Friday 19 January 2018

Basel brush-off will test United's stomach for a battle

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

There are many ways to prepare for a game, and establishing the build-up which works best for you can take time. Senior players know exactly what is required for themselves but only as a result of years of trial-and-error approaches to pre-match routines and superstitions.

One former team-mate of mine found what worked for him early on and, much to our amusement, he stuck with it throughout his career. He would go to a particular cubicle in the dressing room each week and force himself to vomit several times. Before I realised this was normal behaviour for him, I couldn't understand why none of the staff were reacting to what was going on. A little bemused by it all, my initial concerns were laughed away. "The best is yet to come, son. Relax."

We were then subjected to demented cries of 'feed the bear' from the cubicle, repeated several times with increasing ferocity. I was convinced the whole thing was a wind-up, but soon realised it wasn't. The player would then emerge from the toilet area, bounding back into the dressing room with great purpose. By this point he would be shadow-boxing. Within a few moments he would end his routine by jumping to head an imaginary ball before returning to his seat to put his jersey on.

He would sit there as if nothing had happened, which just confused me even further. But he now believed he was ready.

Phil Jones does things a little differently. Actually, I assume most players do things a little differently to that, but his pre-match comment on Wednesday that he was relaxed ahead of Manchester United's game in Basel got people talking. Well, it got Roy Keane talking. And when Alex Ferguson dismissed Keane's comments as those of an irrelevant television critic, a lot more people started talking too.

It takes some players years to get to a stage where they can manage their pre-match anxiety levels and approach a game in a relaxed, focused manner. I never mastered it over any prolonged period, but my best performances generally occurred when I was calm beforehand. When I was able to ignore all the external elements which add to the pressures of professional football, things generally went my way. I know this sounds odd, but I played my best when I cared the least. When I eliminated from my mind the rewards of success and consequences of defeat, I was free to concentrate on nothing but my own performance. A very simple train of thought, but remarkably difficult to adhere to most weeks.

That it wasn't Keane's preferred approach is hardly startling news. It's wrong to assume that a relaxed build-up was necessarily the cause of Wednesday's defeat, but it's also wrong to assume Jones was relaxed just because he said he was.

Few players have matched Keane's willingness to speak openly about exactly what is in their head at any given time over their career. Most others stick to the banal and uninteresting in interviews, and Jones may well be one of those. Anyway, if the opposite was in fact the case, it would hardly play well for Jones to publicly admit it.

Ferguson's swipe at Keane's managerial prowess was always going to make the headlines, but few things are less relevant within a dressing

room than the comments of television pundits. (Chelsea players are probably wondering why Andre Villas-Boas keeps bringing up tv analysts.) And even fewer things are of less interest to Keane than approaches which differ from his own. He may find himself in television studios for a long time yet as a result.

His assertion that the younger players need to "buck their ideas up" is not without merit, but improvement is needed in all areas at Manchester United. Elimination from the Champions League followed defeat in the Carling Cup, and a trip to the Etihad Stadium in January could well end hopes of lifting the FA Cup. If they take the Europa League as seriously as Ferguson has suggested they will, their chances of retaining the Premier League title would appear slight also. The loss of captain Nemanja Vidic for the remainder of the season hasn't helped either.

Phil Jones may not be as relaxed about matters anymore.

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