The space between the ears that hides all the secrets

PUBLISHED: 07:00 15 April 2017 | UPDATED: 13:28 15 April 2017

Muhammad Ali watches as George Foreman goes down in the eighth round - and the world title was his. Picture: PA

Muhammad Ali watches as George Foreman goes down in the eighth round - and the world title was his. Picture: PA

You know that phrase that begins “if I had a pound for every time I ...”?

You know that phrase that begins “if I had a pound for every time I ...”?

Well, if I had been rewarded for every time I opined that sport is largely “played between the ears” I would indeed be living it up on some sun-drenched beach, far from the madding crowd.

Should evidence be required, it came at Carrow Road on Saturday when myself and three mates – Graham, Joe and Bob – watched almost dumbstruck as Norwich City did a job on Reading. Then it was rubber-stamped on Friday when the same team lost at home to Fulham.

If Jaap Stam was astounded, then so was everyone else in the ground. None more so than those who had been to Huddersfield just a few days earlier and watched virtually the same team collapse in horrible fashion.

The strength of footballers, and their manager, is to find a way to extract maximum effort and commitment. Skill helps, but often its absence can be made up with a sheer will not to lose a tackle, a challenge, a header, a game.

Witness Wes Hoolahan’s performance: not only did he bring out the full box of tricks, but there he was winning a header in a midfield aerial duel; winning tackles, refusing to go to ground in the area and somehow battling through to poke the ball into the net for his second and City’s sixth. Three attempts it took Wes to score, but the refusal to give up illustrated a passion that has been missing in many performances by many players this season.

What changed? Was it Stuart Webber’s arrival as sporting director? Was it the determination to say a fitting goodbye to club stalwart Peter Oldfield, whose recent passing was marked in such fitting style?

Maybe it was the early penalty by Nelson Oliveira that lifted spirits whilst deflating Reading’s.

We may never really know, because the human mind works in mysterious ways, which we have all yet to work out.

But there are ways and means. Certain managers had the wherewith all: Brian Clough took a raggedy bunch of Nottingham Forest players to successive European Cup final wins in 1979 and 1980. You think Leicester winning the Premier League was something – it was nothing compared to what Clough did.

Alex Ferguson cultivated years of glory at Manchester United: yes, he had great players, but as Arsenal are currently proving, that is no guarantee of success.

The great Czech long distance runner Emil Zatopek produced punishing bursts of energy that broke the back of his rivals.

Tennis star Ivan Lendl prepared for the US Open by asking the company that built the courts to put an exact replica in his back garden. He mastered it and, in his mind, he mastered his opponents.

One of the greatest examples of how mind games can win the top prize came in October, 1974, when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire for the heavyweight championship of the world. Ali was desperate to win back the title that was taken from him in 1967 for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.

Foreman was formidable, a huge favourite against a man robbed of the best years of his sporting life. But Ali taunted him. He allowed, forced, Foreman to throw punches. Still he didn’t surrender. As Foreman’s frustration increased, Ali taunted his opponent: “is that the best you can do? You can’t punch. Show me something.”

Then came the clue to Ali’s motivation: “Give it back to me. It’s mine.”

Ali’s desire to win back his titles provided him with an unbreakable mental strength. When Foreman teetered on the edge of destruction in the eighth round, Ali pounced. It was all over and Ali had won one of the most famous fights ever.

In Foreman’s corner was Archie Moore, who had been world light heavyweight champion for a staggering 10 years. Moore’s choice of words may not be perfect, but the sentiment was.

“The psychic values can move a fighter far beyond his expectations, or retard him below his ability,” he said. “The latter is what happened to George. Pandemonium got into his mind. Something else was in Ali’s. He thought the title belonged to him. There is big psychic value in that.”

It’s all between the ears.

Is that Alli you’ve got?

Footballers have a lot to answer for, especially those from 100 clubs in the Premier League, Football League and Women’s Super League, who have come up with a shortlist for PFA Player of the Year that does not include Dele Alli.

Instead, the Tottenham midfielder is on the shortlist for the Young Player of the Year gong.

So, at 21, he is seen as a young player? Surely that is a category that should be reserved for teenagers, allowing the rest to battle it out for the ‘big prize’.

In its own way it is hardly encouraging for young players, who know they won’t have a chance against the likes of Alli.

When Alli walks out with an England shirt on, does anyone regard him as a ‘young’ player?

He is one of the few players I’d say “yeh, I’d pay good money to watch him play” and for him to be omitted from the senior list is shoddy.

What on earth were those voting players thinking?

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