FOOTBALL: Palace mind games

Week of the goal rush: The team who had trouble scoring in the Premier leave the land of the neurotic, thanks to positive thinkingIan Ridley watches as an expert in psychology shows the way to self-belief
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THE Crystal Palace manager, Alan Smith, thinks his team are just too nice and he may be right. After an hour of being subjected to all manner of apparent indignities by a consultant in team psychology at their training ground last week, the playe rs stood, thanked him and gave him a round of applause. It was as if those other palace dwellers had congratulated the tabloids on their latest revelations.

Smith, an open-minded manager who wears his copious heart on his sleeve, admitted recently that he was at his wit's end after Palace had gone nine Premiership matches without scoring. This was the week he struck back, discovering his wit was longer than he thought.

"No problem is big enough to run away from," he wrote on a board at the Mitcham training ground before last Sunday's FA Cup tie against Lincoln City, which Palace won 5-1. It was only against a Third Division team, though, and Manchester City were comingto Selhurst Park in the quarter-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup on Wednesday.

That was how Simon Meyerson, practitioner of team dynamics, came to be in Smith's office this eve-of-match morning. "They seem to have a whimsical mentality sometimes," Smith says by way of a briefing. "They are all good lads and I have no trouble about drugs or bonking in the backs of cars but they need some aggression. All the best teams find ways to survive when the going is tough. Nobody won anything by being too pure."

Meyerson has worked with other football clubs, in industry and the armed services and defines his role as "using physical techniques to free the jams between people in team units, helping them to enhance their energy rather than use it to blame each other". He listens to Smith, then moves into the weights room to meet the players, scepticism not surprisingly writ large on their faces.

He turns to Smith. "Who are you angry with?" he asks. Smith picks out seven players, including the strikers John Salako, Chris Armstrong and Andy Preece because "they are not doing enough". Naturally, they disagree. "Is this a black thing, boss?" Salako asks with a smile that is returned. "You look tough enough," Meyerson says to Preece. "So why aren't you aggressive?" "Maybe it's not in my nature," he replies.

More searching questions follow for them to ponder. "When things go badly, people lapse back to warmer days. Are you still First Division champions or have you entered the Premier League yet?" Meyerson wonders, his belief being that they must stop being fans of all the reputations they encounter and start feeling their equals. "Do the opposition think you are lightweight, mentally and physically?"

Then he seeks to free the Palace Seven. They link arms in a circle and the new £400,000 signing from Southampton, Iain Dowie, is urged to try to force his way in. He succeeds and, one by one, so do the other players. The 48-year-old Smith tries but, confronted by 17 fitter, younger men, he is pinned down. "Good time to negotiate a new contract," somebody says.

Meyerson employs other symbolic bonding exercises, such as pairs of players hugging while others seek to pull them apart. He also has them all on their haunches, backs to the wall, trying to resist for as long as possible, buckling and sliding to the floor when the pain sets in. "OK, now take the anger in the team and use it on the opposition," he concludes after the 45-minute session.

He has been impressed with the way the players have warmed to the activity. He feels that a start has been made on exorcising resentments and Smith agrees to him returning next week after Meyerson's weekend working in Italy with a Serie B club. At the v e ry least, it has provided fodder for the humour that sustains a football team. Out on the training pitch, Salako mocks Chris Coleman, who has missed an open goal: "Ooh, you'll be in the angry group."

Back in Smith's office, Meyerson pulls no punches. "You have to be less general in your blame and more focused on strategy," he tells him, one of the 12 laws of team dynamics apparently being that a team will reflect its leader and assume his anxieties. Another is: "If you castrate, you will suffer the same fate, so orchestrate."

The ever engaging Smith takes the inter-round summary with good grace, his willingness for the whole episode to be recorded an example of refreshing openness and risk-taking. "One manager has told me that all players let you down," he says later. "I don'

t want to get like that in management. I want to get the most out of them and myself and not get cynical."

The boxing imagery continues the following day. Smith buys 14 pairs of sparring gloves at £25 a time and installs a punchbag in the dressing-room before the Manchester City match, getting them to work on footwork rather than punching. "We want winners. We want fighters," he writes on the wall. "We are an enthusiastic team but sometimes a bit bland," he says later. "I wanted to get over the message of moving and weaving."

At first, little of it seems to have worked. Palace are still as neurotic in front of goal and it is 0-0 at half-time. Finally, Darren Pitcher scores his first goal for the club, to be followed by Salako - "it was like a dam bursting," he says later - Armstrong and Preece. The last, who is perceived as the player most under pressure from Dowie, punches the air repeatedly and bellows with anger and relief towards the bench. So he does have it in his nature. It finishes 4-0; no more, Mr Nice Gu y s.

Had all the psychology had an effect? "A good, positive week about controlled aggression,"Smith said, clearly more relaxed and less concerned about the possibility of being involved in any mumbo-jumbo. But what of the players? "Initially on Tuesday theirreaction was disbelief; it was so different from anything we have done before," said the captain Gareth Southgate, fresh from the sauna and lunch that the team take together at a Surrey country club on the day off after a match. "As a youn g team maybe we have lacked some physical presence. Normally, players aren't receptive to new methods but I think we found it quite useful. It got the group to look at itself and people felt they had got some aggression out."

The 24-year-old Southgate is Palace's heartbeat. He spent New Year's Eve alone in his flat, so deeply did he feel the responsibility of that day's defeat by Blackburn Rovers. He is an exceptional young man, according to Smith, who could be anything he wanted: something in the City or a politician, except he is so decent and like the rest needs "an edge".

Palace will surely prosper in the long-term, should they get the two players they feel they need and overcome the seemingly inevitable loss of Chris Armstrong. The short-term problem is scoring goals, which is all in the body, and becoming survivors, which can be all in the mind.