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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More Than Words

Does what managers say really make a difference? Nobes looks at psychological warfare as the season enters its final straight.

Nottingham Forest boss Billy Davies is playing down his side's promotion chances

It's not as snappy as Homer Simpson's "D'oh!" or as recognisable as Victor Meldrew's "I don't believe it."

However, so often has Billy Davies uttered the words that his Nottingham Forest side are "
great candidates for the play offs," you'd think he was attempting to coin his own catchphrase.

It's classic behaviour from the Scot who, throughout his managerial career, has been quick to downplay his club's chances despite a managerial record in the Championship that's almost unrivalled.

At Preston he twice took the Lancashire side to the play offs, including losing in the 2005 final to West Ham. At Derby he went one better, guiding the Rams into the Premier League in 2007 during his first year.

Last season he turned Forest from relegation strugglers to the third best team in the Championship before bowing out in the end of season lottery to eventual winners Blackpool.

It's a record which is notable not only for the manager's ability to bring instant success, but also in how it has been accompanied by Davies's almost constant dialogue that his team is overachieving in challenging.

Going into the 2005 play off final, the 46-year-old spoke about how Preston were in "bonus land" against a West Ham side he branded as favourites due to their size, tradition, and history.

The reality was that the Lilywhites had beaten the London club home and away that season and finished above them after 46 games. Preston were no more the underdogs
that day at the Millennium Stadium than West Ham.

Again, taking over at a Derby side that only narrowly avoided relegation the previous season, he spoke about having a three year plan for challenging for the play offs.

However, with six games of the season remaining the Rams were top of the division before a late stutter saw them finish third behind Sunderland and Birmingham.

Davies described it as "no disgrace" and remarked that whatever happened in the play offs the season it had been "a fantastic achievement."

For the manager though, another play off contest meant he had to postpone a planned vacation in Dubai as the Rams saw their season extended.

It begged the question if, when making his reservation in the Middle East believing his side's season would already be over, did he do so because he thought they wouldn't be in the top six or, rather, they'd have already clinched promotion?

That's the thing with the Scot, you never know whether he's actually telling the truth. Does he really believe his side isn't good enough or is he actually simply engaging in some managerial mind games.

Along with the phrase "squeaky bum time" it's a phrase which inevitably crops up at this time of the season in context with words emanating from Sir Alex Ferguson.

Leeds boss Simon Grayson believes his side are under no promotion pressure this term

The Manchester United supremo is apparently the master of the mind game, seeking to psyche out opposition managers and teams with the comments he puts out to the media.

Mind you, like the censorship of a Soviet state, history only seems to record the times his mind games worked. Nobody mention Devon Loch.

So what about his fellow countryman, Davies? Just last month, after beating promotion rivals Cardiff to move second, he was still playing down Forest's chances - bemoaning the size of the squad at his disposal.

Since then, the East Midlands side have failed to win in seven - their worst run of the season. In the process they lost their 36-match unbeaten home run and have slipped down to sixth.

Going into the two week international break - something welcomed by the Forest boss - he has been quick to point to Blackpool's late form last season which ended in promotion and has declared the race to be "far from over."

He's not wrong. Forest are only seven points shy of the automatic promotion spots, and still have crucial six pointers to play at Leeds and Norwich. However, why now is he choosing to be positive?

True, he's looking to restore confidence and belief within his ranks after a poor run. Why though, when these particular assets were already high, did he decide against boosting them further instead of continually talking down his side's chances?

It's the delicate psychological balance between confidence and pressure. Too much confidence can be dangerous, but too little can be debilitating. Too much pressure can crush a team, too little can lead to a lack of urgency though.

Davies's track record portrays a man who is keen to downplay expectations, deflecting any pressure off his players and looking to move it elsewhere, preferably to rival clubs.

It's little surprise the driven, yet diminutive, Scot wants to keep his side's feet on the ground. There will be no getting carried away under his watch.

However, while avoiding over-confidence and complacency is important, would there have been so much harm in declaring that Forest were at least the equals of their opponents and had every much a chance as them to earn promotion?

While nobody argued with his assertions that they were way behind Newcastle and West Brom last term, his comments this season don't ring as true.

Forest finished third last season and have a highly talented squad with a blend of both the mental and physical qualities required for promotion.

It's hard to use their current sticky spell as evidence to support Davies's earlier warnings too when the same manager is now declaring himself still bullish over his side's chances of going up.

Forest's seven match run has included dropping points to struggling Preston and Middlesbrough, as well as losing to relegation haunted Sheffield United. They're the kind of results which smack of the kind of complacency he was desperate to avoid.

If so, his words clearly didn't have the desired effect. Or, had he issued more positive re-enforcement of Forest's prospects, they may have walked out believing they would comfortably see off their opponents and done so.

Paul Lambert is striving to find the right balance between positivity and relieving pressure

Nobody knows of course, and I'm the last person to want to point a finger of blame towards Davies who, in this writer's opinion, is the best manager in the Championship.

It's also the case that he's not the only manager looking to suppress expectations and take the pressure off his players as the season reaches its climax.

Simon Grayson claimed recently that there were no nerves in his Leeds United camp and has encouraged his squad to enjoy finding themselves in the promotion mix.

The Yorkshire side were in League One this time 12 months ago, so Grayson's belief that they have exceeded expectations has some validity. He has also suggested the budgets spent by rivals clubs demands they win promotion.

It's a brave statement from a man whose chairman is Ken Bates, but it would be fair to say that, whatever happens in the remaining few weeks, it has been another positive season at Elland Road under Grayson's stewardship.

Down in East Anglia, it's a similar story. After clinching the League One title last term, Norwich are sitting in second and are firmly in the race to secure back-to-back promotions.

Despite being in the play offs at Christmas though, boss Paul Lambert was still talking about just staying up. He then described the club's lofty position as "unthinkable."

He has been quick to dismiss claims his side are in "the driving seat" to finish runners-up to a QPR team whose march to the Premier League has been unflagging.

However, he seems to have found the right balance between keeping expectations suppressed while bullishly declaring he has no fears over his players who he thinks are strong minded enough to handle any pressure.

Contrast that with Davies though, who has consistently lamented Forest's transfer policy and how his squad is lacking.

Politicking with his bosses or just some clever reverse psychology maybe, but one wonders how the Forest players feel when their manager is telling people he doesn't think they can deliver promotion.

After all, you can read a lot into what a manager does and doesn't say and the motivation behind it. It's what makes taking
seriously Lambert's recent claims that he "can't influence any other club's players" a bit difficult.

It all comes down to handling the pressure and the less there is to contend with, even if it's just a perception, the better. That's why managers like Grayson will be keen to shift it elsewhere in the run-in.

The fight for promotion has a new front. The war of words has started, the downplaying begun. Don't believe all you hear.

That's because if, come the end of play, one of them does win promotion will they, like Mr Meldrew, really be unable to believe it?

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