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It's all in the mind

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Gavin Strachan | 16:14 UK time, Thursday, 19 March 2009

Hi, hope you are all well.
It is no secret that modern day football clubs leave no stone unturned in pursuit of success. The rewards, and conversely the penalties for failure, are too great for them not to do so.
Physical preparation is obviously a facet that is given most of the attention but there is an ever increasing amount of focus being placed on the mental preparation of players, both as individuals and as a collective unit.
What may come as a bit of a surprise to you is the fact that the manifestations of this through motivational team meetings or consultations with psychologists are not reserved solely for football's elite. They are also becoming more prevalent in the lower reaches of professional football.

While the goals for players who perform at different levels can vary drastically - from excelling amidst the pressure of playing in a Champions League final to trying to squeeze one more year out of the professional game - the methods used are very similar.
It had never really dawned on me until recently but some of the best psychologists are, in fact, the managers themselves - and I have to stress the word "some"!

At one time, I thought that all you needed to be a good manager were the necessary coaching badges, and the ability to pick the right side and sign good players. Job done!

While the fundamentals of this will always be true, the best managers are also able to get inside their players' heads, and have a great appreciation of how to handle them to get the best response.

Quite simply you have to know how to deal with people. I know plenty of good coaches and former players who you would think were destined to become good managers but could not make a fist of it primarily because they could not handle that aspect of the job.
Not counting my old man, I would point to Darren Ferguson and, obviously it goes without saying, my current manager at Notts County, Ian McParland, (remember I am trying to get back in the team) as the best man-managers I have encountered in my career.
A number of sports psychologists have become involved with professional football clubs and I think it is fair to say that the reaction to them among the players has been mixed.
This could be because some players may confuse psychologists with psychiatrists and are quite uncomfortable with the thought of people messing with their head, possibly seeing it as a sign of weakness.

In my own case, I have always tried to be very open minded about these figures - it would be very foolish not to in my view, given the thin dividing lines between success and failure in the game.
I have to admit, though, that I don't feel this sort of help has been very effective for me up to now. I would never try and put someone off attempting these methods. They definitely pay dividends for a lot of players - I just doubt they are for me.

This is not because I am from the old school fraternity who simply believes that the best way to toughen up a player mentally is by making him run until he throws up. I just put it down to the fact that after years of being on the football merry-go-round, I am beyond help.
From my own personal experiences, I would split the type of mental training I have had into two distinct categories.

Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday

There is the "close your eyes, relax , you are getting sleepy....remember you are brilliant" type of category. Someone much smarter than me told me that this technique is known as "creative visualisation" although I stand to be corrected.

Then there is the motivational team meeting scenario, where a lot of dialogue is encouraged, similar to the type of talks that are given for businesses.
Motivation is obviously a key element for success in any walk of life, football being no exception.

Over the years I have subjected myself and also been subjected to just about every motivational tool available in order to find that edge before competing in a match, be it in the form of a film, music or anything else you can think of, it has probably been covered.
One particular favourite of football coaching staffs up and down the country is to bring a copy of "Living with the Lions" (the documentary about the British Lions rugby union team on tour in South Africa) on to the team bus.

If you have not seen it, I would strongly advise you to watch it because it is brilliant. I think I am in to double figures in terms of the times I have seen it shown on team buses.

As a result, I now tend to groan when I see it being loaded into the DVD player but I still end up watching the whole thing anyway!
Another commonly-used motivational tool is the speech about "inches" given by Al Pacino's character in the film "Any Given Sunday". This is a particular favourite of mine; I have even got it on my iPod .
From time-to-time I often indulge in a bit of "Rocky" when I'm in need of a motivational boost. My own favourite is Rocky IV.

To me, those scenes of him training in the snow are fantastic. The soundtrack for the Rocky films is also a must for one's iPod as far as I am concerned.

Before an FA Cup third round tie for Hartlepool against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, I took the Rocky soundtrack CD on to the team bus.

