Tom Cowan, the former Sheffield United defender, has urged Nigel Adkins’ players to believe they can cause an FA Cup upset at Old Trafford tomorrow evening.
Cowan, a member of the team which knocked Manchester United out of the competition 23 years ago, insisted that adopting the right mental approach will enhance the visitors’ prospects of inflicting further misery on Louis van Gaal’s side.
“Your mental state, going in to the game, has got to be exactly right,” Cowan said. “If it’s not, then there’s going to be trouble. The United players have to believe they can win because, if they don’t, then there’s no chance of them causing an upset. None at all. That goes from one to eleven and for everyone who starts on the bench too. If there’s even just a couple of players who think they are going to have a torrid time then it undermines everything the rest of the lads are trying to do.”
Cowan, who joined United from Glasgow Rangers two years before that fifth round tie at Bramall Lane, made 53 appearances for Dave Bassett’s side before transferring to Huddersfield Town. Although van Gaal’s team - two divisions and 47 places above Adkins’ team on the footballing pyramid - will start tomorrow’s third round clash as overwhelming favourites, Cowan revealed how United’s coaching staff can use psychology to help turn the tables. Van Gaal enters the match under intense scrutiny having won only one of his last nine matches in charge,
“The manager can play the underdog card in the dressing room beforehand and, I know from experience on both sides of the coin, that can be a very powerful thing,” Cowan said. “If it’s done right, and everybody buys into it, then you can play with a freedom the opposition don’t have. You’ve still got to do your job and stay focused. But the pressure of knowing you have to win, come what may, isn’t there. And that can be quite liberating.”
“Equally, when I was at Rangers, there were teams we played against who viewed us as their cup final,” Cowan added. “They didn’t play against us in the same way they did the other teams. Graeme Souness used to tell us collectively to go out there and show why we were Rangers players.”
United were a top-flight club and soon to become founder members of the Premier League when Cowan, now a fireman in Sheffield, arrived in England.
“We had a great camaraderie on and off the pitch. You’d be amazed how far that carries you. We knew we weren’t the best players in the division but we kept Sheffield United in the Premier League for a good long while. That’s because we fought for each other during games. We stuck together through thick and thin in games.”
“Back then, you used to be able to smash your winger and let him know you were there,” Cowan continued. “Mark Hughes, who played in that tie against us, was a different kettle of fish though. You’d smash into him and he wouldn’t move. In fact, that was the attitude he had; that he’d smash his defender. He was so, so tough. It’s a little bit different now, you don’t have that ‘free’ first challenge. But the start of the match is going to be key.”
Ultimately, though, Cowan conceded mind-games will only carry United so far.
“The lads have got to keep it tight early doors because the manager will have devised a gameplan for 90 minutes. If you concede early, then all of that goes out of the window. If they can keep it tight, then there’s a chance the home crowd is going to get frustrated because of the run Manchester United have been on. United have got to try and pick away at that.”