“Of course, to try and learn from boxers was a quintessentially comic quest,” Norman Mailer wrote.
“Boxers were liars. Champions were great liars. They had to be. Once you knew what they thought you could hit them. So their personalities became masterpieces of concealment.”
Norman Mailer had a delightful turn of phrase. He also understood the sporting psyche better than most.
The sometimes ignoble art was perhaps the only discipline Nigel Adkins failed to reference when discussing his sources of footballing inspiration earlier this month. (Although he did share a “good” chat with Kell Brook before the recent League One fixture against Rochdale). But managing Sheffield United, Adkins has discovered of late, can be a pretty thankless task. And, as tempting as it might be to do otherwise, sometimes it is best to keep your emotions in check.
Win, as his team did against Fleetwood Town 10 days ago, and they find themselves being criticised for not doing so in style. Lose and some of the more reactionary elements of the club’s support, as demonstrated by the response to last weekend’s defeat by Millwall, demand he rips-up a project which is still in its infancy and starts all over again.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a plea for sympathy. Adkins, who guided both Scunthorpe and Southampton to the Championship earlier in his career, knew the script when he took charge. But recent events do illustrate how difficult it will be to achieve the emotional equilibrium and clarity of thought which, Adkins believes, will enhance his prospects of repeating the trick at Bramall Lane.
The third tier of English competition isn’t, as some folk naively or mischievously describe it, a “pub league” despite the absence of a stand-out team. Set-backs, coaching staff privately acknowledge, are inevitable. The trouble is, when they do happen, it will usually be against opposition are expected to trounce. Cue the levels of toxicity which, on Monday, persuaded a member of United’s board to release some of its spending figures. A very unusual step.
Frustration among the club’s support base is inevitable and, to a large degree understandable, given the amount of false dawns they have endured. But United can learn a valuable lesson from their counterparts in the hurt business.
And that is, when you take-on all-comers rather than manufacture a record, sometimes, as even Ali and Foreman discovered, you just get beat. True champions take stock, stay calm and bounce back.