The Antagonist - Pressure is the lifeblood of the Premier League
Published: 07 May 2010 - 06:58:23
There is a lot of talk these days about the pressure in top level football.
"There's pressure everywhere you look," said Andy Gray just before half-time in the big fourth-place play-off between Man City and Spurs on Wednesday night.
"Surely", the ambivalent non-aficionados may claim, "it's just a game. What is there to get stressed about?' Well, maybe they've got a point.
Football is, after all just a game. It's original objective, however subconsciously, when that first pigs bladder was propelled skywards, was to provide a welcome relief from the stress of work : a physical release of nervous energy.
It's fair to say that in the lower echelons, football still provides that medicine but, in the heady reaches of the Premier League where football has become big business, the pressure is intense and unrelenting.
It comes in different forms of course. The pressure for teams continually battling relegation is no less taxing than the pressure on the top teams to continually win things. Expectations govern the amount of pressure each chairman, player and manager experience.
Liverpool, this season, by their own high standards, have had a 'disastrous', time according to a well known national broadsheet this week.
Perhaps Wolves or Bolton would have had a different take on finishing in the top half dozen or so and reaching the semi-final of the Europa Cup. For them it would be a huge step forward and a sign of promise for things to come.
For Rafa Benitez it may signal the end of a topsy turvy reign: for Mick McCarthy it would probably have resulted in the freedom of Wolverhampton.
Financial pressure is, perhaps, a sign of the times. How often have we witnessed clubs recklessly overspending, banking on success which doesn't arrive quickly enough (or at all), resulting in an uncontrollable spiral into administration.
The definition of 'pressure' in the Oxford dictionary is quite illuminating. 'A feeling of stressful urgency,' it states. The 'urgency' bit here relates quite nicely to the instant gratification that appears to be a requirement of many chairmen and boards throughout the land.
Roberto Mancini will certainly feel that his tenure at Man City is a fragile one. Maybe rightly, his employers feel that the gargantuan amounts of money they have invested in achieving instant success deserve just that and will not tolerate anything less. Mancini seems to be a fairly philosophical individual, however, and you get the feeling that his World wouldn't end if City terminated his contract and he exchanged his ubiquitous scarf for several million quid in his Armani suit pocket.
Gradually building a team for success is a rare thing these days. Arsenal are coping with it quite well, but they are a big club with a relatively successful track record and money in the bank. The smaller clubs are normally forced, through financial constraints and player ambition, to sell their protégées before they blossom to their full potential, thus perpetuating the gap between the haves and the have nots. The pressure felt by these 'feeder' clubs is to feed the production line with latent talent and keep their heads above water.
Some people will say that footballers and managers don't know what real pressure is.
"Let them go out to Afghanistan and face the Taliban" or, "Try feeding your family on unemployment benefit," could be comments that would appear to put footie angst into perspective.
But pressure or stress or whatever description you wish to use, is a curious mistress as any psychiatrist will testify. It is no respecter of financial security or apparent success. It exists in the minds of the afflicted and is nourished and intensified by the aspirations heaped on them.
It can manifest itself physically (Sam Allardyce's heart problem) or mentally (Kevin Keegan's rant at Man United in the 1990s) but is, without question, a significant phenomenon in the modern game.
Arguably, players are more insulated against pressure than their managers and Chairmen, but once again, the massive expectations placed on their shoulders can lead to anxiety and tension if they fall short. Yes, a hundred grand a week helps, but it doesn't wipe away the ignominy of listening to howls of derision from 50,000 disillusioned supporters.
Footballers thrive on adoration and success; starve them of that and it messes with their minds. Those rewards, rather than the money is, after all, why most enter the sport in the first place.
Of course, pressure can be a double edged sword. Eradicate it completely and football would become bland and pointless.
After all, as George C Patten (US Second World War General) once said,"You can't make diamonds without pressure".
Lay it on!
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