This time of the year in English football is known as ‘squeaky bum time.’ The phrase, first brought to public attention by Sir Alex Ferguson, sums up the mood when the prizes are in sight, when the desperation to win so easily blurs into a terror of losing. The Manchester United manager originally used it to load psychological pressure on rival managers. Arsene Wenger was the first recipient. Rafael Benitez never took it kindly. Now Roberto Mancini is feeling its force.
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Needless to say, given Ferguson’s reputation as a serial winner, he invariably handles this particular stage of the season very well. He makes the ability to master not only his nerves, but also the nerves of his players, almost look easy. Of course it is anything but.
‘Squeaky bum time’ started in earnest in Manchester last week. A memorable tussle for supremacy that has been going on all season suddenly took on a new dimension, as inter-city insults were lobbed between the clubs. Firstly Patrick Vieira, Manchester City’s Football Development Executive, suggested that United taking Paul Scholes out of retirement smacked of desperation. Ferguson responded by pointedly picking apart the case of Carlos Tevez, who had been ostracized for months but has been hastily recalled for the title run-in at a time when City are not as flush with goals as they once were. “If you’re talking desperation, they were playing a player the other night who refused to go on the pitch, and the manager said he’ll never play again,” Ferguson opined craftily.
The following day, Manchester City traveled to Stoke and dropped points with a 1-1 draw. But as notable as the result was, the reaction was particularly revealing. City showed obvious signs of strain. Mancini refused to attend the post-match press conference, sending his assistant David Platt in to explain that the manager was “not happy at the moment and needs time to calm down." Mancini also refused the traditional post-match handshake with his opposite manager, Tony Pulis.
It was virtually impossible to observe this little commotion without simultaneously thinking about Ferguson. Was Mancini’s anger linked to the effects of squeaky bum time? Had the verbal jabs that had passed between the two clubs added to the tension? Whatever the answer – and City were certainly not in the mood to contemplate the question – nobody needed much imagination to envisage the expression on Ferguson’s face as he heard that City had lost not just points, but also composure. It was like Santa Claus turning up on his birthday.
Whilst City were not wrong to feel aggrieved by some physical tactics employed by Stoke, and some lenient refereeing, the bottom line is that too much negative emotion is not helpful during a title run-in.
City’s season has had more than its fair share of pressurized situations and bellicose outbursts. To their credit, the team has not allowed distractions to affect their performances. They cannot let such stuff undermine them now.
What the players need is for the management to keep their cool. If Mancini and his staff feel the need to engage in the psychological battles that Ferguson has been the authority of for years, they need to do so with unerring control. This is not a time for hot heads. In that respect, although Mancini allowed everybody to question whether he is feeling the pressure by his actions at Stoke, he was actually wise to steer clear of the press if he felt he couldn’t trust himself in front of the cameras and microphones. That might have only added fuel to the fire.
City need the likes of Vieira, Mancini, and Platt, who have enough experience of winning things between them, to turn the heat down, not up. They cannot afford to fall into the kind of traps Ferguson has been laying for decades. Nobody who saw it will ever forget how Kevin Keegan, in charge of Newcastle in 1996, was provoked into ranting on live television, all finger pointing and shaken voiced, in response to some classic Ferguson mind games. It was an image that defined how Newcastle imploded in the race for the title.