by Noel Draper

According to all of the television pundits a couple of weekend’s ago, Manchester United, being eight points clear, had the title race pretty much sown up. My United supporting friends appeared to hold with this theory judging by the abuse I was receiving in my local pub and even in my own mind I had accepted that second in the league would be a fine place to end the season seeing as it was an improvement on the previous campaign.

Roberto Mancini, the City boss, appeared to not agree with my idea though, judging by the comments he made after the disappointing Arsenal defeat. “We need to finish well”, he said before continuing to point out that “football is never finished”. It would appear that while most City fans loved his optimism they were a little bemused by his comments seeing as United were eight points clear with six games left.

A few days later, after United had surprisingly lost at Wigan and City had beaten WBA comfortably at home, most City fans were beginning to agree with him. Maybe we could catch them, maybe the Italian was right, maybe football is never finished and maybe Mancini can see into the future.

Imagine our surprise then when Mancini came out and said that the title race was “finished”. This also came as a bit of a shock to most football fans seeing as Manchester United had seen their lead at the top of the Premier League cut to five points with five games left to play. Even the post match interviewer seemed bemused.

Mancini continued with this theory after City had thrashed Norwich and relegated Wolves even though, by this stage, the points difference had been reduced to just three because of Everton’s fantastic fight back at Old Trafford. This confused everyone, especially City fans, seeing as there was a home derby to look forward to in a week. “They have the easier games,” he said.

This got me thinking. Do mind games work? Does a floppy haired manager’s words make a blind bit of difference to the outcome of the football season?

Well, there is of course precedent for this sort of behaviour, in the shape of a red nosed managerial genius from nearly the same City as the Italian. Back in the good old days of football, the 1995/96 season, Newcastle United were managed by the serial quitter, a certain Mr Kevin Keegan, and were playing fantastic, flowing football. At one point in January they had pulled out a twelve point lead over Manchester United and it was at this stage that the mind games started. Sir Alex started telling interviewers that the title was as good as lost and that Newcastle couldn’t be caught. The massive lead was just too much to overcome.

He then started to say that Newcastle’s opponents were rolling over for them and that Leeds United were cheating the football public in general by letting Newcastle win. This obviously incensed the curly haired Geordie and during an after game interview by Keys and Gray he proceeded to rant at the camera. This vitriolic outburst included the now infamous “I would love it if we beat them, love it” quote. Keegan had lost it and so had his team as they drew their last two games and lost the title to a very happy Manchester United. The mind games had worked and have continued to play a significant role in any manager’s arsenal to this day.

Crucially though, rather than trying to lock horns with Sir Alex, which of course would be completely pointless given that he is the undisputed master of the art, Mancini has aimed his mind games at his own players and to a lesser extent, the fans. By doing this he seems to have set loose his talented footballers to knock the ball about with the freedom that they had at the beginning of the season and not with the sour faced approach they adopted in March. This has also energized the support somewhat meaning the atmosphere at home games has greatly improved. The results of this stroke of genius are clear for all to see as slowly but surely Manchester City are catching their closest rivals.

Of course time will only tell if his reverse psychology completely works and City capture their first title since 1968 but one thing has become clear and that is the fact that the back end of the season has suddenly become a bit more exciting. Which is surely a good thing, isn’t it?