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The Darke Side: Travel Sickness

Ian Darke looks at why some teams struggle on the road

30 April 2020

Map of the north

Michael Owen, a colleague at BT Sport, told me once that his favourite feeling was walking out with Liverpool and facing a raging hostile crowd in the Merseyside derby away to Everton.

“I just thought to myself, I’m going to shut you lot up,” he said. “I felt ten feet taller. I was thinking ‘stuff you’. It was us against the world in there. You can’t get better motivation.”

Of course, not all players have the same mental fortitude in away games. Frankly, a few go missing. They just don’t seem to ‘fancy it’ so much away from their own friendly fans and familiar surroundings.

They’re the types who drive managers to distraction. The old question: ‘Would he be up for it on a rainy Tuesday night at Stoke?' springs to mind.

And, of course, for most clubs there is no place like home. Why should that be, though? Surely, it’s largely psychological.

Yet a lot of teams develop a seemingly incurable travel sickness the moment they step on the team bus.

But good players don’t become bad ones just because they are playing on a different patch of grass, do they?

And modern tactics – with an emphasis on fast counter-attacks – should actually suit the away team. Sit deep, frustrate the eager home team, silence the crowd, nick the ball, break, score.

That’s the theory. The reality can be that they come under pressure, crack and mentally shrivel.

"Modern tactics – with an emphasis on fast counter-attacks – should actually suit the away team."

Ian Darke

Millwall’s frightening old ground at The Den used to scare visiting sides. The Lions once went 59 games unbeaten there.

One of their players in that era, Eamonn Dunphy, said: “Once we went ahead, you could see the opposition just pack it in. They wanted to get out of there.”

Aware of that level of intimidation, the great Nottingham Forest boss Brian Clough made his side get off the team bus and walk the last half-mile to the ground amid some pretty rough Millwall fans. They lost 0-3! Oh well.

Managers have come up with all kinds of ideas to beat the away day blues. Show films of the last win on the road, take the train instead of the team bus, go on the day or use a different hotel.

Martin Allen once tried to relax his Brentford players by getting them to smash golf balls over a lake at the team hotel (even though half of them had never played the game!).

But my favourite was the always understated, but hugely successful, Liverpool boss Bob Paisley.

His team had just lost a Wednesday European Cup tie at Forest and they had to go there in the league three days later.

“What will you do different, Bob?” asked a reporter. “Oh, I dunno,” mused Paisley. “We might go via Uttoxeter next time.”

This column first appeared in this season's Pompey v Gillingham matchday magazine.

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