I’m going to admit something that goes against all of the “take every game as it comes” answers that players trot out when talking about their team’s chances over the coming months and into the closing stages of the season. I was sitting in our dressing room on Wednesday after a cold, windy morning’s session while preparing for this weekend’s six-pointer at home against Swansea when I heard the first mutterings from my team-mates about how many points are going to be necessary for us to be safe from relegation.
What struck me was the change in words and mentality to those in the conversations we had exactly this time last year. Statements such as “we need to win eight of our last 12 games for promotion” have been replaced with lines such as: “We need 10 points from our last 11 games to stay up.”
It’s amazing to me how the human mind can be affected by off-field circumstances such as striving for promotion or surviving relegation and how in turn the change in mentality can have an adverse effect on players’ performances on the pitch and their behaviour in training. It’s incredible how a culture can be affected just by the targets that a group set themselves to achieve success.
I stand by my previous assertion that although there is a difference in class between playing in the Premier League and the Championship, the gap in the quality of games between the top half of the Championship and the bottom half of the Premier League is nowhere near as big as is it is made out to be at times.
What does change is the mentality needed to have a successful season in the top league, especially the resilience and determination required to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks that occur at every Premier League club.
The phrase “winning becomes a habit” is just as true as “losing is a habit” and although obviously a lot of that is because of the quality of the players in a team, just as important is the mentality, personality and character of the individuals involved and whether they are playing to win or playing not to lose.
As professionals we like to give the impression that we don’t take any notice of what’s being said about us on TV or in the newspapers, or take notice of the bookmakers’ odds when it comes to the outcome of a game we are playing in. We even claim to be ignorant of the ever-growing sensationalist reaction to our performances by keyboard warriors on social media, but the plain and simple fact is we are fully aware. We are human after all.
And these factors have a huge effect on the individual as well as the group dynamic of a team fighting to survive rather than looking to thrive. You can always recognise a match where two teams are fighting relegation and playing each other – matches where both, regardless of the technical players, seem incapable of stringing two passes together and the ball virtually needs a bandage after the game because both teams have hacked, kicked and headed it around for 90 minutes with seemingly no concern about which direction in which it is going – as long as it is as far away from their net as possible.
These are games ruled by fear: fear of losing, fear of making mistakes, fear of being the scapegoat and fear of failure, feelings that none of us as professionals had when playing the game we love as young boys pretending to be our heroes in parks and playgrounds. I’ve played in many games like that, concentrating more on what not to do rather than what I should be doing. There can be sleepless nights before matches due to the fear of being the one player who costs your team, and the pressure eats away at you.
As we approach the final stretch of this season, the relegation battle we are involved in at Brighton is the most open in recent memory and in 10 other Premier League dressing rooms up and down the country the same conversations will be taking place: “Where can we get our points from” or “our run-in is better than theirs.”
February and March is a key time in the season but the clubs’ mindsets tend to fall into one of two categories: striving for success or surviving failure. And this is the time when more than footballing ability comes into play, especially with teams who are at the wrong end of the table.
Resilience, bravery and confidence are attributes required as much as ability, tactics and physical preparation, but it will be the clubs who remember to keep striving rather than settle for surviving who will do better.
I look around the dressing room at my team-mates with the total confidence that we have as good a chance as any of staying up this year but now, as a senior pro, it may be the time to remind the younger lads that we must enjoy doing a job we love, play football with a smile on our faces and remember this time last year, when we were striving and dreaming of being in the very position we are in now.
To do that we have to look to thrive rather than merely survive.