Maldon and Tiptree – the psychology of the underdog

It’s a freezing Wednesday night in Essex, and another cup game for Maldon and Tiptree, the 14th of an already hectic season, writes Steve Sharman as he reflects on the psychology of the underdog in the beautiful game.

Following hot on the heels of the club’s history-making FA Cup 1st round win at Leyton Orient the previous Sunday, tonight the competition is the FA trophy and the visitors are Folkestone Invicta, who sit second in the Bostik Premier League, one division above. 

Falling 0-2 behind after 20 minutes, the hangover from FA cup heroics is evident; a missed penalty from Folkestone sparks Maldon into life. As if woken from a post giant-killing malaise, the Jammers have a blistering 25 minutes including a hat trick for striker Charlee Hughes and go in at half time 4-2 up. 

Whilst the allure of the FA Cup may have waned in recent years for the Premier League behemoths, the romance remains further down the leagues. Tonight, is the 5th time this season Maldon (playing in the 8th tier of English football), have faced opposition from higher up the pyramid. 

As the underdogs, the Jammers have triumphed on the previous four occasions, most notably the FA Cup win against League 2 Leyton Orient. 

An Interview with Maldon’s first team coach Adam Flint

To understand the mentality behind Maldon’s incredible cup run, ORP spoke to Adam Flint, Maldon first team coach. 

Flint is keen to emphasise the importance of a collective positive mentality throughout the squad, how each player retained or recruited ‘buys in’ to the ultimate goal of winning the league. He describes a changing room full of strong personalities, but devoid of egos, where everyone is pulling in the same direction, creating winning mentality: 

“They’ve got a mentality here they can beat anyone; I really believe that. The last three cup games, we’ve been underdogs, but we know were good enough to beat them, we should be playing in the league above, and that’s the group we’ve got here to do that”. 

Flint and the coaching staff look for specific qualities in a player that are suited to both the league they are fighting to get out of, and demonstrate attributes integral to the never-say-die attitude that often epitomises winning teams: 

“They’ll run through a brick wall for you, we wanted characters that will go through mud, go through anything to win, it showed tonight, we’re 2-0 down against a team that could go top in the premier, and we’ve come in 4-2 up”. Maldon have played many games where they are the underdogs, rather than favourites. When asked how they manage the switch in mentality between being underdogs and being favourites, Flint’s answer about the team is revealing: 

“I don’t know how we switch it, to be a successful team you’ve got to worry about yourselves, that’s what we tell them to do. We went to Orient and we said let them worry about us; not a lot of teams would do that at our level, they’d sit in, try and hang in, we actually had a go at them, we try to get in to them. We are very good at what we do”. 

It would be easy for the FA Cup run to become a distraction from the league, however whilst self-belief is high, the focus is very much on only thinking one game ahead at a time. When asked about maintaining focus on the season’s priorities, Flint says: 

“We take each game as it comes, unless you’ve got the right group, you don’t get that. A lot of teams have a cup run, but don’t do well in the league, I think that comes from having a good group. We might fine a few people who talk about the game more than a week before, they’re like that as a group, it’s not about Sunday, it’s about Wednesday night, that’s what they tell us, shows how mentally strong they are”. 

What is it that makes underdogs able to pull off such unlikely results? 

The focus on mental strength is fundamental to the psychology of the underdog; the label of underdog comes with certain connotations that can have an important impact on team mentality. The underdog is expected to lose, therefore is under no pressure, allowing the team to play with a certain freedom, unburdened by the weight of expectation and with nothing to lose and everything to gain. 

Conversely, as nothing less than victory is expected, the favourite has everything to lose and little to gain. 

In addition to mental strength, FA Cup clichés undoubtedly contribute to underdog success stories; the favourite will expect to be technically superior and will therefore expect to prevail, whilst the underdog is more prepared to fight, relying less on technical capability, and more on survival instinct. Tenacity, determination and heart can on occasion overcome superior skill hindered by complacency. 

Environment and conditions also play a role. The cold, cramped changing rooms and the less than perfect pitches are a far cry from the 5-star facilities and bowling green pitches which are the norm in football’s upper echelons; uncomfortable unfamiliarity can sow seeds of doubt, which can be seized on and exploited by the underdog. 

The appeal of the underdog to the neutral supporter, often called the ‘underdog effect’, has been linked to principles of equality, fairness, and justice; the over-resourced, powerful favourite is often shunned in favour of the less well-resourced underdog to redress the balance of perceived inequality and unfairness. By siding with the underdog, we seek to vicariously alleviate inequalities we perceive in society. 

Back at Maldon, a record-breaking FA Cup run can have wide reaching implications, both on and off the pitch. Flint points out that previously a midweek November FA Trophy game might attract an attendance of around 40 people, however tonight the attendance was almost 200. 

The 2nd round home game is likely to set an all-time club attendance record. Flint also reveals how the boost in spectators really does give the team a lift, and how it was quite emotional seeing in excess of 600 Maldon supporters roar to the team to victory at Leyton Orient. 

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Boosted by the FA Cup run but built on a spectacular free-scoring start to the league season, there is a real buzz about the club, around the stadium. Fans describe the current side as the best side the club the has ever had, playing the best football they have seen. 

With the TV cameras coming to Essex for the FA Cup 2nd round match, the buzz is only going to get louder. 

The Folkestone game finished 4-3 to Maldon, meaning as underdogs they have now beaten five higher level teams. 

As Flint says, whilst the self-belief and self-confidence remains sky high, this team believes they can beat anyone, and it’s likely neither Newport or Grimsby will be looking forward to their trip to Park Drive to face Maldon and Tiptree.

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevesharman81


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