Needless to say we were ready to fight the world when we got off, but we refrained from punching anybody and gave a good account of ourselves in a narrow 1-0 defeat in front of a 40,000 crowd.
If I have missed any films or songs that get you going for a match then please feel free to share them as I would gladly welcome some fresh material!
However regardless of what anyone suggests, I still feel that the greatest motivational line that I have encountered all too often in my career from various managers is "Strachan, You have got five minutes to start playing or you are off...!"


  • 1. At 5:09pm on 19 Mar 2009, Andres Mora wrote:

    There is a film I really dig about American Football called 'The Replacements', with Keanu Reeves, about a group of amateur players filling in teams during a Players Association Strike. It's a laugh!!!

    I've been really trying to think of a good football film but I can't honestly remember one. Any suggestions?

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  • 2. At 5:12pm on 19 Mar 2009, azza252 wrote:

    what about your pop gavin is he a good man manager??

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  • 3. At 5:15pm on 19 Mar 2009, Dundee-Derry-Rhumba wrote:

    Being a proud Scot, I've got to say Braveheart is massive motivation to me. I also like watching Tartan Army videos on youtube before games.

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  • 4. At 5:28pm on 19 Mar 2009, WonderboySA wrote:

    Just wondering some foreign players come into a team barely able to speak english but on the pitrch you can see what they do.Have you ever had a player like that in your spuad and how did they communicate when lightening up the mood.

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  • 5. At 5:39pm on 19 Mar 2009, Gavin Strachan wrote:

    Mustafa Haji (apologise about the spelling) during my time at Coventry was a great example of a foreign player intergrating in to the squad. Although his English at the start was not great, he always had a smile on his face and was always eager to join in any of the banter that was going on.

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  • 6. At 5:40pm on 19 Mar 2009, Gavin Strachan wrote:

    post 2. I think so.But then I would!.

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  • 7. At 5:43pm on 19 Mar 2009, Mulgrew 21 wrote:

    I agree with post 3 that Tartan Army videos on youtube are great at motivating Scots. On that note Gavin, did you ever feel that you justified a Scotland call up and do you regret that you never became an international ?

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  • 8. At 5:46pm on 19 Mar 2009, bramer wrote:

    Nice blog.

    I think Martin O'Neill is probably the best man manager in the league at the moment. He is well respected and looks and sounds a damn nice man.

    I know its Mourinho's big talent (although saying Ibrahimovic is the best in the world is a slight OTT comment!), but then Sir Alex screams and uses fear. Which is more powerful?

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  • 9. At 5:50pm on 19 Mar 2009, the_jerry wrote:

    nice blog!

    You mentioned getting off the bus ready to fight before facing Sunderland. Have you ever in your career lost it or felt like punching a player on the field? when you look at Heinze last week versus Liverpool, and Ronaldo every week, I myself want to punch them! Whats it like as a player?

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  • 10. At 6:02pm on 19 Mar 2009, Berbatovscousin wrote:

    nice one, gavin

    one of my old bulgarian coaches used this for motivation:

    "start playing or i'll break your legs"

    we could have definitely used a psychologist after his training sessions

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  • 11. At 6:18pm on 19 Mar 2009, ard2k05 wrote:

    For me its gotta be Remember the Titans... the game where the refs are cheating them off the park and the defence coach yoast gives the Blitz speech... gets the hairs up on my arm every time....!!!

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  • 12. At 6:37pm on 19 Mar 2009, thacks-geordie wrote:

    Hi Gavin. I love your blog and am glad you've carved out such a successful career You probably don'tremember but I used to play with you for Yorkshire Amateurs under Peter Stephens (whosadly passed away in that car crash)at the xmas party when we were about 13.

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  • 13. At 6:48pm on 19 Mar 2009, lazypool2002 wrote:

    gav you look nothing like your old man isnt that enough motovation [only joking ]i use to play better at away grounds dont know why,just thought the pressure was off.

