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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Always On My Mind

With numerous sides from the West Country involved in the League One relegation scrap, Nobes looks at why psychology could play an important part in surviving.

Yeovil Town, under Terry Skiverton, are well versed in relegation battles

The history books will not record 2010/11 as a vintage year in the West Country. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a club from the area who have enjoyed a profitable season.

While Bristol City, many pundits dark horses in the Championship, have failed to fully recover from being rocked by Steve Coppell's brief tenure, three other clubs are involved in the fight for survival in League One.

Indeed, with Bristol Rovers currently propping up the rest in the third tier, it's fair to say that, for the city famous for its balloon festival, the last few months have been a deflating experience.

With local rivals Swindon and Yeovil are also embroiled in the relegation scrap, it's enough to make you hit the cider, with all three aiming to avoid a return to the basement division they believed they'd escaped for brighter times in the Noughties.

Arguably though, it is the smallest of the three clubs, Yeovil, who stand the best chance of staving off demotion. Finding themselves at the wrong end of League One isn't new territory for the Glovers.

Barring one appearance in the play offs under Russell Slade in 2007, the Somerset outfit have spent the rest of their six years in the third tier attempting to just to remain there.

Their highest finish is 15th, just six points above the bottom four, and in 2009 they ended up just a couple of points off relegation. They are seasoned strugglers.

While it's true that flirting once too often with the drop will ultimately result in the inevitable, Yeovil's relegation battle experience should actually work in their favour.

Former player, and current boss, Terry Skiverton is working under some of the tightest budget restrictions in the division, yet has a committed and hard working team well suited to the rigours of a dogfight.

A run of eight without a win actually saw them sitting bottom heading into 2011, but the Glovers have responded in typically pugnacious style. A run of 17 points from their first eight games of the New Year lifting them out of the drop zone.

While the manager will be the first to point out that they are by no means clear of trouble yet - they've suffered three successive defeats recently - they have given themselves a great chance of survival.

It's not just the experience of Skiverton's side which should serve them well though. Psychologically they also in a strong frame of mind.

Not only because they know how to win relegation battles, but because they expect to be involved in them.

Ambition must be curtailed when you're competing against much bigger and richer clubs once in the Premier League. While they can always dream of more, finishing fifth from bottom will always be a good year for a club who spent so many years in the Non Leagues.

It should therefore come as no surprise to fans at Huish Park to see their side once again giving a spirited attempt to maintain their third tier status. They are where they expected to be.

For supporters of Swindon and Bristol Rovers though, that couldn't be further from the truth. Neither the Robins or Gas were tipped to figure in the race to avoid League Two, yet both currently sit in the bottom four.

These are tough times for experienced Swindon manager Danny Wilson

It's been a dramatic fall of grace for both, particularly the Wiltshire side though, who were just 90 minutes away from a place in the Championship last season as they faced Millwall in the play off final.

Danny Wilson's team had arguably overachieved in reaching the showpiece occasion, and on the day found themselves out fought and out played by the Lions, losing 1-0.

However, their struggles towards the foot of the table this term have been equally surprising. While they lost key players Gordon Greer and Billy Paynter during the summer, they still appeared to have more than enough to remain in the top half.

It's even more of a surprise considering the experienced manager successfully bounced back from play off heartache while boss at Bristol City to qualify for the top six again in the next campaign.

Not so with the other Robins of Swindon who, after selling striker Charlie Austin to Burnley in January, now appear to be taking on the appearance of a ship quickly sinking back to League Two, four years after promotion from it.

That came under Paul Sturrock, who guided Swindon to 3rd place in 2007, ironically just behind Wilson's Hartlepool. Now both manager and club could be returning to the basement division.

The winners of the play offs that year were Bristol Rovers, and the Gas look near certainties to return to the fourth tier of English football after a nightmarish campaign.

In truth, the rot had set in under previous boss Paul Trollope in the second half of last season, despite Rovers ultimately ending up 10th in the league.

A poor start to the current campaign saw Trollope dismissed before Christmas with the club in the drop zone. Replacement Dave Penney has been able to reverse the slide though.

Rovers have lost their last five games, and with 65 goals conceded have the most porous back line in League One.

At the moment, the long awaited re-development of their Memorial Stadium looks more likely of happening than the Gas do of surviving - and that's saying something.

All in all, it's a long way from the "false position" Rovers defender Byron Anthony was complaining his side found themselves in at the turn of the year.

Meanwhile, Colchester boss John Ward, before his side's 2-1 weekend win over Swindon, suggested Wilson's side have "too many good players to be a bottom four team."

New signing Elliot Benyon was also bullish on Town's hopes claiming that his new boss hasn't even mentioned relegation and "it'll all be forgotten" after a couple of wins.

Too good to go down? Not even talking about relegation? It's the kind of naive rhetoric which so often results in dropping down a division come the end of the season.

True, there's always room for positive thinking, but the shock of players at Rovers and Swindon at finding themselves in such a precarious position can't be understated.

After beginning with such optimism in August, they are now in the position of having to change their mind set and gear up for a fight to the end, scrapping for every point and focusing purely on survival.

In other words, they must successfully adopt Yeovil's mentality and hope that, like their smaller neighbours, it can fit like a glove.

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