Monday, April 28, 2014

OF MONKEYS, MICE AND MEN


Mind games. They’re all the rage. You can’t park a bus without people looking at you in a strange way and woe betide anybody who decides to attempt such a manoeuvre at Anfield these days. Do so with a funny look in your eyes and you will find yourself derided for playing anti-football, as the poor embattled souls of Chelsea were or, worse still, have a band of miniature scoundrels test the perspex of your own coach's windows, as a City minibus experienced two weeks ago.

We walk, some of us, on a sheer knife edge between over-confidence and self-assertiveness. Others amongst us are left to our own devices, whilst a lucky few apparently never walk alone and therefore are not afraid of the dark.

Are the fine words offered in the vortex of battle great lines of exhortation? Or are they empty rhetoric? Worse still, are they blocks of amateur psychiatry cooked up to look like a would-be champion's lunch-time snack? Do I need my tub thumping or my back patting? Am I dealing with monkeys, demons, hobgoblins or simply the memory, sharp and precise, of last week's open goal miss-kick? If I lose my head whilst all around are also losing theirs, what will that make me?

Liverpool supporters have been singing “We’re going to win the league” in their frantic, ever-so-slightly pre-ejaculatory giddiness for some weeks already. Head onto YouTube and you will find it horrendously heavy with clips of the Liverpool bus arriving at a dead slow stop pace through red smog and electrically charged chanting. You will see people in Liverpool Premier League Winners T-Shirts and others reeling around from the sheer enormity of it all. This has been going on for weeks and weeks. The old place was absolutely heaving against City and it obviously helped the side tear into the Blues from the off. That the same thing did not happen against Chelsea can be put down to a variety of factors. Firstly, the away side was not interested in going toe to toe, as City had done two weeks earlier at Manuel Pellegrini's behest ("we go there to play our normal game"). For good reason, José Mourinho chose to be pragmatic. His side is midway through a Champions League semi final and the number crunching told him that it only required to appear from Fortress Anfield with a point to thrust his side right back into the swarming whirlpool of this dramatically fluctuating title race.

The there was the atmosphere. Once again the Kop was a sea of banners and scarves, the feverish ambience lending itself to a big occasion, perhaps one bigger than this one. This of course can be a double edged sword, as Steve Peters, Liverpool’s mind games expert and supposed champion of all our internal monkeys will testify. What he has been teaching the players and staff of Liverpool has obviously had an invigorating effect on the likes of Jordan Henderson and Glen Johnson, who previously found a scoreless draw at Fulham sufficiently appealing . Liverpool have been unrecognisable this season from the slumping also-rans they had turned into over the last quarter century.

But what happens when this premature euphoria has the opposite effect? Logic not emotion, you could almost hear Peters whispering under his breath, logic not emotion. Take the sting out of the occasion before it eats you for lunch. Peters’ famous Foundation Stones have brought athletes from many disciplines through to the very top of their professions, making them aware of who they are, how they best perform and where the demons lie. Here there were demons flying out of every crack of the old stadium's red brick walls. It was emotion not logic and there was such a strong tide of it running that it was difficult not to throw down your towel and stride naked into the throng shouting "get me to the Kop on time".

But after the initial spurt, the giant mass fell silent, the atmosphere changed and all the impartial observer could hear was the gentle knocking together of Scouse knees. Steven Gerrard heard this ominous sound too and joined in the fun. The pressure, as it often does, was getting to the league leaders and Chelsea and their boisterous fans were feeding on it lustily. For the Londoners - and indeed to a lesser extent, City – have been here before. In beating Bayern on their own ground in the final of the Champions League, Chelsea proved beyond any necessary doubt that they have the balls for the big occasion. In fishing their own first league title for 44 years out of the Manchester Ship Canal after the world and his dog thought that boat had already sailed, City too revealed a mettle that only big time athletes can produce. Whilst onlookers were wilting with the pressure on that sunny May day v QPR, others were winding themselves up for the kill. It took the breath away but remains as a testament to what positive thinking and a little touch of Mario Balotelli can do for you.
Monkeys are funny creatures with long arms and cauliflower bottoms. Inner monkeys, it seems, can be even more ridiculous. Look at the video below. How would you feel if you were inside this bus? The date is 26th March, some six weeks before the destination of the title is due to be decided..

 
March 26th before Liverpool - Sunderland. Yes, March. 

