UNDERDOG

Terry Christie’s duffle coat. Never has a coat seen so much press as wee Terry’s did during Stenhousemuir’s high profile cup run in the late 90’s. I’m sure, as a football fan, the images are now ingrained in your mind of the Stenny manager’s thick, light brown coat which in truth, looked heavier than the wee man himself. A ‘good luck charm’ he called it and, by the time we played them in the quarter finals at Ochilview, when it must have been a balmy early March, Terry was sweating more than a Weight Watchers class in a Cadbury’s factory. He had made his bed though and, because they had already beaten Aberdeen and St Johnstone, there was no way that duffle coat was going back on a hanger until they were out of the cup. Being Hibernian and playing three leagues higher in the SPL, we were strong favourites. Had our attitude not been spot on, we would be in trouble.

With the FA Cup results this weekend, for the first time in a long time there were shocks galore and underdogs turning over the big boys. It doesn’t happen very often. Believe it or not, the big ‘cup shock’ is something that doesn’t actually occur that much. Statistically, very few of the bigger teams are turned over by a team from a lower division. It is only because it’s such a rarity, that it inevitably makes the headlines.

But it’s the reason WHY the bigger teams lose that is the fascinating issue. Why Chelsea lost to Bradford, why Man City lost to Middlesbrough and of course, the reason why Celtic, in the League Cup Semi-Final this Sunday, should NOT lose to Rangers. Kenny McDowall may well borrow Terry Christie’s coat, but if Celtic approach the game correctly, not even the Technicolor Dreamcoat is likely to make a difference.

Desire

Jose Mourinho described Chelsea’s defeat to Bradford as “humiliating.” it may well have been, but I’m sure the aftermath in the coaches boot room will have been examining individual players’ attitude. I know it wasn’t Chelsea’s full strength side, but it was a side packed with internationals, ‘fringe’ players in the loosest sense of the word. When you are playing a team from a lower division, ‘respect’ is always a word that is thrown into the mix, but it’s not a lack of respect that loses you the game, because Chelsea were not being disrespectful to Bradford by playing a weakened team. That team was put out in the belief that it would have beaten Bradford (and it should have). It was a poor attitude and approach to the game by some, or all of the players that meant the game was lost.

Attitude encompasses a lot of factors; desire, commitment, will to win, character and complacency. If any of those factors drop below a level where they overcome the ability to perform to something near their best, the “big” team are in trouble.
You’d have to ask Jose or Manuel Pellegrini, or indeed Louis Van Gaal, if they felt their team’s attitude’s were correct during their FA Cup ties, but if you have better players than the other team, rarely is it your ability to pass the ball that fails you.

Formula

It’s a simple equation. If your team has better players than the underdog, then you should win. That statement is fairly sweeping, but it stands across the board. It is only a matter of matching the smaller teams on what they could possibly beat you at on the day, to get a result.

I was fortunate throughout my career that I treated every game the same. Whether it was Forfar at Station Park on a cold Monday night in the reserves, or Rangers at Ibrox, I gave my all and snarled and ploughed my way through reserve players just as readily as I did Paul Gascoigne. It was just the way I was, and the way I had to be to survive as a footballer. Other more technically gifted players, like Chelsea’s and Manchester United’s players were this weekend, can occasionally find it difficult to mentally ‘get up’ for a game against weaker opposition, just as I could never have manipulated the ball well enough to cope at THEIR level.

It’s difficult for fans to understand this, as we expect our players to be up for every game, but it is unfortunately a natural human facet (even weakness), that is difficult to overcome. It’s also important to stress that these top players very rarely let their team down and those who do it more often, are those who do not survive.

Clearly Cambridge and Bradford showed higher levels of commitment and determination than their illustrious counterparts at the weekend. There can be no other reason they were able succeed, let alone have a chance.

Hampden

So what of the big game this weekend. Rangers are without question this week’s Bradford, but as I’ve already said, this is something that will have to be guarded against. For Celtic to win, they will have to match the strength of the underdog. There will be Rangers players in this match with energy, desire and commitment, never seen before this season. They will find reserves of fight and a willingness to run until they drop. If Celtic approach the game thinking “we’ll win this four or five” or thinking they’re all going to score a hat trick, it’s a dangerous mindset. And of course, there has to be a level of control to the desire. Temperament is key, as 11 vs 10 makes things more difficult, even if the gulf between the teams is so great.

A great, sports psychologist friend of mine once told me the key to winning big football matches was “fire in the belly, ice in the mind.” Never has a phrase been more appropriate, than this Sunday, both on and off the pitch. There is no doubt Celtic have much better players than Rangers, but they are going to have to win the mental and physical battle first, to prove it.

Ochilview

Our approach to that game at Stenhousemuir was spot on. We had gone away to a hotel to prepare and were well warned about how physical and energetic Stenny were going to be. As a team, it is almost impossible to start a game slowly and ‘grow’ into the match. If you start at a high tempo it is much easier to maintain that, than raise it to a high level during the game. That’s why it is so difficult for teams, who don’t start a game well, to get into their stride.

We started like a whirlwind and the first half became more of a Royal Rumble than a Scottish Cup Quarter Final, but by the start of the 2nd half, we knew we’d taken the sting out of them. We got an early goal and as much as it deflated them it invigorated us to the extent we ran out comfortable 4-0 winners. It was a lesson in taking on the underdog and, fortunately, wee Terry’s duffle coat was never to be spotted on Sportscene again. Although given that it was a warm, Spring Saturday afternoon in March, and sales of Right Guard weren’t known to have been  anything out of the ordinary in Larbert around the time, it’s probably just as well.

…Onto this week’s treble and after a magnificent 12/1 winner last week, ex Hamilton legend Wolfie McKenzie, bids for two-in-a-row with Dundee (6to4), Inverness (2to5) and Annan (11to10) for a 7/1 treble

Good Luck

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

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