The Matt Holland Column: Twenty very fit men, knackered in their sunshine retreat

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The Independent Football

What a mid-season break! The manager, George Burley, left the squad in no doubt about how much work we were going to do during our five days in Cyprus. Tuesday night, he told us, would be spent in a hotel at Heathrow so we could fly out early Wednesday, and start training Wednesday evening.

"Two sessions each day, lads," he said, "and remember, our season starts here and this trip is all the hard work we would do in pre-season." I can fully understand why he is working the squad so hard. Our last performance was a very dispiriting six-goal defeat to Liverpool and we are still in the relegation mix. "Twelve games, lads, that's all," he keeps reminding us and, of course, the following comment is the important one, "and we must win four of them to stay up."

To be honest, there is no need for any motivational talk. Every player knows the importance of the next few games. After all, it is the same bunch of players who won seven out of nine to drag the club off the bottom of the table and into the relative safety of 12th place.

That run of games showed our determination and spirit. Everyone had condemned us because we were so far adrift and no team bottom at Christmas had ever avoided the drop, but we ignored the pundits and popular opinion and stuck to the simple beliefs that had served so well for the previous two years.

Now we must do it again. A point accepted I think by the psychologist last Tuesday as he conducted a group session. "Motivation" was his central theme. We have plenty of motivation, so it was one of his simpler sessions.

What has hampered us a little is the length of the break between the Liverpool defeat and our next League match, next Saturday. Two weeks is an ideal break but because of today's Worthington Cup final we are delayed an extra seven days. There is a danger of the team going a little stale and losing the rhythm of actually playing games, although a friendly yesterday against a Russian First Division team did provide a full 90-minute workout.

Burley is also concerned that the long break will decrease the high fitness levels we have, so each morning we have stretched in the sun before embarking on a series of extremely hard running and sprint sessions. It takes a lot to get 20 very fit men to be knackered but the training and conditioning staff are managing it – witness the bodies collapsed on sun-beds around the pool in the afternoon. If you eavesdropped on that scene you would be stunned by the absence of jokes and banter that normally accompany a group of men, particularly a group away from home.

A few snatches of conversation about football might filter through the birds twittering and the occasional snore. The morning sessions are so hard that the afternoons are for rest before another training session in the cooler evening. At least that one is about ball- work and skills.

Previous breaks away have been a more balanced mix of work and recreation but our situation dictates that this one is very focused. Thank goodness for Alun Armstrong. As usual the funny moments that involve him are unintentional, and he even forced the management team to crack smiles after the first session. It was 10am Cyprus time, 8am in England and the flight had lasted four hours. With a look of studied concentration and seriousness that suited the purpose of the whole trip and its attention to detail, Armstrong asked how much effect the jet-lag would have on his fitness.

The evenings have been spent watching the German Eurosport channel and the European football. The Winter Olympics have been fun, particularly as I spent last weekend skiing in Val d'Isère. I did not actually ski and nor in the end did three-year-old Sam. The mini-slope was at his disposal, an instructor was poised with a dinky set of mini-skis, but no, Sam thought it was much more fun to have his dad push and pull him all over the mountain on a sled. Quick memo to Burley: alternative to normal fitness and sprint training – chasing Sam over ski resort.

What else have we done in Cyprus? Not a lot apart from dissect and analyse the defeat by Liverpool. It was a poor display and Burley keeps using it as an example of how important it is to close players down quickly. The video shows we did not do so in that game and the punishment is obvious. However, I firmly believe that as disappointing as that result was, it needs to be put into perspective. Yes it was bad, but we were due a bad game after a run of form second only to Manchester United.

The important thing is to use that defeat as motivation and education but not to dwell on it too much lest it start to have a negative effect. We know what we have to do and who we have to do it against; remember our final three games are United, Liverpool and Arsenal. But we also have Blackburn, Southampton, West Ham, Bolton and Middlesborough, and it is probably that series of games that will decide how close we are to relegation come May.

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