoat for the media despite many clubs continuing to consult him.
But for all the ridicule aimed at his methods the prospect of increasing performance levels is an attractive one. Sunderland are the latest club to bring him in, offering the godsend “Keane goes mental” headlines, while most other big clubs are acutely aware of the possibilities.
If Boro have identified mentality as and area of weakness – and the public pronouncements of the boss clearly show they have – then it must be urgently addressed. We can not be deterred on the basis of “once bitten, twice shy” and it should not be seen as a retreat back into teh drak days of McClarenism. It doesn’t have to be Beswick either – politically that would be unacceptable for many reasons – but the best available talent should be secured for that role.
Psychological warfare is crucial in securing victory. It can maximise performance from our side and undermine the confidence of the opposition. It can swing the underlying dynamics of what is ostensibly an even competition our way and offer a small but significant advantage. After that it is down to the team – but we should give them all the help we can.