Smells like team spirit.

So does the Leicester Thing mean anything for other sports? Does the shockingly beautiful but relentless surge that carried the Tinker Man’s team through transfer elsewhere? Of course it does.

Not because there’s some template here, that Ranieri has demystified.  Not because the ‘reversion’ to simple qualities of honest work and togetherness explains everything in a way we can cart across to cricket or rugby.

This is not boxes being ticked so much as people (players) being transformed or galvanised together. And fans from all over – from outside footie, too – have loved or bought into the excitement around that; it’s felt refreshing, uplifting; it’s revalidated that wonderful but tarnished word ‘game’.

In our different way we get that the Leicester gaffer’s gathered and intuited together a powerfully more-than-the-sum-of-it’s-parts blend which has (rather than being one-dimensional but hellish durable) outrun, out-competed and often swamped the opposition in a flood of complex, focussed, inviolable energy.

There’s nothing simple about this except the sense that Ranieri’s absolutely nailed something – something like Peak Manager – in this remarkable process.

We have to be careful we don’t patronise his personal achievement whilst deconstructing events most commonly described as ‘unbelievable.’ We’d all concede that theoretically Leicester City have no right to win a Premier League; not in the era of oil sheiks and unthinkable piles of monopoly money – both of which they plainly lack. Let’s mark, then, the fact that Ranieri has done something truly rare; sustained a run from nowhere over an entire season.

Even those with a rare eye for talent would not have recognised Champions in their pre-season squad photo. Mahrez, Vardy and maybe Okazaki constitute the fellas high-profile clubs might have coveted in August. (I’ve just flicked through their ‘roster’ and recommend you do the same should you think this a significant underestimation of their star quality. We may argue on this but the central point seems reasonable; that Leicester have done something incredible, given their resources on all fronts.)

What factors have been key, then, really?

Broadly Ranieri has set his side up to play brisk footie at a highish tempo. They dare to exemplify the old virtues of teamwork and solidity within a four-four-two framework and defensively unashamedly challenge convention by fielding stoppers – blokes who can head and clout things and who dream not of overlapping charges nor cultured forward interventions.

Forward of the Huth-men, they’re quick, tough and mobile and in the case of Mahrez in particular, precociously gifted. But they are not Real Madrid. They are spectacularly galactico-free, in fact.

So there is romance in their relative plainness? Maybe.

The Leicester City defence have been like something out of a 1970’s comic. Or a movie where giants wade out of the sea. They  hold and shove; they are intimidatingly ‘physical’. They make that statement.

How much of this is policy and how much the ‘nature’ of the individuals I leave to you. But if it’s been their achilles heel in terms of popularity, not so re- results; it’s been a key part of the winning bundle.

Some can’t quite get past the idea that this is a freakishly poor quality season, with Man Utd, Arsenal, City and Chelsea all caught somewhere between underachievement and raw embarrassment. And that by implication This Was The Year when summatz daft might happen. Others have just got on with enjoying Leicester’s success.

Whatever our view of the tactical masterstrokes (or flukes), the philosophical undercurrent(s) or the uniqueness or otherwise of the Leicester Phenomena, we all seem drawn to a single essence. It’s about spirit. They bristle with it…  and most of us rate that.

But where does that come from? (Because maybe this is transferable, or applicable to other team sports – maybe to all?!?) How do you get that stuff to work… like this?

The gaffer sets the tone. At all levels. The manager or coach is a presence – a force or a vacuum, maybe. This presence may be expressed in the classically Churchillian way, through brilliant, inspirational, possibly ‘set-piece’ speechifying or it may be through by a sort of incremental handing over of responsibility or leadership to key individuals. Or some of both. In either case it is pretty close to critical that the manager is believed – respected.

Unsurprisingly, I think it’s likely that Ranieri has provided both inspiration and inspired delegation/organisation. He may appear  likably quirky but he is shrewd and demanding and tough. He is The Boss. He can cuddle and charm but he can deliver a serious bollocking.

I’ve been in dressing-rooms where I felt ten feet tall post the team-talk. I’ve been in dressing-rooms where we all felt embarrassed for the manager’s lack of weight; where the obvious irrelevance of the leader’s opinions was a rank embarrassment. He was lost, as was the room. Fatal.

