Dec 30 2011
By Hugh Keevins
A TOP sports psychologist last night said it was possible a wind-up won the Old Firm game for Celtic – but only self-help can get them the title back from Rangers.
Tom Lucas knows from personal experience exactly how thin the margin is between being champion and runner-up.
Terry Butcher asked him to lock the dressing-room door and speak to the Motherwell players on the day they beat Martin O’Neill’s side and cost Celtic the league flag in 2005.
And the man now in charge of Inverness was so grateful he wrote the foreword to Lucas’s recent book “Just Help Yourself.”
The clue’s in the title says Lucas, who believes the Old Firm are missing a trick by resorting to taunts instead of embracing psychology.
He insisted: “Ally McCoist saying ‘We will win’ on the back page of Record Sport on the day of the Old Firm derby will have brought an immediate response from the Celtic players.
“It will have added tension to the occasion for Neil Lennon’s players and driven them on to contradict the Rangers manager’s words.
“But if you need to be goaded into action from now until the end of the season when you’re going for Celtic’s first title in four seasons, then there must be something wrong with you.”
Lucas’s best example of how one wind-up won’t have the power to sustain on a long-term basis is the headline created when Nikica Jelavic said a 12-point lead would be enough to guarantee Rangers four in a row.
The psychologist said: “The irony is Jelavic’s words were absolutely correct. The problem is 12 points weren’t enough for Rangers when they should have been.
“The danger with wind-ups as opposed to self-help is that you can start to believe your own hype and put the tools away where proper focus and concentration are concerned.
“If you believe 12 points will carry you to the title, you dismiss teams who maybe aren’t as prosperous and are fighting for win bonuses every week.
“St Mirren have relieved Rangers of five points and Kilmarnock took care of another three in recent weeks, for example.
“And one of the most noticeable absentees during that time has, of course, been Jelavic – the man who said the league was over while his team was busy going into freefall.”
Kris Commons was last season’s stand-out example of a wind-up merchant gone off the rails when he said Celtic were “younger, fitter and better” than Rangers in the closing stages of the title race that ended in disaster for the Hoops at Inverness.
Lucas highlighted the folly of that statement when he said: “Bragging rights only matter when you actually win the competition.
“If you don’t succeed then you have to expect to take a retrospective caning if your older, less fit and inferior opponents somehow manage to finish above you in the table. The risk Commons, Jelavic and McCoist took was to ignore the fact that wind-ups have no depth. They offer a short-term fix – but at the end of the day it’s about personal performance levels.”
That was the philosophy Lucas took into the Fir Park dressing room on the day he was asked to say something that would stick in the minds of Butcher’s players against Celtic.
He said: “Terry embraces sports science and appreciates what it can do to improve a player’s self-belief. I studied Celtic’s warm-up that afternoon and told him I thought they looked complacent, even though they needed a win to lift the title.
“He told me to address the players – and I said to them they could be part of history or make history.
“They could be the team Celtic beat to become champions or else they could go down in history as the side who produced a startling result. The rest is history.
“My belief is it’s about the individual player’s performance.
“If someone says his team is younger, fitter and better than another one, what does that actually mean unless you can back it up with a trophy win based on a series of performances?
“It’s a fleeting impact created by a headline that turns into tomorrow’s chip paper.
“If you can’t back up your wind-up then it’s wiser not to come out with it in the first place. Wind-ups are soundbites. Preparation is for real.
“And that’s why I think Rangers and Celtic live in the past where sports psychology’s concerned.
“They look after the physiology department and keep up with any advances in looking after their players’ diet and fitness.
“At the same time, you can reject sports psychologists but you can’t ignore psychology. The problem is the Old Firm think they can do without it.”
Lucas can look through his own client list to suggest he has the case histories to show what can be done if you work on a player’s mind.
He said: “I started to work with Malky Mackay when he left Queen’s Park to sign for Celtic.
“Now the world is his oyster as manager of Cardiff City. We still have a professional relationship and now it’s at the stage where I can text him a thought process to work on for the benefit of the team.
“Stephen Craigan had been freed by Partick Thistle and was going nowhere in particular when I started to work with him.
“Now he has more than 50 caps for Northern Ireland and has captained his country.
“He lacked mental strength when I first met him but now he’s all about personal focus and a willingness
“Rangers will find that out when they play Motherwell at Ibrox on Monday and they’d be better off concentrating on themselves for the moment and leaving others alone.”