Mental Fragility 

2015/16 came with much promise and hope, yet was punctured by instability, in-fighting and inglorious failure. When you look back, it’s a wonder we managed to stay afloat at all, such was the turmoil – a raft of new (loan) players, a manager rolling the dice and finding himself out of work, the return of a false prophet – far too many metaphors to chuck at the whole shooting match!

Now we get down to business once more, but the more things change the more they stay the same. Jaap’s work on the team will not only be devoted to the ball and the feet. What is probably just as important, possibly more, is the belief that has been eroded from the club, not just last season but for a few seasons hence. All of which he knows nothing of and would only have been informed of briefly.

We saw and felt the unit thrive and fall under Clarke, under who we played undoubtedly our best football of many a year, but for it all to fall apart after the Fulham away fixture where a two goal lead was squandered. Subsequently we went off the rails in dramatic style. Players visibly lost all confidence, simple passes wandered off the pitch, crossing drifted into woeful areas, penalties and simple chances were unable to be finished. A doughnut of a midfield with a defence made of jelly. It was as awful as that awful food combo sounds.

The new coaching team will have one hell of a task not only to deploy a 4-3-3 system that has rarely been successful here, but to instil into the players that they can be winners, that they have the ability to succeed and banish the previous failures away. Equate it to ‘normal life’ where you don’t feel at your best, you’re downtrodden and low; someone telling you you’re great, the best, wonderful, isn’t enough. You’ve got to earn that feeling that can’t be handed to you. The management will have to ‘manage’ all the battered egos, the young who have much to learn, the new signings who need to be made comfortable and to feel at home.  All in all, it’s a very tough ask for a manager cutting his teeth in one of the most demanding leagues in Europe. A task we need to be very mindful of during the formative weeks and months – I can almost guarantee we won’t hit the ground running. Even if we do, it may only take a result like the one at Craven Cottage to bring us back down to earth with a resounding crash. Leaders within the team need to be found. Partnerships are required all over the pitch. Bonds, like we have seen in the past with Gunter and McCleary, are required to grow. A group willing to die for each other, figuratively speaking, of course.

If we look at the opposite end of the spectrum, a team like Leicester winning the whole shebang was not won purely on the field. Their mental strength week after week was proven. Claudio Ranieri batted every win away, saying it was not a foregone conclusion, but internally, he praised his players so highly that they couldn’t help but ride the wave all the way to the title. Take another example in Wales (excuse my nationalistic pride for a minute!) A couple of star players aside, their obvious togetherness and spirit drove them to a semi-final. In modern parlance, both those examples were “totally on it”. They had the will to win embroidered into the fabric of their teams. And that’s what we’re missing – a team, in the proper sense of the word. We had individuals masquerading as a unit last season. Togetherness was alluded to – “a great set of lads” that enjoyed each others company, yet we had the instance of Williams and McShane squaring up in a game we were not even losing at the time.

Hark back to the revered 106 team, their spirit shone through in a system that was simple yet impossible to stop. The opposition had lost before even venturing onto the field. Fast forward to our team ten years later – disjointed,imbalanced, staccato, rudderless. The fans felt the players’ own frustrations as time after time simple goals were conceded; fingers were duly pointed. As soon as we went a goal down, that was pretty much game over. We didn’t have the capacity as a group to turn it around.

Less than a week away before the season kicks off again, our level of excitement is peaking with new kits being released and rumours of stellar signings, but consider this a word of warning -Jaap, the staff and the new team is one that is still forming and one whose final XI is very much a work in progress, not just with the ball at their feet but the grey in between. The ghosts of previous failures need to be exorcised. We need time, patience and of course, our support.

 
Neill Rees 

Let us know what you thought of this article via the comments section below or @ElmParkRoyals 

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