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  • 14. At 6:56pm on 19 Mar 2009, thacks-geordie wrote:

    Whatever happened to ur kid. He was a good player at Wetherby Athletic and had all the skills. Did he get injured at Coventry?

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  • 15. At 6:59pm on 19 Mar 2009, jonnothecitizen wrote:

    As a Psychology student it's great to see how Psychological methods can be used to encourage good performances throughout the football pyramid. 'Celticwiseman' commented that Mourinho and SAF were both brilliant at the man-management side of things, yet both use distinctly different tactics (Mourinho - constructive criticism and praise, and SAF - fear).

    While I believe Psychology is a major factor in any sport, it is essential that this is introduced over time into a stable and cooperative relationship between player and coach. How much do you feel that your relationship with your coaches influences your levels of motivation Gav?

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  • 16. At 7:10pm on 19 Mar 2009, ShahenshahG wrote:

    Jonno Fergie may use fear but his success is building determination in his players by telling them the world wants them to fail. The more united are hated the easier his job becomes. Hansen said you cant win nowt with Kids and Ferguson rammed that into their heads and By god they responded.

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  • 17. At 7:57pm on 19 Mar 2009, Blogcabin wrote:

    Hi Gavin,

    I love the fact that you give a nice introduction on your blogs, rather than going straight in. As it happens, I am well, thanks very much for asking.

    I think the best way to motivate, like so many things in life is to keep it simple, and another key is communication. Juande Ramos and Luiz Felipe Scolari are two managers that suffered at their clubs because of a language barrier; obviously it is difficult to motivate your players when they can't understand you. At the same time.

    Music is the most fantastic motivator and I'm with you on the rocky theme. Many a time during a run I only have to have the tune going through my head up a hill and I power up it! Other times, when listening to my iPod, a certain track has come on and it gives you that extra lift and can change your mood completely.

    Great, interesting blog.

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  • 18. At 8:02pm on 19 Mar 2009, jonnothecitizen wrote:

    Good point Shahen. Research has indicated that odds of success may be higher if the common belief is that everyone hates you and wants you to fail. This was demonstrated by SAFs response to Hansen's 'kids rant.'

    This is simple relieving pressure on your players. If you let it be known that everyone expects failure, the pressure of chasing success is removed, allowing SAFs kids to rise through the ranks as almost unknowns. The end result of this is that United are the most successful team in the world at the moment (and as a City fan I really hate admitting that). Interestingly, Busby did the same way back when and still no-one clocked onto a trick that United have successfully used previously.

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  • 19. At 8:14pm on 19 Mar 2009, The Dirty Tackle wrote:

    Hi Gavin,

    Another excellent blog.

    You have covered a very interesting subject. It is a shame you only have limited space to write about it.

    My personal favourite is King Leonidas' final speech from 300 - he is prepping them for the last battle:
    ''Spartans! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty... For tonight, we dine in hell! ''

    Look forward to next week's blog.


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  • 20. At 8:31pm on 19 Mar 2009, Lincoln Hawk-s wrote:

    Lost a bit of respect for you Gavin. How can Rocky IV be your favourite? It's the worst of them all, 8 yr old kids like Rocky I. For pure motivation you could never beat the first Rocky movie

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  • 21. At 8:41pm on 19 Mar 2009, Bkkred wrote:

    I can't think of a song that really stimulated my Sunday morning side in the 70's, but "miss another and it's your round" seemd to do the trick!

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  • 22. At 8:50pm on 19 Mar 2009, Bkkred wrote:

    I remember listening to a Forest game on the radio about 10 years ago when John McGovern (ex player commentating on radio Nottingham) said that the tune (I can't remember what it was) that was played when Forest came out on to the pitch really motivated him, made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. It obviously didn't work for the players as they were relegated that season!

