Mind games could work for Rotherham United ahead of play-offs

PREPARATION is relaxation in the words of the late, great Brian Clough.

Paul Warne: Keeping his players fresh.
Paul Warne: Keeping his players fresh.

One of the many feted managerial qualities of the Yorkshireman was an ability to ease the mental strain on his players ahead of key moments, never better exemplified than before Nottingham Forest’s League Cup final with Southampton at Wembley in March, 1979.

Clough, on the night before the showpiece event, ordered his men to meet in a hotel sideroom for a special team talk that involved his players not being allowed to go to bed until the contents of a crate of Champagne had been drunk.

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The method in his madness culminated in Forest lifting silverware the next day.

Strategies may have changed since, but keeping players mentally fresh during the run-in remains a key concern for managers, as Rotherham United’s Paul Warne testifies.

His Millers side invested plenty of energy, both physical and mental, during their magnificent winter renaissance to turn around their season.

But now they must go again to seal the deal of play-off participation. They are partway through a run of six away matches in eight games, including journeys to the likes of Southend and Charlton.

Rotherham’s final away game of the season is at Plymouth.

Factoring in days off, down-time with the family and exercises to prevent players going, in his words, “stir crazy” in hotels will assume great importance for Warne. He said: “A Harry Redknapp book I am reading focuses on the England camp. He said that the problem when players were in the hotels a lot is that they had too much time to think about the game.

“When you are on a team bus for four hours and then you get to the hotel and have food together with your training kit on and then get to your room with your mate who is thinking, ‘If I don’t play well tomorrow the gaffer might pull me out of the squad’, it adds to the mental tension.

“Going forward we have got to do a few things in the hotel to stop the lads thinking about football as you do get mentally exhausted from it without a shadow of a doubt.

“I don’t think this is why home teams do well, but this is one part of it. If players go home after training on a Friday afternoon and your kids come home an hour late and your missus says, ‘It is your turn to empty the dishwasher’ or whatever there are loads of things going on to make you not think about the game.”

A bit of a light-hearted distraction certainly worked ahead of Saturday’s game at Northampton with players and staff delaying their departure on the previous afternoon for the team hotel to watch some racing from the Cheltenham Festival.

The Millers lasted the course at Sixfields in a 3-0 triumph and they are set fair for the home straight in League One.

Warne added: “Our physio had a bet at Cheltenham and so we delayed our departure so we could all watch the race. It was good banter and anything that can distract the lads’ thoughts and keep their minds off the game helps.

“I try and give them days off and get them away from the place, and keep training as fresh as possible. Now it is about getting them in and making them feel confident and good about themselves and then getting them off home and enjoying it.

“The lads have been back in since the first week in June. Mental fatigue does come into it, especially if you have to listen to my voice every single day.”