As Charlton explained, though, strong home records are far from a new phenomenon and although Old Trafford has changed hugely over the years, the advantages enjoyed by players revelling in familiar surroundings haven’t: “As a player, it’s the same geography. Your radar works off every landmark. For my generation, at first, it used to be the factory chimneys. You could see them from inside the ground. They were all different and when your brain picked them up from the corner of your eye as you were running you just knew instinctively how hard to hit a pass, precisely where to aim the shot, exactly when to send over the cross.”
The advantage increases when the away side is unfamiliar with the surface – something Spurs experienced when they travelled to Young Boys of Bern in the qualifying round of last season’s Champions League and found themselves 3-0 down after 28 minutes on an artificial pitch. “I think Spurs lost the game before the referee’s whistle went,” Young Boys’ Scott Sutter tells FFT. “Other teams have struggled – we won all of our home Europa League games – but it’s difficult to say how much of an effect it has because we’re just so familiar with it. Every game becomes just like a training session.”
AWAY TIES MESS WITH THE MIND Football may be played on grass, but you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to realise that what goes on between the ears is almost as important – and as a footballer it’s easy to get a mental block when it comes to travel sickness.
“Before our Premier League campaign Hull hadn’t been in the top flight for 104 years so it was almost eradicated from our brains that we were there,” former Hull boss Phil Brown tells FFT. “It was a stealth approach: no one expected to us to even win a game.”
In Hull’s first five Premier League away matches they won four times, beating
“We would have to dodge bags of urine and batteries being hurled at us from the stands”
Above As ‘sideshows’ go, few are harder to ignore than in Brazil Below Fergie landed himself in hot water at Chelsea last term
Newcastle, Arsenal, Spurs and West Brom. In the next they lost by the odd goal in seven at Old Trafford. But they would win just once more away from the KC Stadium during Brown’s reign, which eventually ended the following March. So what changed? “People were giving us the press we deserved,” he says. “We had arrived. We couldn’t fly under the radar anymore and teams had done their homework.”
As the winless away run continued, the psychological barriers Hull had smashed through on arrival began to loom large once more. And the longer any run continues the more it weighs on the minds of all those connected with the club. “All players will tell you that they go out to win every game but subconsciously there’s something else in play,” says David Brown from the Academy of the Sporting Mind. “All players know it’s harder to win away from home – and whether they like it or not, that’s often reflected in their performances.”
Steve McClaren’s brief England reign is best remembered for the sight of him standing desolately on the Wembley touchline holding an umbrella and clutching at straws as his side’s interest in Euro 2008 was ended by Croatia. While that defeat represented the final nail in his and England’s coffin, it’s worth remembering that were it not for an away draw in Israel or an away defeat to Russia, his side would have qualified comfortably for the tournament.
Sports psychologist Bill Beswick was working with England at the time and knows better than most the impact that playing away from home can have on players and teams. “Part of game preparation is understanding and preparing to deal with the context and environment in which the game will be played,” he explains. “Football demands focus and concentration, and in the key skill of coping with the ‘sideshow’: ‘99 per cent concentration = 100 per cent failure.’
“Playing in unfamiliar environments away from home, a World Cup’s different climate or time zone, moving to a new stadium and so on – this all enhances the ‘sideshow’, challenging the away team’s focus and concentration.”
If one club demonstrates football’s away-day foibles it’s Celtic. The Glasgow giants have lost 21 out of their last 22 away matches in the Champions League, a miserable run that Michael Grant, chief football writer at the Glasgow Herald, has witnessed first hand. Ironically, he apportions part of the blame for that dreadful record on Celtic’s relatively successful home record. “What always strikes me about the Parkhead record is that Celtic Park, when it’s full, is absolutely electric,” he says. “It’s a throbbing atmosphere and while
98 October 2011 FourFourTwo.com