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  • 23. At 9:51pm on 19 Mar 2009, Gavin Strachan wrote:

    post 14. He was a good player but sadly like a lot of promising kids he got a series of bad injuries and had to retire and I do remember Peter Stephens very well. He was a great bloke.

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  • 24. At 10:00pm on 19 Mar 2009, All Speak No Squeek wrote:

    Funny how you never get any WUMs commenting on this blog. Too sophisticated for some, suppose.

    Great Blog as always. Ive always felt Capello was a great man-manager. Every has won championships with every club hes worked for (all in his first season with the club). In Italy and Spain learning a new language along the way. He didnt have the time to build his own team in one season but let his players know what he wanted, and let them know that he wasnt going to settle for less.

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  • 25. At 10:11pm on 19 Mar 2009, sounesstablishment007 wrote:

    It's gotta be AC/DC for me - every time.

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  • 26. At 10:56pm on 19 Mar 2009, wedontknowfootball wrote:

    i'm not much into dance music but zombie nation's kernkraft 400 works for me every time.

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  • 27. At 11:03pm on 19 Mar 2009, Teiam - problem solved wrote:

    Gavin, try Davidian by Machine Head, I love metal before a match, especially a song as brutal as that, but it really depends where i'm playing I find, I don't wanna be over psyched when i'm a forward just so I don't make stupid decisions and so i'm calmer on the ball to place a finish or round the keeper or even chip him, when i'm up front, a bit of Bublé! But in midfield or out on the wings, where it's all power, Machine Head, soooo heavy!

    I also find watching the likes of Zidane, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, THE Ronaldo on youtube makes me want to play football even more, not to try skills or anything, just doing the simple things perfectly are a joy (like Zidane or Kaka or Keane).

    If you're ever not in the mood for football and you feel like you're gonna have a bad game 'cuz you're just not in the mood, do you tell your manager? Has anyone said it? And gave the manager a good enough reason, like when I split with my gf, I was well gutted, still went on to play and just had a shocker, just didn't want to be on the pitch but also didn't want to let the team down, irony being I did.

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  • 28. At 11:05pm on 19 Mar 2009, peadar1987 wrote:

    British AND IRISH Lions, please Gavin!

    I love the blog, it's one of the highlights of my week. You're keeping me sane through my final year of college.

    Was it always assumed you were going to follow in your old man's footsteps and become a professional, or did the footballing life have a bit of competition from other options? Do you have any idea where you would have ended up had you say, had a serious injury at a young age?

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  • 29. At 01:02am on 20 Mar 2009, CarefreeCoors wrote:

    Gavin, your blogs always impress me.

    Whenever I'm in need of a motivational kick I put on the DVD of Australia qualifying for the 2006 German World Cup. For those not in the know, The Socceroos overcame Uruguay on penalties over two legs with John Aloisi hitting the winning kick.

    Tears of joy, immeasurable amount of pride.

    As for music, I can't think of a specific track that would pump me up these days. Anything fairly heavy usually does the trick, although lighter music can put me in a happier mood and I tend to enjoy myself and play better when I'm in this state of mind. I'm not too sure if the Australian band Grinspoon are big at all in the UK, but the song "Lost Control" always gave me a lift.

    When I was young my old man used to buy me a meal from Maccas if I got on the scoresheet. Needless to say, I spent the entire game in the opposition's six yard box. Maybe modern managers should employ this strategy; I could see Mr. Berbatov hitting a few more goals for a couple of cheeseburgers and a happy meal.

    In terms of man-managers, there are some that come to mind that would excel at this. Hiddink is one; he has succeeded at so many different international sides with varying languages and cultures. Capello is another, although it's early days with England. I could also see David Moyes being good at this.

    kieransdaddy, the latest Rocky is by far and away the worst but Rocky IV is fairly average in comparison! Can't beat the first one.

