Football: When the batteries start to go flat: Are footballers justified in complaining of feeling stale after a long season? Chris Maume reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
EXTRA-TIME at Wembley on Thursday was a stirring sight: at one point the pitch was littered with players who, heads down and hands on knees, were dredging their resources for the final push. The colossal effort both sides had put in continued unabated, though, and Arsenal's greater exertions won them the Cup.

The replay was a far more gripping spectacle than last Saturday's mostly tedious 1-1 draw. Afterwards both managers wheeled out the usual suspect when blame is apportioned for anti-climactic FA Cup finals: fatigue.

'There were 24 tired players at the end,' the Arsenal manager, George Graham, said, while his Sheffield Wednesday counterpart Trevor Francis said he had taken off Chris Waddle, the player from whom most had been expected, because the winger was too tired.

A severe let-down should hardly have come as a surprise, though. As Graham said afterwards: 'Name me six great FA Cup finals'. Expectations of a better replay should not have been high. Francis, for example, had to fly his Swedish international defender, Roland Nilsson, back on a charter plane from a World Cup qualifier on Wednesday night. Arsenal were playing their 61st game of the season, Wednesday their 63rd.

Yet the players rose above the fatigue and produced a replay that might not have satisfied all the purists, but lacked nothing as pure spectacle. Why were players unable to raise themselves for one game, then manage it five days later when they should be even more exhausted? In rugby union, too, the Lions will undoubtedly shrug off a gruelling season to meet the All Blacks head on.

To an extent, coping with the accumulated tiredness of a season is a simple matter of getting enough rest: 'Two games in two days is the norm for this country, isn't it?' Francis inquired sardonically when discussing Nilsson's demanding week.

There is room for a more internalised approach, too, however. John Syer, the sports psychologist who has worked with Tottenham Hotspur among others, can encourage athletes to cope with problems like fatigue by paying attention to the relationship between themselves and their team-mates. 'Obviously, fatigue is mental as well as physical, and you can get a player to change the way he looks at things.'

What is required is for players to strike a balance between their own interests and the team's, though ultimately these are one and the same. 'Although I have dealt mainly with team sports, teams are made up of individuals, and the individuals have a responsibility to themselves as well as their team,' Syer says.

'In a young team this lesson often hasn't been learnt. When I worked with Spurs, Steve Perryman played, I think, 322 league matches without injury. By then he was one of the older players, and he knew when to look after himself. After matches he would take all the time in the world to shower and change - by the time the younger players had had their first lagers in the players' lounge Steve would still be combing his hair in the dressing room.'

This is perhaps more difficult to pull off in team sports, of course. A tennis player can act precisely how he wants all the time without having to consider his colleagues. But the message is the same: systematic self-indulgence can harmonise body and mind. If an athlete fancies a bubble bath after every match, event or training session, then that's what he should have. Listen to the body, as a New Age coach might say, and it will tell you what you need to hear and attend to.

What about during the game itself? Are there psychological strategies for overcoming fatigue, or does it come down to character, backbone and moral fibre?

'The concept of character is too diffuse, too vague to be useful,' Syer says, 'but it's possible to make the division between the inside and outside - on one hand the emotions, what the player is thinking about, the images running through his head, and on the other his perceptions of where the ball is, where his team-mates and opponents are. A good marathon runner who is suffering during a race can shift the focus between the inside and outside.'

My own experience of marathon running confirms this. Moments (long periods, in fact) of intense pain couldn't be totally vanquished, but they could be alleviated by concentrating on, say, the surroundings, or a piece of music going through the head. 'Focussing deliberately on pain isn't generally the thing to do, unless it's part of a specific programme,' Syer says. 'The idea is to begin to gain a sense of control.'

Syer also works with teams outside the sporting arena, but the same principles apply. With Ford and BP he teaches something called TOPS - Team-Orientated Problem Solving - working on team-building, getting individuals to talk to eachother, telling each other their needs, collectively dealing with frustrations and anger, encouraging synergy, which is a fancy way of saying 'working together'. Only connect with your team-mates, as E M Forster didn't say, and the rest should take care of itself.