Ben Burgess column: It's squeaky bum time across the divisions
What a strange week. Blackpool started last Saturday in fifth place, after achieving three wins on the bounce for the first time in 16 months, but just a few hours later they were in eighth and two points adrift of the play-offs.
This is a sign of how tight things are going to be from now until the end of the season.
It could well come down to fine margins and also to those who are mentally strong enough to handle the pressure.
Before, the Seasiders were chasing those teams above them but on Saturday they had the different pressure of being one of the sides to catch.
We are now approaching the business end of the season. Things are beginning to heat up. Relegation battles are being fought, promotion pushes are being plotted and title credentials are being tested.
Over the last few weeks of the season you will witness strange managerial behaviour in press conferences – see David Moyes – and on pitchside, there will be players going missing at crucial moments, there will be players hiding from the pressure by being ‘injured’.
Contrastingly, there will also be managers winning mental battles with their rivals –a la Alex Ferguson – and there will be the top players taking their game to the next level and delivering success.
All of this will decide the big winners and losers from the last 10 months of football.
Over the years, we have witnessed Kevin Keegan choking, under the Fergie pressure, whilst chasing the title at Newcastle United.
We’ve also seen Jurgen Klopp and his cup final hoodoo strike twice last season; once against Manchester City in the Carling Cup and again in the Europa League against Sevilla.
Arsenal have already had their usual February/March meltdown where they go from competing in four trophies to concentrating on finishing in the top four.
All of this comes down to mental strength and the ability to remain calm and thrive under pressure.
In fact, football is often said to be 30 per cent ability and 70 per cent mental.
This has proven to be true in my career, as even from a young age, I’ve seen players with outstanding ability fall by the wayside and never play a professional game.
Whereas, many players with less ability but far more mental strength and desire to work hard, make it right to the top of the game.
The scrutiny and pressure on the big name players can be very hard to live with and even a player of Paul Pogba’s calibre, has been questioned about his contribution in the ‘big games’.
I recall a young player at Blackburn Rovers, when I was serving my apprenticeship, who was told by then manager Graeme Souness that he would be making his debut in the following days game.
The player in question completely crumbled and had such a bad training session that he didn’t even make the squad for the next day and was promptly shipped off to the lower reaches of the football league, never to be seen again.
That mental strength that we used to see from Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United comes from experience but also from the collective strength of those around you and the expectation and demeanour of your manager.
Every year Ferguson would demand more from his players and, every year, the likes of Roy Keane, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were mentally strong enough to handle that extra pressure, take their game to another level and, as a result, they continued to dominate.
The best players don’t change when it comes to the big occasions. I’ve sat in many changing rooms before big games and seen players who were usually loud and dancing around pre-match, sit in complete silence as the occasion got the better of them.
Other great athletes like Usain Bolt don’t let the magnitude of the occasion affect them, as witnessed by his showmanship pre-race at the Olympics.
Preparation always helps and I remember Ian Holloway saying, as we waited in the changing rooms at Wembley before the play-off final against Cardiff City, that things will go against us and we might find ourselves a goal down but not to panic and continue to believe in ourselves.
Right on cue, we went a goal down and up stepped Charlie Adam – who hadn’t scored a free kick all season – to curl home a 25-yard free kick into the top corner to equalise, and begin a great comeback.
Who will be this year’s winners and losers?