MARCH 9 — With the title race effectively already decided as Manchester United hold a 12-point lead with 10 games remaining, there is more interest to be found at the bottom of the English Premier League table, where the relegation battle is being closely contested between a number of concerned teams.
QPR (20 points), Reading (23) and Aston Villa (24) currently occupy the bottom three, with Wigan (24), Southampton (27), Newcastle (30) and Sunderland (30) also in trouble.
It’s a similar story in Spain, where Barcelona remain 11 points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid while the relegation places are being far more closely fought.
Although Deportivo La Coruna (16 points), who travel to Barcelona this evening, appear to be doomed, the remaining two places could be filled by any number of clubs. Mallorca (21 points) and Celta Vigo (23) are currently in the drop zone, but Zaragoza (25), Granada (26), Osasuna (28) and Athletic Bilbao (29) are far from safe.
I have personal experience of relegation, having worked in the media department at Reading when we went down in 2008; now Reading are in trouble again and will be looking to draw on the lessons of 2008 in an attempt to avoid a similar fate.
In that respect, they’re fortunate that manager Brian McDermott was part of Steve Coppell’s coaching team five years ago; McDermott is an intelligent man and will have his own ideas about where mistakes were made then and how a happier outcome can be achieved this time.
With the benefit of hindsight, I’d say the main reason Reading were relegated in 2008 is that the players were unable to escape the burden of pressure they found themselves living with for months on end.
To perform at their best, sportsmen need to feel confident and relaxed. And while that kind of positive attitude cannot be artificially manufactured, its production can certainly be hindered by an excess of pressure.
During the final few months of that season, Reading’s players were unconsciously playing not to lose, rather than playing to win. They were playing with fear, frightened of making mistakes that could prove costly. They cared so much about the outcome of every game, and each moment of every game, that they became overtaken by tension, which is no mental state for anybody to execute any task to their highest capability.
That was most evident in the decisive game that ultimately proved more important than any other, a 2-0 home defeat against fellow relegation candidates Fulham a month before the end of the season.
Shortly before that game, Fulham had been practically written off, with manager Roy Hodgson — now in charge of England — even close to tears at one press conference as the Cottagers appeared to have accepted their fate.
That state of affairs seemed to allow them to cast off the shackles of fear and pressure, and play with the freedom that resulted in them suddenly starting to win.
When they travelled to Reading, they were in a positive “nothing to lose” frame of mind; Reading, contrarily, were paralysed by the fear of what would happen if they failed.
Perhaps predictably, Reading produced one of their worst performances under Coppell’s management and Fulham cantered to a 2-0 win that ultimately allowed them to avoid relegation at Reading’s expense.
Today, Reading face a similarly crucial fixture at home to Aston Villa, who are currently one point and one place above them.
Although many variables will come into play, I believe one of the strongest determining factors in the game will be the element of fear. Which set of players can relax and play to their best of their ability; and which will be overcome by the tension of the occasion.
Achieving the necessary positive mindset is an elusive challenge. Somehow, the players need to deny to themselves the importance of the game, relax and treat it as “only a game” — play for the sheer sake of playing, rather than playing to avoid mistakes.
The psychology of sport remains an undervalued and understudied area, but this topic is addressed by the British writer Matthew Syed in his fascinating book Bounce.
Syed describes his personal failure during the most important moment of his own career as an international table tennis player. Syed, like Reading five years ago, found himself overtaken by fear during the 2000 Olympics in
Sydney and suffered from the dreaded phenomenon of “choking.”
He concluded that he had been thinking too much, trying too hard. It sounds counter-intuitive because you’d assume that sportsmen should try their very hardest in the games that matter the most.
But the paradoxical truth is that the more you concentrate about a task that has previously come naturally, the more mistakes you will make.
Try it yourself: throw a ball in the air and concentrate really hard on exactly what your arms and fingers are doing as you attempt to catch the ball; focus on the tiniest details of your physical movement; imagine that a million dollars rests on whether or not you catch it. You will find, I am sure, that you drop the ball far more often than if you just plucked it out of the air without thinking.
That’s what relegation battles do. Professional footballers are professional footballers because they are very good at playing football. That’s purely logical. Put more precisely, they possess carefully honed skills that have been developed over many years to the extent that they have become natural. However, in moments of severe stress it’s easy to start doubting those abilities, to start thinking about them too much and therefore to invite them to fail.
So the lesson, perhaps, for Reading, Aston Villa and all the other relegation candidates, is not to worry too much. It’s a game; just play it. That way, the outcome should look after itself.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.