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  • 30. At 01:13am on 20 Mar 2009, fearlessmanabouttown wrote:

    I think the comments about SAF's 'fear' factor are unfair. Given his achievements there must be more to his motivational aspect than fear, otherwise players like Giggs, Scholes etc wouldn't have stayed with United. The 'Fear' factor has never, to my knowledge, worked as a motivational tool medium to long's just a 5 minute fix, similar to watching Rocky movies et al.

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  • 31. At 01:25am on 20 Mar 2009, CelticCruijff wrote:

    Great blog and is great that you read some of the comments as well!
    As a Celtic fan I do think that your dad is the best manager we have had. The days of threats and fear are long gone, which is quite interesting that SAF is still around. I assume he has changed his attitude from his Aberdeen days. Which I think is the key to managing; listen and adapt to each situation.
    I did coach the school teams and it is quite a learning curve, more so for what I learned rather than what my teams did.
    Good luck

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  • 32. At 01:28am on 20 Mar 2009, magnificentDeewok wrote:

    Hi Gav,

    Just wondered what you thought of Jocky Scott at Dundee, who is curiously a former Notts County Manager!
    I remember you being with us for a while, I think on loan from Newcastle?
    Jocky is now back with the Dee and stearing the ship in the right direction.
    Did being at your Dad's first professional Club have any bearing on personal motivation for you, or is that sort of thing not a factor for players?
    Don't think you were there under the Bonettis?
    That must have been a strange dressing room?!
    I don't get the feeling Ivano was the best at tactics, but perhaps his motivation wasnt good?

    All the best


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  • 33. At 01:40am on 20 Mar 2009, incey3 wrote:

    Gavin, if you are in need of motivation prior to a game, I have the key, I am a lifelong fan of Rocky and whilst many people buy fitness Dvd's when they put on a few extra pounds, not me! I put on Rocky 3 or 4, find a barn, some rocks and hit the raw eggs! Also, I totally agree with the recommendations above; Any Given Sunday and The Replacements are great. But in terms of music, the track that I can guarantee will beat all others in pre-match motivation is a track by "Clawfinger" called "The Biggest and The Best" - Listen to it before a game and you will truly believe you are the greatest living thing on earth, that you can fly and defeat any opposition single handed. The lyrics alone will do the trick!

    "but you can never be like me so don’t waste your time
    because I reign supreme and my position is divine

    what’s wrong with being self possessed?
    Nobody’s satisfied with being second best
    I’ve got the gift and I know that I’m blessed
    And I've got to get it off my chest
    I’m the biggest the best better than the rest better than the rest"

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  • 34. At 12:17pm on 20 Mar 2009, Clint wrote:

    Re #2 and #6

    I remember hearing somewhere that once at Coventry, Darren Huckerby was having problems off the pitch, mainly involving his passion for the nightlife, and in order to help him sort himself out Gordon Strachan had him living at home with his family.

    Is this true and if it is, you don't get much better man-management than that......

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  • 35. At 12:40pm on 20 Mar 2009, coleydp wrote:

    I find anything by the Prodigy is great for motivation, but stuff like Dakota by the Stereophonics is great on the way to a game.

    The best Prodigy track though is "Narayan" if you can dig it out. It's about 8 minutes long and really builds, then kicks in to a great breakbeat that gets you turning the speed up on the treadmill everytime!

    Great blog by the way!


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  • 36. At 1:18pm on 20 Mar 2009, AlbionDanny wrote:

    For motivation Boro's Branco wins hands down! (copied from -

    "But for utterly failing to live up to his billing, and clearly not caring the slightest whether the team won or lost, Brazilian star Branco is your man.

    Rumour has it he once attempted to boost pre-match moral by shouting, "Pass pass pass, goal, lager lager nightclub!" at his bemused team-mates.


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  • 37. At 1:46pm on 20 Mar 2009, God_Tony_Yeboah_21 wrote:

    As a (lower league) manager myself, I usually go for encouraging rather than barracking. Unless we are really getting a pasting, at which point I usually barrack the ref!

    Joking of course, refs do a tough job even though their decisions at our level wouldnt really hold up in a professional game. or the annual chess championship.