Manchester City's Monkeys - some might want to call them gorillas - have been doing an impeccable job, for and against the club, for a number of years. The mind drifts back to the last title winning season's blur of tear-stained action. Last gasp winners v Chelsea and Spurs as Samir Nasri skipped home and Balotelli banged in yet another ice cool penalty; at Arsenal in the League Cup with that sumptuous counter by Dzeko, Johnson and Aguero; the delicious late flurry of activity at Old Trafford; then there was that strange old day in May to cap it all off.

By that tumultuous denouement, City had hoisted themselves not only into first place, but also to the top of the rankings for late match winners. More goals, in fact, scored after the 90th minute than any other side in the division. Who would have thought we would be saying that about City ten years ago?

Long-term masochists will well remember two games versus Birmingham City in the late nineties, where the club had managed to cultivate the exact opposite of what we see today: a deadly ability to concede when it was least needed. Dele Adebola. A name never to be forgotten. The mists of time clear to show us the unlikely bulk of Murtaz Shelia giving us the lead at St Andrews in some God-forsaken, mud-splattered second division game. It was the 88th minute when the lolloping Georgian netted. We went on to lose that game, rather predictably, two-one. Birmingham's goals came in the 94th and 97th minutes. The rot set in so deep that the club's decline to the third tier of English football felt in many ways absolutely inevitable. Unstoppable until it rolled to its own halt. There were monkeys, albatrosses and vampire bats everywhere you looked. This is why the resurrection since then has been nothing short of breathtaking.

Liverpool – fresh from their very own Dele Adebola moment - now face a trip to Selhurst Park, seemingly a daunting task, but one which City sailed through at the weekend like a flotilla of white-slacked students larking about on the river. If a tray of Pimms had been served to celebrate Yaya Touré´s majestic second goal, nobody would have batted an eyelid. Palace, on a run of 5 consecutive wins, looked like little boys who had lost the front door key. Shut out for ninety minutes, whilst City went about their business with a quiet efficiency, which will have been noted amongst the frothing denizons of the Annie Road. City have done this before, of course. Two years ago, a succession of unlikely victories (six consecutive wins, to remind you) brought a momentum that carried them to the title, but even then a twist in the storyline of the very last game ended up ageing every City supporter by half a lifetime in the space of ninety minutes. It is this mental strength in adversity that now kicks in for the team that believes it can be done.

Liverpool, flowing freely for half a season, have suddenly had the carpet removed from under their feet  How does one react to that with two games to go? Do you fold or do you come out at Palace with all guns blazing? Or do you start taking corners a little bit like Iago Aspas did v. Chelsea? Will the fans stop singing about winning the league and will this add to or deflate the pressure? Will Chelsea, having dented Liverpool’s title hopes, now go back to coveting that Champions League trophy? Or will last weekend’s win fire them for two more league successes to keep the pressure on, despite Mourinho’s insistence that they can only finish 3rd? Can City overcome one of their bogey sides on one of the club's least successful grounds to set up a two-home-game run-in towards an unlikely but successful finish? Will the City fans' innate sense of foreboding have a detrimental affect on their side or can the likes of Sergio Aguero manage quite nicely whilst the rest of us are all gnawing feverishly on the corner flag?

With two, and in City’s case, three games to go, having the initiative at this stage is worth its weight in gold. City’s players, who have admitted to watching bits of the Chelsea victory on the big screen at Selhurst Park as they were warming up, will have been given a colossal boost for that game and, with its smooth onclusion, for the three that follow it.

Everton away, Villa at home, West Ham at home.

That is all that now separates City from their second league title in three seasons. Negotiate those three games and the pot will once again be paraded around the Etihad. In Manuel Pellegrini, City have the ideal man to keep players focussed and with feet firmly on the ground. Whilst Mourinho creates his wars and Rodgers scatters clichés far and wide, the Chilean grunts his sweet nothings and disappears. The weather-worn face and gravel voice lend themselves to the general air of rien ne va plus. It is to him and to the calm authority growing from the likes of Martin Demichelis and Javi Garcia, to the great swirling limbs of the Elephant of Bondoukou and to the unstoppable punch of City’s inimitable forward five that one must now invest trust. 

Strong minds alone will not be enough, but they will surely now play their part. 

2 comments:

  1. super as ever- I have an LFC supporting relative who although a decent bloke has begun spouting this "we have spent nowt compared to you " cobblers ..... funnily this has only happened this week ?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Pressure does funny things to all of us.

    ReplyDelete

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