The psychology of football

Go on, admit it. Those of you who no longer have to worry about Arsenal tickets saw Tranmere had won last night and got that sinking feeling. Games in hand? All but gone, and with a tough trip to Aldershot to negotiate today, the title suddenly looks a lot further away than it did 24 hours ago.

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe the eternal pessimist in me was awoken by Tranmere’s late fight back last night. That nagging voice that will dog me until the end of April began whispering ‘they’re going to catch you, you’ll have to play Forest Green in the play-offs. You lose play-offs’. I hate that voice, but to be fair to him he’s been right on more than one occasion. He called it right against Southend, Bournemouth and of course Aldershot in 2011. He knows.

I expressed my concerns to my good friend Pete Summers. You might have heard me refer to him before although not by his actual name, he’s the guy I call my ‘Man United ST holder’ friend. He has the Imps in his heart too, albeit as his local club. He isn’t a two-team supporter as such, he freely admitted if Lincoln played United he’d hope they smashed us 10-0. That said last season he came to a couple of games, this season he’s done a couple more and I remember as far back as 1998 he was sat with me in the St Andrews Stand watching John Reames have a stab at football management. To his credit he hasn’t even tried to get to one of the bandwagon games, he’s far happier watching us play Gateshead in the league than Ipswich in the cup. He understands Lincoln, but being a United fan he also understands success. Those people are rare.

So I expressed my concerns to him this morning. He agreed it’s a tough game, but he was able to put some perspective into it for me. As I’m directly involved in this season it is hard to look objectively at where we are. I see a two point gap, I see a tie with a side that have lost once since the beginning of December and are knocking on the door of the play-off race. Their current form is WWWDDWDWWD, and although that doesn’t involve games against Championship sides or Premier League sides, it is cause for concern in my book. There’s no shying away from the fact, a point would be a good result. It wouldn’t look fantastic in terms of the league table, but it’d be sufficient to keep a gap, albeit a small one between us and the second biggest club in non-league, Tranmere (that is what you call banter by the way boys, not pretending you’re touting Arsenal tickets. Take note).

Pete’s words gave me cause for comfort. He said ‘Tranmere will drop points somewhere unexpected. It’s too competitive a league for a team to take 24 points from eight games.’, when I replied it was blind panic on my part he said ‘It is, and if it were United I’d be doing the same’. Boom, the money shot. This is what it feels like to be top of a league. I always imagined Man Utd fans sat smugly atop the Premier League (not recently, but when they were good), worrying about nothing and knowing the league was wrapped up. I imagined every form side that they had to visit quaked in their boots, but the eternally optimistic United fans travelled knowing they’d win. I thought successful teams knew they were assured success without having to suffer worry and anxiety. Now, here was the one friend of mine who supported a team that won things throughout our friendship, and he was confirming this pessimism, this blinding panic is just the psychology of football. It’s normal to feel this way when you’re top of the league, and we have to look at things more objectively.

Woking, Southport, Maidstone, Wrexham and Bromley. You know what that list of teams have in common? All should account for three points for a team challenging for the play-off race. Aside from perhaps the final two, they’re all involved in relegation battles as well. If they were soldiers in the army they’d be the cannon fodder as the generals of Lincoln, FGR and Tranmere sat at the back collecting medals. It is also the full list teams Aldershot have beaten in that run of theirs. There’s no Barrow (they drew), no Gateshead or Eastleigh (they drew) and not even a York (yup, another draw). Applying the logic of Pete, I imagine Aldershot fans are looking at the visit of Lincoln thinking ‘all good runs have to come to and end, hope we give it a good shot’. Neither set of fans are entirely comfortable going to the game. Both know how important a result is.

Let me put it to you this way. If  we win today (and I feel like I’m cheating on the half of my brain that refuses to look on the bright side) we will make the biggest statement of intent so far this season. It’ll be bigger than winning at FGR, bigger than beating Tranmere twice. It will underline our credentials as title favourites. Just as our nearest rivals get within touching distance we slap another three points onto our total against the league’s form side. No games in hand? They don’t matter when you’re five points away from the chasing pack. Tranmere winning on a Friday night? Timing is the only thing causing concern here, nothing more. If we’d all played today and City are one nil up in the final minute, would we have this minor panic? No. If we win today then it’ll further deflate those who are hoping to catch us. Time is running out chaps, and as of 11am on Saturday 4th March, Lincoln City are still rolling on.

If we draw it is another point on the board. It might not be the best case scenario, but it is another step, albeit a smaller one, towards league football. It would be our ninth game unbeaten as well, a record I’m sure fans of Braintree, Boreham Wood and Forest Green won’t relish trying to tackle in the coming weeks.  If we lose, we’re still top of the league. The job in hand is made a trickier, but we’re still there to be caught, we’re not doing the chasing. If we lost today and they ended the competition tomorrow, we’d win it, and that is the position I’d prefer we were in. We’re in pole position no matter what happens today, but we want to head into the Arsenal game with a minimum of five points between us and the chasing pack, so that we earn the right to enjoy the day at the Emirates. Even if we don’t win, Tuesday night is another chapter as we take on Braintree and crucially, Tranmere travel to Barrow. We might be two points clear with a game in hand now, but the right set of results could see us eight points clear on the same games by Wednesday morning. Of course, it could also see Tranmere on top.

You just never know, but I’ll try to take the advice of Pete and stop panicking so much. There will be time to panic if we go into the final game four points adrift of the top spot, but until then, the Lincoln Loco rolls on.

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  1. Fame at last! Don’t misunderstand me; if I was travelling to Aldershot today then I’d be pessimistic. Common sense is left behind as title run ins are dissected. Then again I am 1 of the worlds most pessimistic Utd fans. I know that we’re about to drop points v Bournemouth to ensure that the eternal 6th continues.

  2. Got to look at the big picture. I remember 1987/8 well and at this stage of the season both us and Barnet were so inconsistent. A dip in form for us may happen sometime but it will do for Tranmere as well.

  3. Pretty much sums up what I’m feeling right now. However remember that still small voice of calm AND remember too, we have Danny Cowley, no one else does.

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