First, I'm going to have to get used to doing a hell of a lot of gardening.
Second, the Premier League season is headed for it's conclusion.
I've often commented/moaned/joked about it, but the "title-race" is slowly approaching its end. Following a wonderful start to the season, Manchester City headed the table for almost six months. However, as Sir Alex Ferguson recently said, the season is a little longer than that.
So why is it that as soon as we approach spring, we are greeted with the blossoming of mental tit-for-tat? How come whenever the clocks go forward, the light seems to go out on the competitors while Manchester United bask in the glow once more? I decided it would be fun to take a look at the progression of mind games.
My first example reminds us just how long ago the 90's really were.
In the 1994-1995 season, Manchester United went head-to-head with a Lancashire side thrust from utter mediocrity to sudden competition for the highest honours due to a major cash injection. How times have changed.
That year, United were aiming for a third straight league triumph while Blackburn were looking to crash the party and become English champions for the first time in over 80 years. With Blackburn ahead going into the final stretch, Ferguson piled the pressure on Blackburn, saying that the title was theirs to lose, when in reality, it was United who cracked under the pressure, missing numerous chances to claim the required win at West Ham on the final day.
Those days seem a long time ago now as not only was Ferguson beaten in a battle of wits and nerve, his rival was none other than current Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish who, as we all know, could now be outwitted by a donkey with dementia. Or Wigan.
One year later, mind-games took one small step forward to glory for Ferguson but one giant leap into oblivion for his newest rival, Kevin Keegan. By January 1996, Newcastle had opened up a twelve point lead over United. However, Newcastle, who played brilliantly in the first few months of the season (sound familiar?) began to lose their nerve, and their away form stuttered (sound familiar?), including losing against an irrepressible, ambitious and clinical Liverpool side (sound familiar?..haha.)
Seeing Newcastle falter, Ferguson chose his moment, criticising the Leeds side that United had just beaten, accusing them of raising their game due to the opponents...which, to be fair, is something Leeds would do. Anyway, Keegan took objection to this and - upon his own side beating Leeds - delivered his famous "I hope we beat them" rant. Whether the race was run for Newcastle at this point is open to debate, but Ferguson had heralded in a new era of football, using booming media attention to this sides advantage.
|Keegan can now be found rustling in bins|
somewhere near Manchester
That season, Liverpool were the best team in the land...I know. Anyway, after a series of late wins early on in the campaign, the Merseyside team were growing in confidence, culminating in the ending of Chelsea's ridiculously good home record, winning 1-0 at Stamford Bridge. Through the imperious form of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Liverpool were able to couple attacking flair with defensive solidity thanks to the brilliant Jamie Carragher. However, what contributed to Liverpool's form was what some could argue was the implementation of the 4-2-3-1 formation which has since seen widespread utilisation across Europe. Thanks to the passing of the excellent Xabi Alonso and the terrier-like tackling of Javier Mascherano, Liverpool had a system which was proving almost impossible to overcome, taking them to a five point lead by Christmas, despite a few dodgy home performances along the way. Ferguson had to act, and act he did.
Seeing that United's grasp on the title they had won for the last two seasons was slipping and Liverpool were suddenly a force to be reckoned with once more, Ferguson decided to dust off his box of tricks and unleash them on Rafael Benitez, who had been so influential in guiding Liverpool into their lofty position. Bemoaning issues as wide ranging as kick-off times and injury problems, Ferguson was almost clutching at straws. Fortunately for him, Benitez took issue with Ferguson's biggest rant, the scheduling of league fixtures.
Starting any rant or attempt at mind-games with the line "this is not a rant or mind-games" is not a great start. But, as I have alluded to before, saying "FACT" at the end of a sentence will destroy your own argument more often than not. If only Benitez heeded my advice, things could have been so different. As it happened, prior to a difficult game against Stoke, Benitez opened his tiny mouth as wide as he could and took a huge swallow of Ferguson's bait. Oh please, grow up, that's not a sex joke.
|Shouldn't have had that curry. Fact.|
After drawing with Sunderland at the weekend, Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini gazed into his crystal ball, the same ball which advised him that signing Mario Balotelli and asking Carlos Tevez to warm up on a warm, Bavarian night was a good idea. After the game, Mancini predicted that United would "probably do a draw" against Blackburn. I'm assuming he meant claim one point and not sketch the Blackburn first eleven. Anyway, neither came true as United were victorious, rendering Mancini's mighty prophecy incorrect. It could well be that Roberto's race is run. Erm, this has been proved to be totally incorrect. Sue me.
Of course, he wouldn't be the only one. Football (and indeed, sport) is littered with instances of players, teams and individuals losing the plot. Arsenal surrendered a significant lead in 2003, before falling apart after losing their 49 match unbeaten league run in October 2004. This collapse ultimately signalled the end of an era and the beginning of enough mental baggage to prevent you boarding an Easy Jet flight...but then again, that wouldn't be too much anyway.
Anyway, in 2008, Arsenal fell apart after that game against Birmingham, when Eduardo broke his ankle and William Gallas went a little bit mental. Four straight draws and a loss followed, and the best Arsenal side since 2004 finished a pitiful third. Two seasons later, faced with a three-way battle for the Premier League and a presentable run-in, Arsenal fell apart, before repeating the trick the next season after losing the Carling Cup final to bloody Birmingham. That same season, losing influential coach Ray Wilkins, Chelsea went on a miserable run of form which cost them a title which seemed certain even by October.
|This may look stupid tomorrow.|