FOOTBALL: Palace Mind Games

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THE Crystal Palace manager, Alan Smith, thinks his team are just too nice and he may be right. After an hour of being subjected to all manner of apparent indignities by a consultant in team psychology at their training ground last week, the playe rs stood, thanked him and gave him a round of applause. It was as if those other palace dwellers had congratulated the tabloids on their latest revelations.

Smith, an open-minded manager who wears his copious heart on his sleeve, admitted recently that he was at his wit's end after Palace had gone nine Premiership matches without scoring. This was the week he struck back, discovering his wit was longer than he thought.

"No problem is big enough to run away from," he wrote on a board at the Mitcham training ground before last Sunday's FA Cup tie against Lincoln City, which Palace won 5-1. It was only against a Third Division team, though, and Manchester City were comingto Selhurst Park in the quarter-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup on Wednesday.

That was how Simon Meyerson, practitioner of team dynamics, came to be in Smith's office this eve-of-match morning. "They seem to have a whimsical mentality sometimes," Smith says by way of a briefing. "They are all good lads and I have no trouble about drugs or bonking in the backs of cars but they need some aggression. All the best teams find ways to survive when the going is tough. Nobody won anything by being too pure."

Meyerson has worked with other football clubs, in industry and the armed services and defines his role as "using physical techniques to free the jams between people in team units, helping them to enhance their energy rather than use it to blame each other". He listens to Smith, then moves into the weights room to meet the players, scepticism not surprisingly writ large on their faces.

He turns to Smith. "Who are you angry with?" he asks. Smith picks out seven players, including the strikers John Salako, Chris Armstrong and Andy Preece because "they are not doing enough". Naturally, they disagree. "Is this a black thing, boss?" Salako asks with a smile that is returned. "You look tough enough," Meyerson says to Preece. "So why aren't you aggressive?" "Maybe it's not in my nature," he replies.

More searching questions follow for them to ponder. "When things go badly, people lapse back to warmer days. Are you still First Division champions or have you entered the Premier League yet?" Meyerson wonders, his belief being that they must stop being fans of all the reputations they encounter and start feeling their equals. "Do the opposition think you are lightweight, mentally and physically?"

Then he seeks to free the Palace Seven. They link arms in a circle and the new pounds 400,000 signing from Southampton, Iain Dowie, is urged to try to force his way in. He succeeds and, one by one, so do the other players. The 48-year-old Smith tries but, confronted by 17 fitter, younger men, he is pinned down. "Good time to negotiate a new contract," somebody says.

Meyerson employs other symbolic bonding exercises, such as pairs of players hugging while others seek to pull them apart. He also has them all on their haunches, backs to the wall, trying to resist for as long as possible, buckling and sliding to the floor when the pain sets in. "OK, now take the anger in the team and use it on the opposition," he concludes after the 45-minute session.

He has been impressed with the way the players have warmed to the activity. …