Coaching at every level is the art of understanding and knowing your players. Getting into their heads; maximising their efficiency as a group by maximising their belief and their contributions as individuals. Finding different ways to motivate different humans. The efficacy of all tactical and strategic plans is contingent upon this relationship, this galaxy of relationships, driven and directed by the coach.

This does not mean the coach has be an orator par excellence – although he or she needs to be able to command the space. Pithy can be perfect.

During the Rugby World Cup, Graham Henry wrote brilliantly and fascinatingly on how he learned to withdraw his ego from coaching. How he latterly grew big enough to embed virtually all the motivation and the tactical decision-making within the team. His All Blacks evolved into a group that practically ran itself – once the cultural stuff had been coached or understood.

Extraordinarily, Henry barely spoke during the allegedly critical minutes before a match. His players knew where they were at and simply did not need further input from him. The work had been done, over months, years before and specific plans for specific opponents addressed during the preceding week or so. So the coach just shut the **** up. For me this is right up there with diving through a crowd to score knowing your going to get your head kicked in.

Ranieri may not have been at Leicester long enough to embed that amount of strength into the team. But he has clearly done something magnificent – something which is his.

Leicester City have chased and harried and out-passed and outwitted the Premier League. We watch their fabulously collective energy and we recognise something powerful and cheering for the game – maybe for all games? Sure it’s something to do with our love of the underdog and our revulsion towards Big Money but none of this need undermine our enjoyment, or the sensation that (dinglydong!) our faith may yet be restored.

Bravo, Claudio!! And thank you.

 

 

 

Skilled work.

On coaches and crowds…

The Rugby World Cup has been/is a triumph for sport, yes? Not just for rugby but for sport. Superbly dramatic and almost entirely free from ‘simulation’ or disrespect between players or teams. Genuinely uplifting, in fact, in terms of the world showing us that brother/sisterhood thing we might be fearing subsumed in the age of diving and conniving footballers, £6 Cornish pasties and an intimidating multitude of *revealing* camera angles.

Folks have loved other folks’ teams – Japan-lurv being the most obvious example. So, shedding the baggage of our postmodernist awarenesses, we can simply agree (can’t we?) that it’s been bloody great?

But what can we learn?

In sport atmosphere is BIG. Athletes feed off energies from the crowd (and clearly vice-versa) in a way that really can inspire brilliant execution. It may be that truly elite-level athletes get to be that way because they harness, or are comfortable with or yes, inspired by the heat or hoopla of the big, big challenge. Magic players, far from being undermined by the pressures of the environment (noise/distraction/nerves?) blossom, find their truest finest selves in those moments – hence the overuse of the word ‘expression’. Almost without exception, from Brighton to Geordieland, #RWCup2015 crowds were buzzing… and the players got busy expressing.

Cast your mind back a week or two and something very different was occurring; the first Test Match in Abu Dhabi.

Here England and Pakistan ultimately served up some proper drama, after wading through a weirdly debilitating silence for four days. The players in fact emerged with an almost surreal level of credit but for an age a good deal of what happened felt emasculated, or short of sport. Cook flourished and important *statements* may have been made but with nobody there the event of it felt more like a drawn corpse than a live contest. What fascinates me – or rather one of the many things that fascinated me about this test – was what effect if any the utter lack of atmosphere had on what went on.

Let me swiftly add the rider that I speak as an advocate of Test Match cricket who (whilst getting the current impatience with it) would defend the capacity of the sport to bear the occasional slow burner ‘midst the contemporary carve-tastic norm. Consequently I was almost as unflustered as the England skipper when every pundit and former player in the universe was wailing on about dullness.

This daft thing in the desert was a small percentage part of the dynamically evolving Test Universe; it was entitled to its loopy-scratchy, defiantly anti-dynamic dawdle.

Like the Big Lebowski I chilled – abided – watching and waiting, wondering what might happen if an almighty clamour were to accompany a key wicket or a lush spell of bowling. Wondering how demotivating that yawning quiet might be – how seductive, how soporific to the fast-twitch fibres. The minor revelation came that things might have been different.

As I write #TMS is on again, for the second test; apparently (if my ears are to be believed) there is again no crowd. A challenge for bowlers – maybe particularly seam bowlers? – to get on a roll, on a flat pitch, in the sun, with no crowd.

