“To be the greatest champion you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.”
It’s not the most famous of Muhammad Ali’s quotes, but as the former heavyweight champion of the world reached the grand age of 70 last week, it is arguably the statement that best summed up his career.
His comment unveils the mentality of one of the planet’s most revered sportsmen of all time.
The first part reiterates that if you lose the battle mentally then you’ll also lose it physically. Part two – what Ali was so good at, from TV interviews to press conferences to ring entrances – was presenting himself as the best, pumping himself up and putting niggling doubts in the enemy’s subconscious.
Like a peacock raises its plumes to show off its majesty, a sportsman will eyeball, push out his chest and walk tall.
But what about off the pitch? United’s FA Trophy run came to an end at Dartford 11 days ago.
On arrival at Princes Park, you are met by the hosts’ grand gates, not too dissimilar to the ones sporting the legend ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ at Anfield. A photo of those Dartford gates hangs in the stadium, it even forms the backdrop for the team sheets that are handed out to the press box prior to kick off.
But even grander, standing close to six metres tall, its feet on the terraces and arms seemingly holding up the roof in the image of Atlas, is an eyecatching and unmissable oak sculpture of a giant man. Directly in the players’ line of vision as they come out the tunnel.
It’s stance, size and form suggest he is reprasentative of the fans, proclaiming ‘we are bigger and stronger than you’.
Two ancient Wonders of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse at Alexandria were giant constructions, strategically placed to be the first thing outsiders saw as they approached the city. They were intentionally built to wow, to intimidate and to show off wealth and grandure.
Likewise, Dartford is creating it’s own legend. It has two iconic off-field images that visiting players hopping off the coach know their club cannot offer - a big advantage in the mental tussle before kick off (admittedly, it helps if your local council stump up the £6.5 million construction costs and charge £1 rent per annum).
Can Boston offer the same? In the shadows of the awe-inspiring Stump is York Street.
When David Newton and Neil Kempster took over the running of the club they inherited huge debts.
Their ethos – correctly – was to rectify the bank balance first. So energies away from the pitch went towards sprucing up the place, creating a comfortable Pilgrim Lounge and community club stronghold (things which keep the public interest there and cash coming in away from match days).
And while these images of grandure may be something to look at when construction begins on the new stadium, Boston showed on Saturday that they have their own way of psyching out the opposition.
Even before kick off, the atmosphere was back. When you have a home fanbase greater than the opposition’s, when you have fans banging and chanting, when you have a drum beating, when the terraces are so close to pitchside, it creates an intimidating atmosphere. There was a different feel to the Jakemans Stadium this weekend, one we’ve missed of late.
The support was positive, so was the play. Even before kick off the attitude was back.
The league standings suggested Boston weren’t the best of the these two sides. But on the day they were. Because, like Ali, they believed and pretended they were.