Belfast Telegraph

McClaren's mind games seek a level playing field

By Steve Tongue

Not for nothing does the list of Football Association officials at England matches these days include a psychologist among all the men in grey blazers. Bill Beswick does not speak to the media, but his voice comes through when Steve McClaren does, echoing phrases from lectures or his motivational book, which is subtitled "Develop A Winning Mental Approach".

"Change negative to positive," Beswick emphasises, "limit stressful situations. Focus on what can be controlled." Thus is it that from the moment the artificial pitch England will encounter tonight first raised its potentially awkward head, McClaren's response has been either to play the matter down or make a virtue of others' doubts. "This is what's been put in front of us," he said when the subject first came up a month ago. "It's like everything that happens, injuries or problems. You have to cope with it." By this week, after exhaustive study of his beloved Pro-Zone statistics, the line had become: "There's no significant differences between the surfaces. It's a flat pitch, so there's no excuse."

"No excuses" is another key commandment from a sports psychologist's bible and one that McClaren's squad appear to be taking to heart. Paul Robinson, the goalkeeper undone by a divot on natural grass in Croatia last year, said: "It must be of good quality and we can't be putting excuses in the way about plastic pitches."

England's lions might also be advised to avoid use of the word "plastic", with its unconscious connotations of the loathed surfaces at Queen's Park Rangers, Luton Town and Oldham Athletic a quarter of a century ago. Those pitches were banned by the Football Association in 1988, and the quality of artificial surfaces (first used at the Houston Astrodome in 1965) has clearly improved. Unfortunately for the England camp, many of those who have played on the FieldTurf version laid down in Moscow's Luzhniki stadium and widely used in the United States and Canada, have had words as harsh as grazed skin for it.

David Beckham, conscious of the likely effect on his injured ankle, said of the FieldTurf pitch used by Toronto FC: "You can't play a game like soccer on that sort of field. What it does to your body as a soccer player, you're in bits for three days after that." Three other Major League Soccer clubs use the surface, including New England Revolution, whose coach, the former Liverpool and Scotland player Steve Nicol, admits: "There is no give in it. Grass is still the best surface."

Nicol's words were mild compared to his countryman Garry O'Connor, now back in Britain with Birmingham City after playing at the Luzhniki on numerous occasions for Lokomotiv Moscow. "A dreadful experience," he said. "I can't begin to tell you how tough it's going to be for England."

As well as potentially jarring joints, the degree of dampness appears to be a factor. Critics claim that, if the surface is too dry, the black rubber granules can fly up, making life particularly difficult for goalkeepers, whereas they stick to the ball when wet. Celtic were almost caught out when they played Spartak Moscow in August by watering on the day of the game after they had trained there the night before. The Russians are dismissive of such talk and their coach, Guus Hiddink, has said that this week's inclement weather would have saturated a grass pitch.

All in the mind, rather than underfoot, will be the Beswick-McClaren line. Reminding the players of Celtic's result might also help. A 1-1 draw would do very nicely tonight.

Group E

Remaining fixtures: Today: Macedonia v Andorra; Russia v England. 17 Nov: Andorra v Estonia; Macedonia v Croatia; Israel v Russia. 21 Nov: Andorra v Russia; England v Croatia; Israel v Macedonia.

What England have to do: A victory in Moscow today will seal qualification for Euro 2008. A draw would leave them needing a point against Croatia next month, while a defeat would mean they need to defeat Croatia and hope Russia fail to win their remaining two games.

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