Play the game, not the occasion, insists Champions League winner Rio Ferdinand
Shut out the noise
Take away the importance of the game by detaching yourself from all the extra attention a cup final gets. The sooner you do this, the better. If you get distracted by the enormity of the occasion it will get too big for you and the game will pass you by.
Stick to your routine
Don’t change your training regime. Stick to what you know – this will help settle your nerves. When I was a kid I used to get nervous for trials, but I quickly realised I had to get out of that mindset. Once I did that I felt at home in the big games.
Positive vibes only
I tried to ease everyone’s nerves by saying: ‘Listen: just play your normal game and do what comes naturally’. You have to trust each other and believe that you’re going to win no matter who you’re playing, no matter what’s at stake. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a friendly or a cup final – the game is still the same.
Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth shares the secrets to giving a rousing team talk when the pressure’s on
“I remember that before Wycombe’s last-day decider against Torquay back in May 2014, I turned to the players in the changing room and asked them if there was anything we could do about the other results we needed to go our way.
Most players thought I was asking a generic question and knew the response I wanted. They said: ‘No, we can only influence our game’.
I told them that wasn’t the case. I said that an early goal would filter through to those other games and to the players on the pitch and the fans in the stands. We could create tension by going out there and scoring as quickly as possible – which we did. That’s the key: getting on the front foot and dictating, not just to the opposition but also to the other teams involved.
Above all, you need to stay super positive and believe that safety is only 90 minutes away. Take some deep breaths, remember the fans who have followed you through thick and thin throughout the season, and think about the people you’re closest to. Go out there and do it for them.
These matches can define your career, but embrace them. They can only make you a stronger manager and a better player.”
Entertain players before a season-defining contest and you’ll come out on top, advises Southend and former Hull boss Phil Brown
What’s the key to preparing for a promotion decider?
It’s all about brain space. It’s not about what you say, but when you say it. The days before a play-off match can be very long and there’s a lot of thinking time for the players. You really need to balance the time you’re spending on the pitch with the time you’ve got the players in to discuss tactics and the approach you’re going to take on matchday. As a manager you need to mix things up to keep the players interested.
Did you try anything out of the ordinary?
The norm can become boring because you get used to people’s reactions and characters – sometimes you need to shake things up and surprise the players. At Bolton we once had two comedians come in and give a team talk. At the time you’re thinking: ‘What’s this all about?’, but it had a fantastic impact because the tension and nerves completely disappeared. Laughter is a great way of getting the players relaxed and ready for a big game.
When should you deliver your final message?
It would probably be two hours before the start of the match that I’d give the players their last piece of information. Players can retain only two or three instructions at a time, so I think the hours before the match are theirs to go through their own routines and feel as comfortable as they can.
Burnley and Wales striker Sam Vokes won the Championship title with Wolves in 2009 – he reveals how to get over the winning line
“You obviously don’t want to get ahead of yourself, but remember how hard you’ve worked to get to this position in the first place.
In the build-up to the match you’ll get a sense of just how important the game is, not only to you and your team-mates but also to the fans and the club you’re representing. Yes, you need to take that on board, but you also need to focus on your own game and what has got the team to this point.
Try to keep a clear head and give yourself a chance to think about what you need to do as an individual. I always like to go out for a morning walk on a big matchday and then, when kick-off arrives, take everything in and don’t force things by wandering out of position in search of an early touch.
Above all, enjoy it, because these matches don’t come around very often.”
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