One of the best goals I ever scored was at Elland Road in the colours of Coventry and I’m still not sure how I did it.
The ball dropped to me near the touchline – I was virtually next to the dug-out, to be fair – and I hit it from about 40 or 50 yards past Neil Sullivan. It dipped perfectly under the bar and had enough swerve to bend beyond the Leeds goalkeeper. The footage is a bit grainy but it’s on YouTube if you want to take a look.
I watch it now and my first thought is ‘What went through my head there to even try that?’ The answer is that I was in a little bit of form, I was full of confidence and when that is the case you don’t think about things at all, you just do them.
Confidence doesn’t turn you into a good footballer. You can have all the confidence in the world but you need the ability to execute, and I think back to the days when I was on form and playing as a central midfielder.
A front-man would lay a ball back to me and the first thing that would come into my mind would be to ping it diagonally 20 or so yards to the winger on the left: when in form I’d just do it without missing a beat. It would be instant.
Footballers are taking pictures on the pitch all the time. Every single second you’re taking a new one and even when you haven’t got the ball you get instant snapshots of what is happening. You might be thinking ‘My striker is going to drop back here, he’ll play a ball there so I have to be in this space’. It’s an instant thing, almost as if it is second nature to you.
I suppose when people talk about having a good ‘football brain’ that’s what they might be hinting at: it’s those pictures that come into your mind. When you’re flying, you just go with the picture in your mind that split second.
When you’re low on confidence and you’re struggling, you don’t trust that picture in your mind anymore. You take a second to consider a difficult pass and think ‘I’m not trying that’. Then you take a touch and the first picture you saw in your mind is not possible anymore, so you need to come up with another one.
By then you’re under pressure and all you can think of is the first picture, so you either take the wrong option or play it safer than you might have done.
If you imagine all this happening in the space of a second or two – possibly with 52,000 people screaming at you to do something – you can see why having that confidence and the conviction to carry it out is so important. For me it was the difference between taking the shot against Leeds and laying the ball off to someone else. It makes all the difference.
A great example of that from the weekend was Vincent Kompany’s red card against Hull City. Now Kompany is a class player but that mistake betrayed his lack of confidence – either in his own form or those around him. He had the ball at his feet but took a touch and the picture in his mind changed. Suddenly there was panic, he tried to go backwards and he got caught by Nikica Jelavic. That’s not him being a bad player, but something isn’t right.
Papiss Cisse and Steven Fletcher are both caught in that trap at the moment. Both are goalscorers and have a track record of scoring – and scoring well. But neither is providing the goals they’re in the team for and Newcastle and Sunderland are paying the price.
I don’t agree with people who say Cisse will never get back his initial form for Newcastle. That goal against Chelsea is what he is about. The funniest little thing might change his run: a good pass, a good run – something will click.
Confidence changes you as a footballer and it changes your personality. Cisse looks to me like quite a quiet guy, almost a bit timid and so it will be up to John Carver and Alan Pardew to lift him and show that they believe in him. Given the lack of options, they have little other option.
But he will be different around the lads this week and quite rightly. When I was in decent form I’d be loud and laughing from the moment I walked through the door at the training ground, I’d have a joke with the chef, you’d be playing little jokes on your team-mates and generally enjoying your work.
If you weren’t playing well or you were out of the team, you have to adapt. You’re quieter, the laughter has to be a bit more targeted.
It’s just common sense – if you’re having one on the pitch and laughing it off, the rest of the lads will wonder what you’re doing. Worse still, the manager might take it as a sign you’re not getting your head down.
The mood of a dressing room is so important and I do wonder now whether some clubs are missing the sort of atmosphere that we used to have. When things aren’t going well you need the practical jokers and every dressing room I played in had a couple.
Francis Jeffers was the one when I was at Everton. Every week he would be at it and he was a funny guy. We’d go back and forth: one week he cut the laces out of my boots, which I only discovered about a minute before the game. I was messing around with my laces just before kick-off and he was laughing his head off. I was livid with Franny so I thought I’d get my own back.
My answer was simple: Deep Heat in his underpants. I mean a lot of it as well, a whole tube. Little did I know Franny was only going to put them on a minute before kick-off! We also didn’t know the then England manager Kevin Keegan was going to be there watching him. Franny had a stinker and never played for England again, and he still says that’s my fault to this day!
Sometimes it’s all about the mood around the place. Smiles go a long way.