Matt Holland: How the whole season boils down to a few head-to-heads

Tuesday 14 January 2014 03:24
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I would not be so presumptuous as to consider the following thoughts a warning to clubs in the Premiership, but they are worth a perusal by any manager that fears relegation. All obviously should, but the reality is that there are around 10 clubs, maybe as many as 12, whose first and often only ambition is to avoid the drop and the financial crippling that accompanies it. I know because we at Ipswich are suffering because of relegation, and my opinions have been formed after the experience and a time of reflection.

Firstly, and this is very important, pick out the other clubs that will struggle. These are the matches that will decide if you stay up and continue to milk the financial cow that is television or go down and sell assets.

Once you have nominated the 10 other clubs that are in a similar position to yours, you have 20 crucial fixtures from which must come the bulk of the 40 points needed for survival. I will not mention specific teams, you know them, give or take one or two, and they themselves know. However, the important thing is that you must win around two-thirds of these games. Some will actually be six-pointers and exceed even the others in importance.

Ipswich were not relegated last season because we lost 4-0 to Manchester United at Old Trafford or were comprehensively thumped by Arsenal and Liverpool. No, we went down because we lost twice to one of our main rivals at the foot of the table, Bolton. Not only were these six points vital for them, just as important was the lack of points for us, but they benefited by forcing themselves away from the relegation zone while simultaneously forcing us into it further.

So pick the clubs that you are realistically scrapping against. Snatched points and draws against the others are bonuses, and morale-boosting bonuses that can breed confidence and team spirit, but do not rely on them.

Team spirit cannot be overestimated. We did not lose it or even worse, suffer a divide or rift among the players, but undoubtedly the more we struggled the more deflated we became. It is only natural for heads to drop when you endure a poor run, nine points by Christmas was our own particular brand of depression, and there are tell-tale signs that managers must heed. Banter, jokes and laughter are conspicuous by their absence in the dressing room and on the training ground. Players still work hard, at least we did, but there is a lack of joy in the sessions. Somehow, I don't know how, managers have to keep the club vibrant and fresh, whatever grim tale the table is telling.

The cups also have an effect but can be beneficial rather than a hindrance. Our Uefa Cup exploits were great fun and a fantastic experience for players and fans alike, but they proved a costly and exhausting distraction. Sadly, and I say this having loved the FA Cup as one of my childhood highlights, the economics of today insist that staying in the top league is far more important than a glamorous cup run. I still want to do well in the cups, but prioritising the league is only sensible. However, a good cup run may galvanise a team and support into better performances in all matches and will breed an enthusiasm and spirit. They should not be dismissed but acknowledged as a side order to the main course.

And with clubs struggling with costs and squad sizes likely to decrease, they may prove a burden on stretched resources. Any side that wins a championship or is relegated will have experienced luck, good or bad. Injuries are an unknown that can derail a club and not necessarily only the small ones. Losing Marcus Stewart and Finidi George for large parts of last season was disastrous for us, but even moneybags Manchester United are suffering.

Three centre-halves are crocked, Gary Neville, Wes Brown and the world's most expensive defender, Rio Ferdinand, and as was demonstrated in midweek, the defence remains their weakest link. Sir Alex Ferguson has acknowledged that defensive errors early in the season cost them the title last year and that could easily happen again now and he still has only three forwards instead of his usual four.

So, single out the crunch matches, observe the chemistry between the players like a hawk and trust to a bit of good fortune. Come May a missed open goal or conceded penalty during a previous match could become very expensive. It is a fight, avoiding relegation, so accept it as such from the very beginning.

At least this season we have started well. Two wins, albeit the midweek one against Avenir Beggin was more of a struggle than it should have been and we enjoyed the cheek of one of our fans. As the head count was finished on the coach back to the hotel, we seemed to have developed an extra player. Skulking on the back row with two flags, Ipswich and Republic of Ireland, was a supporter. "I've spent all my money coming to support you and can't afford a taxi," he pleaded and was rewarded with a lift back to the hotel.

Matt Holland, the Ipswich captain, was talking to Iain Fletcher

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