Wednesday 17 January 2018

Simon Mignolet: I had the yips but my missus sorted me out

Fiancee plays key role in goalkeeper's return from abyss

Simon Mignolet holds the ball during a training session
Simon Mignolet holds the ball during a training session

Chris Bascombe

It IS the fact that Simon Mignolet has prepared notes for this conversation which reveals the most.

At his own request, Liverpool's goalkeeper is explaining to a room of journalists where his Liverpool career was going wrong and how it is being corrected.

What follows over the course of 30 minutes of self-analysis in a suite within Anfield's Centenary Stand is akin to psychological unburdening.

It is an admirable performance by Mignolet, a rare public confession from a Premier League player, during which he effectively admits he suffered from football's version of the yips.

He says a scrambled mind led to indecision as to how to deal with crosses and back-passes, culminating in a bizarre but ultimately cathartic experience at Burnley on St Stephen's Day.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers had quietly taken the 26-year-old aside at Melwood on December 13 and told him that Brad Jones - who had played only 10 league games in four years - would be starting at Old Trafford the following day. It certainly felt like a brutal moment to withdraw him from the line of fire.

It was fate - rather than the Belgian's relentlessly positive philosophy about the break from the train-play-train routine doing him good - which brought him back into the fold.

Jones had been between the posts for just two games when he sustained a thigh injury against Burnley, delivering Mignolet his place back.

While preparing to make a routine clearance, Mignolet allowed the ball to roll over the goal-line for a corner. It was comical but perturbing, and an intervention that may ultimately save the 'keeper's Anfield career immediately followed, courtesy of his fiancee, Jasmien.

"That was the time I thought I had to change this," he says. "That was the trigger in my mind. We had to sort this out. I was having dinner with my missus and she said to me: 'Simon, are you sometimes over-thinking stuff?'

"She comes to every game. We've been together since before I was a footballer and she knows my character better than anyone."

The fight to maintain belief was his and his alone, though - and Mignolet is acutely aware of what a lonely and destructive place the environment of self-doubt can be.

The Liverpool goalkeeper is not a big reader, despite having completed a degree course in political sciences in 2012, but his favourite book is Ronald Reng's biography of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper whose struggle with the demons led him to take his own life six years ago.

Mignolet grew up in the east of Belgium, near the German border, so he followed Enke's fortunes every Saturday on the channel Die Sportschau and studied his saves on YouTube.

"Robert was the first goalkeeper I looked up to," he reflects. "His work botched his life.

"As a goalkeeper I recognise myself in some of his situations, but I'm rational in those things. I take my mistakes home, but I try to forget them as fast as possible."

Returning to his own recent problems, Mignolet recalls: "During the game I was always looking to find the best possible solution for situations. What I would forget - and giving away the corner was the best example - was the worst solution, which was to give the corner away.

"I was thinking, 'You could do this, you could do that', and was trying to find the right player to pass to, basically thinking too much and losing time because of it rather than playing my natural game.

"It's probably to do with my character. Being someone who went to school, university, and even in my private life, I'm not someone who will act impulsively or do crazy things.

"I won't wake up and go and buy myself a Ferrari, which some football players might do.

"Maybe I am over the top in that sense, but it's how I have been brought up. I have always tended to over-think things.

"That's good in certain moments and, if you look back to my disciplinary record, that's really good because I make no stupid decisions out on the pitch.

"So it goes both ways, but it's not always possible - especially as a goalkeeper. When you are closed down, you have to make a decision in a split second.

"Sometimes it is better to make the wrong one rather than wait and see what's happening. What will happen if you're over-thinking and you're doubting things is it looks to the outside world that your confidence had gone.

"But that was never the case with me. I have always been confident going into a game, always felt I will play my game.

COMMANDING

"If you make a decision early and are decisive and commanding, people think, 'Oh he's being a lot more confident now'. It's a perception.

"After that I made sure I acted to make a decision rather than thinking too much, because then you are doubting you are losing time you don't have.

"It has gone very well ever since. I am playing better than before I was out of the team.

"Recognising the right moment to make a decision - that is what we changed. High balls coming into the box, crosses, making a split decision coming out of the box, clearing balls, back-passes ... there are things that are going better."

Mignolet has kept five clean sheets in his eight Premier League appearances since his return, but his rewiring - for which he credits Brendan Rodgers, goalkeeper coach John Achterberg and Liverpool psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters - came amid vilification.

Everton's Tim Howard suggested that once a No 1 is undermined so publicly it can be the beginning of the end, while former Liverpool keeper Bruce Grobbelaar excavated an ancient gag comparing Mignolet to Dracula (there was a lame punchline involving fear of crosses).

"If I saw him I would shake his hand," said Mignolet of Grobbelaar, rather magnanimously. "I appreciate him for what he has done for the club. He has been a legend and won major trophies for Liverpool. I respect him for that.

"Criticism comes with playing for a big club like Liverpool Football Club. You want to be under the spotlight, playing big games and under pressure.

"The eye on you is a big one and you have to deal with it. When you concede a goal people will ask could he have done better? Was it his fault? Yes he could have done this."

When Rodgers said Mignolet would be left out "indefinitely" there must have been doubts about his long-term Liverpool career?

"Never," he insists. "You can let your head drop or say this is the moment I learn, that I can come back strong. Being out gave me time to reflect.

DISAPPOINTED

"I was disappointed [to be left out]. It was Manchester United away - a big game - but during the short space of time I had time to reflect.

"Steve Peters came into the picture together with the manager, head of performance and the goalkeeper coach to make sure I was decisive as that's something that goes on in your mind.

"I thank the manager and coaching staff. The manager has shown his faith in me. I appreciate that."

Mignolet's performances and Liverpool's results have stabilised, but he knows not to make presumptions.

"I wanted to wait for a few performances to talk about it and I think this moment is right to speak up," he says.

"But the only thing people remember is how you played in the last game. If I make a mistake against Crystal Palace people will remember that." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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