The pot is boiling. The lid is insecure and just about managing to maintain parity as it rattles and wobbles under the constant battering. Simmering, the ingredients are in the mix and the broth is taking shape, but still you can’t quite get it right. You’ve been working on it for weeks and here it is in front of you, but it still doesn’t look the way it should and the end result is disappointing. Should you change the recipe and be a little more adventurous in the hope that it brings about the desired outcome, whilst risking upsetting the balance and ruining it altogether?
All the while, the lid is still uneasy. Making that noise only releasing the pressure will ease, whistling and screaming in your head for you to do something. You’re standing there at the side of the pitch and your lid feels like it’s about to blow off. Looking lost and wondering whether to stick or twist on the back of four straight defeats and praying that the final 20 minutes of cooking time produces a feast, worthy of a king (or a chairman).
Pressure, that’s what it feels like.
I’ve been asked hundreds of times what pressure is and heard an equal amount of times the old analogy that football management isn’t REAL pressure. “Putting food on the table,” that’s REAL pressure.
Whilst the reality of that particular social situation cannot be under estimated, it doesn’t mean that football coaching and management does not bring with it, its own, very real, type of pressure.
Where else can you literally be three or four weeks from losing your job on a regular basis and turning up for work every morning fearing the sack? Not everyone has the luxury of a million pound pay-off and a lucrative contract to fall back on. Football is a unique industry and whether your target for the season is avoiding relegation, mid-table mediocrity, the play-offs or a title challenge, the pressure builds in equal amounts when you’re not winning.
Throw into the mix that it’s almost December, with the busy Christmas period round the corner and, the madness that is the January transfer window. Chairmen up and down the country deciding whether to stick with the devil they know or put the meagre pay-off in Santa’s sack and give their loyal aide the heave ho-ho-ho.
There are tell-tale signs when a manager is feeling “the pressure.” After match press conferences are first port of call for the dead giveaway. A gaffer in the midst of a winning run and sporting one of the chairman’s newly gifted cigars in his top pocket will generally be composed, assured and as guarded as he always is. On the other hand, four defeats on the trot and simple, run-of-the-mill questions are met with terse, confrontational answers or long-winded rants. Referees decisions and performances are questioned, tactics are backed to the point of delusion and even the fans will get it in the neck.
It’s a release mechanism. Just the same as releasing that button on the top of the pressure cooker, you feel as if you are being backed into a corner and rather than have the power of rational thought, the natural instinct is to come out fighting. Swinging punches at the pitch, the linesman, the press and the board and it’s only when you wake up the next morning in the cold light of day that you read the headlines and see none of your haymakers has even remotely brushed its target.
And now, you’re under more pressure.
The old immortal lines about ‘not reading the papers’ and my own particular favourite – “I don’t look at league tables” are trotted out. Really???
In this modern age of tactical and performance analysis, if you don’t look at league tables and know how many goals you have conceded against how many you have scored then you’re not doing your job. I don’t know a manager these days who doesn’t know how many times his star striker farts in the warm up, never mind how many goals they’ve lost from set pieces. It’s an insult to the intelligence of every man, woman and child who follows football to suggest otherwise.
There are other more obvious signs ON the pitch. Chopping and changing of formations and line-ups and players playing out of position as managers under pressure, become so desperate for a result, they tinker and tamper so much that any kind of consistency and level of performance is less likely than flagging down a taxi on a Saturday night.
And then, there’s the greatest insult and possibly the biggest sign of all. A change from, flowing, attacking open play to football’s equivalent of a cup of Horlick’s. The dreaded 4-5-1. Safe, unattractive football. The most negative system of play ever created and generally employed by managers who, feeling the pressure, have decided that the best way to take something from the game, and cajole a team devoid of any defensive capability, is to hold on to ‘nil’ for as long as is humanly possible (or 90 minutes) in order to nick a point. In truth, by that stage, the nail, pinning the initialled coat to the dressing room wall, is usually no longer shaky, but is lying on the floor.
At Dundee, we were under pressure from the start. A couple of new kids on the block, trying to make their very own marky mark in the game. The club were languishing mid-table in the First Division, and we managed with a squad of free transfers, vagabonds and trialists to drag them up to third. The second season was much better and we were only just pipped for the title and finished, very respectably, runners-up. The expectation of the following season brought with it the pressure that we HAD to gain promotion.
Injuries, suspensions and an indifferent start to our third season all combined to ensure that by early October, we were under pressure. Nine points off the top and we were aware the heat was on.
And then, we did it.
The end product
4-5-1 against a mid-table Partick Thistle at Firhill, where we felt that a point away from home would keep us in a job for another week. We managed an awful 0-0 and in actual fact we COULD have nicked it, but as our star striker’s breakaway effort slipped agonisingly wide with 10 minutes to go, we were safe in the knowledge that we’d at least earned a point and a stay of execution, although predictably, there would be no let-up in the pressure.
We lasted a week.
After reverting back to our normal 4-4-2 the following Saturday at home to Ross County, we lost 2-1 and our fate was sealed as we were sacked three days later. The pressure had been mounting, but at least our last throw of the dice had been to revert back to the tried and tested formula that had brought us a modicum of success over our first two years.
The lid was now off the pressure cooker and the disappointment is almost matched by the relief that you no longer have to feel like that.
And yet, within days, there’s an aching and an urge to get back in there and turn the heat up again. Because no matter how crazy it feels, and how difficult things become, the pressure is just another one of those things, coaches and managers live with. And there’s one thing that is so much worse, and that’s living without it.
My first book – TAXI FOR FARRELL: FOOTBALL BETWEEN THE LINES is now available from http://www.tecklebooks.co.uk on all formats and from most good book shops.
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