United We Stand

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It’s the penultimate weekend of the Premiership season and Manchester United are hosting struggling West Bromwich Albion. Halfway through the second half, Giggs and Fortune combine to provide a gilt edged opportunity for Kleberson. The despondent Brazilian shoots wildly over.

It’s just one of many golden chances spurned by the United forwards, to leave the fans confused and frustrated and the manager visibly embarrassed. It seems to be their season in summation. More goal attempts than any other Premiership team, yet only Blackburn and Southampton have converted a smaller percentage.

One of the features of this campaign of underachievement has been the calibre of decision-making both on and off the field. Let us list some; the profligacy of the expensive strike force; goalkeeping insecurity and indecisiveness; defenders lack of composure under pressure; the Rio affair and, lately, his contract negotiations; quirky team selection and formation, in which the cautious 4-5-1 has become the norm, whereas the more adventurous 4-4-2 had been the touchstone of success in the past; a dramatic increase in season ticket prices; the ill advised pre-season trip to America. The team, like the club, is in transition and those in charge seem uncertain whether to tinker or rebuild.

As this column has preached on numerous occasions, a club must have its house in order off the field before it can be successful on it. Uncertainty and power struggles in the boardroom, as witnessed by the shenanigans at Everton in the mid-nineties, or at Leeds United more recently, always lead to insecurity in performance.

A lack of purpose or direction at the top permeates the organisation, creating uncertainty at all levels. Good decision-making is a consequence of clear-thinking. Clear-thinking is born of precise focus and a lack of dispersion. Lack of dispersion is a result of settlement, which in itself stems from agreement. Agreement comes from a shared sense of purpose.

For the past year, Malcolm Glazer’s presence has cast a shadow over the club, forcing three directors off the board and a fans’ rebellion. It’s akin to the moments before a thunderstorm. The atmosphere becomes oppressive. Irritability abounds. If the future is uncertain, how can the present be calm?

And what of Sir Alex Ferguson? Having promised to resign once, and recognising that the curtain is slowly closing on his distinguished career, he is desperate to taste the summer fruits of European glory once more. But maybe this brings a pressure to deliver that is not conducive to clear decision making.

Success cannot be rushed or demanded. It comes when you are set up for it. The 1999 treble was a product of years of natural growth and development.

When a manager is in the peak performance zone, at the top of his game, he makes all the right calls. he anticipates the rival manager’s tactical moves, picks the right players, makes exactly the right substitution at the right time, stays relaxed under pressure, imbues his players with a sense of certainty; everything flows effortlessly. When he slips out of the performance zone, judgement becomes flawed.

The Sports Psychology Summary…
But when a manager has the backing of those who employ him and run a stable club, then his work becomes so much easier.Witness Paul Jewell’s look of focused relaxation before the critical promotion game against Reading. The seasoned observer could predict from Jewell’s touchline manner a Latics victory.

The manager, fully supported by Dave Whelan, radiated a sense of certainty. It was a year work crystallised into a moment. The leader, his vision and the day of realisation. It was in his whole demeanour. What Sir Alex Ferguson would give for another moment of that certainty.