There was a lot of hesitancy before writing this piece. Why? Because it will no doubt bring accusations of attempts to excuse Manchester United’s poor performance at the Stadium of Light on Saturday. So it’s worth repeating the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson refused to blame the pre match disruption caused by a collapsed ceiling and burst sewerage pipe which had effluent overflowing into the dressing room for his side’s tepid first half display. United had to incinerate their clothes, wash bags and kit after the pre match shower of sewage in their dressing room left it stinking to high heaven.
Make no mistake however, those sorts of incidents, just minutes before kick off DOES have a major effect on players. Having been inside hundreds of dressing rooms just prior to matches ranging from ordinary, run of the mill league games to a decisive 1994 World Cup qualifier against a desperate, Diego Maradona led Argentina in Buenos Aires, you can rest assured that those pre match preparations are absolutely critical.
The twenty or so minutes after the pre match warm up before entering the stadium are the most crucial. The focus on the task ahead is at its most intense and the slightest disruption to a players’ normal routine can upset their finely tuned mental preparation.
A light bulb that doesn’t work, no toilet paper for a last minute visit, soap not available in the sink and dozens of normally minor incidents can escalate into major problems. Many a drink container or a tea cup have gone smashing into dressing room walls in a fit of anger. Is that an exaggeration? Just ask those who have witnessed similar incidents. Mild mannered managers and players can suddenly become enraged simply because the supply of chewing gum had been used are not uncommon – and no, I have never been in a dressing room with Fergie.
From all reports, what happened just prior to the game at Sunderland was not a minor incident but if Ferguson insists that it had no effect on his team we have to take his word for it. Make no mistake however, an elite football team is no different to a finely tuned machine and when a couple of its parts are not functioning perfectly, the entire unit suffers.
It may simply be a coincidence that there was a noticeable improvement in United’s second half performance at Sunderland. Whether that was due to a return of normal conditions in the dressing room will never be known – and quite frankly, I’m not presumptious enough to guess.
How essential are pre match preparations for a good performance?