The atmosphere(s) when Japan beat the Boks or when Ireland turned the Millenium green were both remarkable and essential to the sport occurring on that day. It could be that Japan might never have beaten South Africa in a near-empty stadium. Their fabulous momentum was predicated on quick ball and some irresistible spirit mexican-waving its way round the stands and from the stands into the bloodstream of the game. It was of course wonderful – dare I say it? – literally wonderful.

Crowds, then – mere gatherings of bystanders – play their part in the sporting cowabunga. Let’s note that… and if we happen to have some influence over where Big Games are actually played… remember. As we remember (alongside our friends from Bayern) the cost factor, eh?

Something else about the Rugby World Cup has really registered with the media (who’ve been all over it) and with those of us who either coach or bawl from the touchlines; the Skills Divide.

The domination of the tournament by southern hemisphere sides has been accompanied by significant rumination from the northern press – as though there’s been some uniformly powerful lightbulb moment. It’s clearly dawned that the key difference is in skills, by which I think folks mean the freedom and excellence of successful execution.  Most of us will imagine what we might call expressive skills; stuff we called natural ability until that became an area overloaded with difficulties.

Everyone from Brian Moore to Paul Hayward to well, everyone has been banging on about the skills that get you tries or opportunities (even) when things are tight. Skills that separate. Skills which may range from soft, intuitive hands to mind-blowing composure and decision-making.

It may be kinda funny that in the Everything Accounted For age, with typically more coaches and trainers and ‘support staff’ in place than can possibly be justified, we have such a universally recognised DOH!! How did we miss that one?!? moment.

Everybody’s leapt upon the essential ‘truth’ of it; Wales were great but couldn’t finish, Ireland were outclassed by The Pumas(!), Scotland have transformed and may have been robbed, England and France were embarrassing. But mostly, The North lacked brilliance.

Somebody soon enough will make a counter-argument to the current rash of theories aligned around Northern Bash undone by Southern Flash. In fact, because it’s plainly a tad simplistic I may even do it myself. But if we accept that there is a case to answer, here – i.e that we in the North are producing less gifted or less ingenious/expressive rugby players – why would that be? Does this transfer across into other team sports? How come our talent is less talented (or less able to perform) than (say) Kiwi talent?

The theses are already underway, right?

I can speak of but not for the ECB Coaching set-up on the ideas around the facilitation of talent. Here there is an acceptance that diverse opportunities for sport and broad development – towards being a better human, actually – fit with the pathway towards brilliance. Coaching is (or aims to be) more generous than previously; less prescriptive. Core Principles are offered to players as a support, through which those same players should find a way that works – that feels like them. This counts for a pretty radical shift when compared to decades of technical models and acutely fine-tuned ‘demonstration’.

Plenty of coaches are concerned that the growth of a globalised, t’internetted Sports Development Corporation necessarily means things get genericised, flawed by soundbites, or compromised as we all seek to do the Right Thing. We all finish up saying the same thing in order to sound credible – or we all seek to sound ‘left-field’ enough to stand out. We’re all too painfully aware.

I have seen enough to acknowledge both shortcomings in what the ECB call their ‘player-centred’ approach and in the creep towards multiskills BUT have no doubt that this loosening of the technical shackles is helpful in terms of unleashing or freeing talent. Of course this talent might be guided by what we might call technical specialists but let them not clutter up the mind of the athlete. Let them offer up their gift.

It may be foolish to meander between sports but I make no apology. I remain alive to the possibility of wonder through daft stuff like rugby and cricket, as well as through cerebral revelation via culture. I make no qualitative distinctions between them. They both still make me smile – as does the following wee notion.

Graham Henry (who has written so outstandingly on #RugbyWorldCup2015 and matters beyond, recently) has coached at the elitest of elite levels, yes? Known for his intelligence, thoroughness, experience, success(!) etc etc. Whilst All Blacks coach he was approached by key players, after a significant disappointment, as he no doubt planned his next Churchillian, team-gathering riposte. They asked him who the speechifying was for – them or him? They asked him – Graham Henry, aged 50-odd, at the height of his powers – if maybe he should say a bit less and trust a bit more. Graham Henry now doesn’t do team talks. He builds teams… from individuals.