Mowbray's play-off memories

AS a swansong they don't come much better: Rising to meet a Jim Magilton cross and heading in the equaliser against Barnsley at Wembley, writes Derek Davis.

AS a swansong they don't come much better: Rising to meet a Jim Magilton cross and heading in the equaliser against Barnsley at Wembley, writes Derek Davis.

An hour or so later Mowbray was leading the celebrations as Town were promoted to the Premiership where he would put on a tracksuit and help coach them to a fifth-place finish and European football.

But those four play-off seasons at Portman Road were not his first taste of the agonising experience which offers such rich rewards.

In May 1988, Mowbray was playing for his home-town club Middlesbrough, in the second year after the play-off inception, against Bradford City.

After losing 2-1 at Valley Parade, Mowbray helped Boro keep a clean sheet at Ayresome Park in a 2-0 win to set up a two-legged final with Chelsea who had finished 18th in the old Division One.

Mowbray recalls: "We beat Bradford City in the semi-finals and then we met Chelsea in the final and they were talking then about the gulf between the two divisions. Even when we beat them at Ayresome Park they were saying they would still win and stay up.

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"We went to Stamford Bridge in front of 40,000 fans and they went one up after 19 minutes. We held on and went up."

Mowbray won England 'B' international honours and enjoyed a £1m move to Celtic where the Parkhead faithful adored his no-nonsense approach to defending.

He knows pressure after feeling the cauldrons of Europe and domestic competitions, but admits there is nothing quite like the play-offs.

He said: "There are different pressures than in league games and it really is like a cup semi-final.

"The kudos for the players, the club, the supporters, to be in the Premier League is probably more important than winning a cup. It means more to people to get to the Premiership which is why these games are so tense."

The popular defender was tempted to Ipswich in 1995 by George Burley and was then installed as captain and soon won over the Portman Road crowd.

It is was inevitable that he moved into coaching but he was called upon for one more year as a player and was a vital component in promotion.

Now, after seeing the game from both sides, Mowbray is aware of how important the psychological side of the game is and compares how he would prepare as a player to nowadays as part of Joe Royle's staff along with Willie Donachie.

He said: "As a player I would be focusing on my job. Remembering games I had against my opposition and thinking what I did to stifle them and what I need to do again.

"If he was a speedy player for example I would be talking to Fabian saying 'make sure you tuck in. I'm not chasing him into the corner flag and him crossing the ball and me trying to get back'.

"So all week you are thinking about the game, preparing and putting scenes in my team-mates' heads and how we would deal with them."

Now he has more to occupy him and he is often seen in and around the training ground having quiet chats with players.

He said: "As a coach you take the whole picture in and look at things in perspective as a team. I try and drop little things into players' minds day by day.

"There is so many things going on, getting tickets, family asking for seats, people stopping you in the street to say what a big game it is, the media talking to you. Sometimes you don't get time to think properly about the game, so as a coach I keep dropping things into their thought process about situations they will find themselves in and how to deal with that."

Most of the work has long since been done and Mowbray, who has passed both UEFA A and B badges, looks to build on the groundwork.

He said: "At this stage of the season it is all about mental preparation. Fitness is not a problem, the tactical side is sorted out because we have done it so often in the season and our way of playing is embedded."

The deep-thinking Mowbray is also refusing to just look at today's game and insists Tuesday at Upton Park is the big one.

He said: "You look at the big picture and what goes on in this game, unless you are out of the equation, it doesn't matter too much.

"The second game is the big game. For example if we go to their place 2-1 down people here may think that is terrible but the pressure will be on West Ham in front of their own crowd, and things can change very quickly.

"It is like being two up in a game and the opposition get one back. All of a sudden the game has shifted and spun on its head with all the pressure going the other way.

"That is why a 1-0 win at home can be a dangerous scoreline because at their place it gives them the initiative and incentive to come out of the blocks and perhaps we will be a bit defensive minded, and then you are asking for trouble."

Mowbray is tipped to go on and become a successful manger in his own right, once the right opportunity comes along, although he is not thinking about that until June at the earliest.

His experience, reflective and sometimes innovative approach to the game will make him quite an asset, which is why Royle is reluctant to lose him but fully backs his ambition.

Mowbray can't wait to put his own thoughts and ideas into a club and help them reap the rewards.

He said: "The psychological side of the game is massively important and sending the right messages to players at the right time is imperative.

"Coaching for me is not just about putting good sessions on where people have a good time – it is about sending the right messages. We know they can all play, sometimes they may get a five in the paper or an eight the next week and it is up to us to make sure they get more eights than fives.

"It is the fine details that make the difference and it is something a lot of people overlook. It is too easy for people to say 'let's go 4-4-2' and shout 'come on close them down, keep pressing'.

"Anyone can do that then all of a sudden you are an average team in an average league, winning some, losing some but just being average.

"Looking at the fine detail of the game takes you on and for us at Ipswich, where we have so many technically gifted players, it is about recognising space and knowing when to pull away for example. We do drills but then on matchday the player remembers it and if they score then they believe and they will react to the coach.

"It is the same for a 17-year-old Dean Bowditch as it is a 35-year-old Jim Magilton. I'm still learning the game. I watch a game and will take notes. I wonder why they have done that, was it by design or accident. It will come in useful for future because I don't know what sort of players I will have if I ever get a club of my own.

"It is no good me saying that is how I want to play if I have not got the players who can do that. If a team is at the bottom and they don't have a Jamma (Jermaine Wright) or a Jim (Magilton) you can't play a technical passing game you have to adopt a system which suits those players because invariably you can't just go out and buy players any more."

Mowbray should know, he proved himself as a player conquering Wembley, now it's time to succeed as a coach and there would be no better place to carry that on than at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, after first beating West Ham.

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