It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
– Invictus by William Ernest Henley
The difference that sets apart individual champions in the sporting arena from their competitors is, almost certainly, the mental strength to win against all odds. Its the mental fortitude that they each innately have to will a victory through. For teams though, building and maintaining this state of mind collectively among all team members and personalities is a far bigger challenge.
Much has been made of the ‘winning mentality’ displayed by the Reds that bulldozed an outstanding win at the Britannia Stadium on the 12th of January 2014. Critics, neutrals and supporters alike all universally observed a marked change in the manner of responding to the 2-2 comeback surge by Stoke City at halftime. The clichéd momentum of said comeback, at their home ground, would’ve seen them through with at least a draw against the fanciful Reds. But it wasn’t the case. A dogged professional attitude, to the delight of the traveling supporters, saw the first emphatic win for Liverpool in this ground in EPL history.
This déjà vu scenario at half-time has been played before, with ideas and creativity of the Reds slowly draining away, panic enveloping all ranks in the team by the last thirtyminutes. Even during the last bright days of Benitez’ reign, the apathy underlined with frustrated slouched shoulders was evident. The winning mentality was lacking.
Fast forward to the following week, at Anfield, a beautifully crafted goal minutes before the half-time whistle, saw the Reds clamour back to a one goal deficit and regroup for the 2nd half. Much to most supporters chagrin, that regroup and reappraisal of tactics only saw a draw by the end of the game. But it can’t be denied, character was shown, there was a steely determination to see through the game and not accept defeat in any circumstances, if not winning the game convincingly. After all, both fixtures in the previous season saw the Reds take no points at all. Nadda. Zilch.
The character to win manifests the mental fortitude to perform at higher levels of physical action. In other words, if you have the character, your brain will make sure your skills won’t let you down when you need them the most. For a team, this character normally transpires from the top, the leaders of the team. A self defeating leader will inadvertently get a team losing more often than winning. See Roy Hodgson’s Liverpool club management tenure for proof. Conversely, the character to win at all costs, from throwing a hairdryer to bullying officials via a controlled media, has got Ferguson’s United team to win ugly more often than not on the pitch.
Brendan Rodgers, however, has shown this winning character consistently, albeit sometimes bordering on being over-confident in his skills of conjuring the tactics and strategies to win with panache and style. His team setup over the Reds last encounter with Aston Villa on Saturday, 18th January 2014, was so attack oriented with minimal defending minded players, it completely exposed a naivety that took his opposition’s weak position for granted. But it also showed a growing sense of confidence he has on his abilities and his team’s abilities. As his team learns about attaining the zen of winning, so does he, on the job.
To be fair though, Villa was already slowly being branded as the whipping boys of the league, with Paul Lambert struggling to notch wins at home. Surely, after the convincing Stoke away performance, Rodgers could be forgiven for delusions of grandeur by experimenting with Gerrard to play a beardless Pirlo-esque deep lying playmaker role. Rodgers is, as the supporters have already resigned to the fact, learning on the job and doing so rather brilliantly. Experimentation is part of learning. Couple that with over confidence, a bad day at the office was certainly on the cards. But salvage the game he did, at half time. It has been 5 years since Liverpool have come back from 2 goals down to get any point, the last being a 3-2 win over Manchester City in October 2008. Tactics were changed, but the believe the personnel had for Rodgers’ tactics to work was another aspect of that mental fortitude to persist and carry on with the job. Credit is due to the manager for instilling this believe and credit is also due to the players in believing the manager and themselves.
Perhaps the psychological game of putting 3 envelopes with names that ‘will let us down this season’ as captured in the Being Liverpool documentary in 2012 wasn’t so bizarre after all. Perhaps that was Rodgers’ method in his ‘madness’ of instilling that belief tinged with fear and competitiveness, and is now reaping some benefits. What shouldn’t be taken for granted though, is the appointment of Dr. Steve Peters in November 2012.
Most of us will remember Peters as the psychiatrist who tamed Bellamy’s inner ‘chimp’, the penultimate event for Bellamy to shine being the Carling Cup final against Cardiff City. This was before Peters was hired by the club for all players. But Peters has already etched his name as a vital success factor for the British national cycling team in Beijing and London Olympics. Peters is also renowned for assisting Ronnie O’Sullivan with winning the 2012 and 2013 World Snooker titles.
More recently, glowing acknowledgements have been given by Daniel Sturridge (a player with supposed attitude problems), Joe Allen (a player who supposedly can’t handle playing for a big club like Liverpool) and Jordan Henderson (a player who supposedly couldn’t handle the heavy price tag he has to play for Liverpool). It’s no surprise all 3 players have come in leaps and bounds to win over the hearts of Liverpool supporters all around the globe, by not just playing the right brand of football, but winning games as well. This winning mentality or character can thus be conditioned as well, if not borne with. And so, credit is also due to the appointment of this mild mannered psychiatrist for building that mental fortitude in the team, player by player, personality by personality to win games, while the manager tinkers on with his on confidence.
Are you from near the Midlands area? If so you should attend A Night in Birmingham with John Barnes, John Aldridge and Jason McAteer!
Former Anfield Index Podcast guest host Noreen Khan is the host and there’s a three course curry on the menu! All proceeds to charity!