Saturday, 24 October 2009

Grecians need motivation not anxiety

First published in The Grecian, 23 October 2009, Exeter City -v- Wycombe Wanderers

It’s now a fortnight since Exeter City played a league game at St James Park, and in that time – as you will hardly need reminding – we have lost two away matches by three and four goals respectively against Walsall and Huddersfield, and have exited the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on penalties after a 1-1 home draw.

Though those defeats by no means tell the whole story about how the team has played, in bald statistical terms the situation does not look good at present. The pressure is on for four points or more from today’s match against bottom side Wycombe Wanderers and from next Saturday’s Devon encounter with Brentford, who presently lie in seventeenth position – only one point and three places above the Grecians.

The secret of success in a situation like this is not to let pressure translate into anxiety, but rather to use recent setbacks as a motivational spur to find the winning trail again. Easier said than done, maybe. But good coaching is about helping players into the right frame of mind, as well as ensuring that they are confident about their role, on top of the tactics, and keyed up both physically and technically.

Modern football is a multi-faceted game, and in order to produce the right results, everything has to come together in those crucial 90 minutes or so between kick-off and the final whistle. Having the right blend before or afterwards isn’t sufficient.

When the going is tough, waning confidence, bad luck or small mistakes are magnified for players and fans alike. Similarly an early break or goal can settle you down and set the rhythm moving once more.

There’s a strange alchemy to football, and even the best can find themselves puzzled by how things turn out. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem to make sense. City boss Paul Tisdale was realistic enough to admit in the aftermath of that Huddersfield tanking that he couldn’t immediately identify what had gone wrong – though the quality of the opposition was evident.

Training and preparation had been very positive, he said. It was on the field of play, the one place where you need things to gel, that so much seemed to unravel. No doubt a lot of recovery work was put in before the trip to Walsall, which makes the reversal there – in a match where a point wouldn’t have been out of the question given the performance – that much harder to stomach.

But aside from identifying and learning from mistakes, there’s no point in looking back. A home game is a different proposition, and it’s worth noting that the Grecians haven’t lost a league game here at St James’ since 29 August, when two early slips against Milton Keynes Dons cost us dear, despite a good fightback and Barry Corr’s 51st minute goal.

At the beginning of the season, when the unknowns of League One were that much greater, everyone was saying that home territory was likely to be where our final fortunes would be decided. This is often true for a newly promoted side. Perhaps the most dramatic example at the moment is Burnley. The Premier League minnows, guided by wily gaffer Owen Coyle (who, incidentally, started his professional football career, along with his two brothers, at my team Dumbarton) have maintained an astonishing record at Turf Moor, winning all four games, even the one against Manchester United. The corresponding loss of all five away matches still leaves them in tenth position, clinging on to the top half of the table by their fingernails.

Thankfully, Exeter City’s away record and performances have been rather better than that, with four points garnered, alongside a few hammerings. I’m sure they can improve, too. But first we have an opportunity over the next week to prove ourselves at home against other clubs in the lower reaches of the division.

Wycombe have yet to win away, but they recently had a boost with the appointment of former Aldershot boss Gary Waddock. His reign began with a 1-1 draw against Colchester (who we face on 14 November), after spending two and a half years with the Shots and leading them from the Blue Square Premier to sixth in League Two.

The Chairboys had a poor start to their campaign under seemingly luckless former manager Peter Taylor, who ended his playing career with eight games for the Grecians in ’83-4 and later went on to suffer against City when he took over at Stevenage.

The new Wycombe boss got to know Exeter well with his old charges, and will be looking to outwit us this afternoon. However Exeter quickly leap-frogged Aldershot after losing out to them in the Conference title chase two years ago, and hopefully we will be motivated give Waddock’s new boys another rough ride today.

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