    So Gav - thinking about management yourself? Or will you be sticking to the journalism? Either way good luck to you mate, this blog has really showcased your work ethic and knowledge of the game.

    And your current boss being a great motivator? Do I detect a touch of sucking up to try and get back in the starting XI?? lol


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  • 38. At 2:31pm on 20 Mar 2009, MoscowMuir wrote:

    magnificentDeewok: are you actually the magnigicent Deewok, one of the better mascots in the scottish game? He was once banned for a number of months for making 'obscene' gestures to the Rangers fact i think this was during your loan spell Gavin.

    Do you prefer the arm around the shoulder motivation from a manager, or the old school kick up the backside?

    Quality Blog, keep it up mate!

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  • 39. At 6:17pm on 20 Mar 2009, magnificentDeewok wrote:

    Mr Moscow Muir, Deewok has had the odd moment, with being escorted from the pitch by the Tayside polis ,Club being told by said polis to depose of his services on the odd occasion (thankfully Peter Marr has a good sense of humour) and had an offical SPL complaint by the late Utd chairman Eddie Thompson.
    He is however now getting fairly old and a kick about with the mascots and a wander round the park is bout all he can manage.
    Please look after this bear.

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  • 40. At 8:58pm on 20 Mar 2009, zingamesh wrote:

    Obviously the amazing
    Cool Runnings Yule Brenner rant


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  • 41. At 2:13pm on 21 Mar 2009, Albertaforestfan wrote:

    Worlds greatest by R Kelly is a must as ab ibspirational tune. Never really been a fan of his but i have this song on loop when i'm in need of inspiration.

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  • 42. At 02:13am on 24 Mar 2009, Macca-ca-ca wrote:

    Interesting blog again Gav, though I must admit, i thought the idea of sportsmen watching Rocky for inspiration surely died a while ago, seems so cheesy now! Still, each unto their own I guess...

    As far as inspiration goes, i do love the Munster Rugby slogan "To the Brave and Faithful, Nothing is Impossible".

    Can I ask, Gavin, about pre match entertainment and oligations? I dont know if you yourself have been involved, but would love to know your thoughts. Im talking about the meeting of dignatries/ V.I.P's, the ceremonial manner in which teams walk side by side on to the pitch, fireworks, red arrows etc. you see before any big game. Even to an extent, the national anthems before internationals.

    Do players really want this? Does it not serve as a distraction/ inconvience? I always imagine, say for example your father, giving his team all the encouragement they'd need before a final, maybe even finishing on an inspirational thought for the players to dwell on. Then having to proceed on to the field, hand in hand with mascots...then stand side by side for that silly FIFA handshake some MSP they couldnt care less about etc...just get on with the game surely! lol.

    Any thoughts?

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  • 43. At 11:39am on 24 Mar 2009, GS3inarow wrote:

    Gavin, hope you and the family are well.
    Now to the serious point, you must be the only person over the age of 10 to have got past Rocky 2! Knowing how much your parents like their movies you must be an embarrasment to the family.

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  • 44. At 10:34pm on 24 Mar 2009, Lincoln Hawk-s wrote:

    This is crazy! Please people, enough with Rocky IV. Stallone cashed in on the anti-Russia sentiment left over from the cold war and shoe-horned Rocky into it. Yeah the training scenes/music are great while doing cardio but seriously, where does it fit in to the story, it's so out of place. You could eliminate it completely from the series and it would make no difference at all to the story (except for the fact that Rocky vacates his title before leaving for an exhibition fight in Russia, yet returns as champion?! to bankruptcy?! and a son who has aged 10 years in a week??!!....ROTTEN!)
    Also, in reply to CarefreeCoors the last Rocky movie (Balboa) is the closest Stallone has come to recapturing the raw naivete since the first 2 movies, everything that followed was Hollywood nonsense although admittedly Clubber Lang was highly entertaining.

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