Monday, September 04, 2006

England have mindset to survive Balkan cauldron

With 15 military helicopters parked next to the main runway here, and advertisements for bullet-proof glass in the arrivals hall, England's players could have been forgiven a momentary shiver of apprehension on landing in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia last night.

England players can be prey to negative thoughts on their travels, even bad bouts of homesickness, which is one of the many reasons Steve McClaren appointed the respected sports psychologist Bill Beswick to his back-room staff.

Basking in the burning sun yesterday, its cafes full of people, Skopje is far from threatening, but Beswick will be on hand to encourage the right "mental toughness" in McClaren's players for when they enter the Gradski Stadium tomorrow. Their confidence will also be lifted by Rio Ferdinand declaring himself fit to start following a toe injury.

For a collection of players who have achieved much at club level, it is surprising that England's finest have melted when the heat is on internationally. Macedonia hardly pose the greatest test of English mettle, but Ferdinand, John Terry, Steven Gerrard and company must not reveal a hint of uncertainty before such a partisan Balkan audience.

The importance of doing well on the road was stressed by Beswick. "In international football, nearly all the really key games for a player will be played away from home and in tournaments," England's team psychologist said.

"In those circumstances, there are so many more opportunities for negatives to affect and influence attitude. My role is to support Steve McClaren in developing a winning England team by focusing on the mental and emotional strengths that are part and parcel of winning international teams.

"My belief centres around the basis that performance follows attitude. My job is to look at all elements that create a winning attitude.

"Some of those would include confidence, concentration, emotional control, mental toughness, resilience and so on."

Beswick is no stranger to England's players, having worked with "three-quarters" of them at Under-21 and Under-18 level and some at Middlesbrough and Manchester United. Gerrard consulted Beswick when sorting out his hastiness in the tackle that drew red cards early in his career. Beswick recommended the appliance of patience, built around the "traffic light" principle of stopping for thought before charging in.

England's internationals certainly respect Beswick and are open to his ideas. "There is a difference now in today's players from those of the past," Beswick explained to England supporters via a column in Saturday's Andorra programme.

"These players will willingly grasp any opportunity to build and develop their game. If they see me as someone who can help, they will make full use of me. I think we can have a very successful and interesting journey with this group of players."

The journey will be more successful if Beswick can engender a mental toughness at moments of most stress, namely in penalty shoot-outs. "People talk about penalties being a test of the mind," McClaren observed. "There is no better person in the country than Bill to help us address this area."

England's head coach was delighted that Ferdinand came through a full training session yesterday, although Luke Young (ankle) and Chris Kirkland (back) failed to travel.

England arrived only with young Ben Foster as back-up to Paul Robinson, and Scott Carson has been placed on stand-by with the Under-21s in Switzerland.

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