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.

 

 

 

This Charmless Man.

Caught merely the gist of a column the other day about charmlessness, in relation – I believe – to the Six Nations and epitomised – I believe – by Dylan Hartley. Have to confess at the outset that what with coaching and taxiing the kids round the gaff, I did not read the article but was nevertheless struck by the life-affirming subtext that how players appear whilst executing the sport thing matters.

This is a civilising (ouch!) notion contradicted by the bullishness and result-oriented nature of much of the discourse around the daft games we love and fight about. Top Level sport (in particular) is so-o consumed by the means and process of securing victory that the quality, the measure of fulfillment around any given event has to some extent slipped from view and gone with it is the meaning and contribution of the fan – the one who watches and filters.

Wins are ground out – legitimately. Points are ‘everything’. Goals are still paying the rent.

All this would be unarguably okaaay but for the actually rather unsubtle shoulder-barging off of much of the colour or charm or richness of the game(s). Fans feel and maybe live through the wildly swinging doors of in-stadia experience, understanding and registering profound and also absurdly tangential stuff which (if coaches/managers/pundits are to be believed) apparently either didn’t feature, or stand irrelevant to the conversation. (I’m picturing everyone from Sam Allardyce to Andy Flower to Warren Gatland whilst saying this.)

Game-management is the thing and though we cannot deny the aspiration from Coach A to maximise his/her chances or narrow the dangers, there is surely a relatively negative inference here? Keep the thing orderly; shape it; direct it – provide the platform. All essential on the one hand but in contrast – even if understood as a either a pre-requisite or preamble to glorious, expressive dominance – unconvincing as a departure point towards heart-lifting poetry. And sport as we know can be poetry; liberated and rhythmic and giddy and beautifully-terrifyingly fickle.

So I make the argument for senses over sense. The audience knowing more than the player or coach – or certainly appreciating more. The audience being freer to love, less conditioned and constrained by the deathly need to win. Even those fans who phone in to say ‘we’d take that result anytime’; they don’t mean it, most of them. They mean to sound like coaches and players who screen the subtleties out because they need to protect themselves from the inevitable confusion and doubt that feeling all this might bring. Far safer to retreat into stats and meetings.

Of course plenty of evidence flies in the face of my hypothesis. How can Joe Root – the poster boy for brilliant, simple, expressive, almost childlike Playing of The Game exist, let alone thrive in the cynical world I describe? How could any ‘natural?’ And doesn’t the prevalence of talk from coaches on positivity and dynamism undermine this central accusation of cynicism and crassness at the core? Maybe it does.

But pausing to select a footballer or rugby star to insert into the Reasons To Be Cheerful category (and here I mean an all-round diamond geezer, gorgeously talented and whole)… I was struggling. Despite the magnificent levels of honourability and dedication and commitment in rugby, the sense (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) is of giants playing largely by rote. The football equivalent is further adrift again, being plagued by deceivers and posers and appalling egos.

Let me briefly develop this particular rant. I could get specific – or even personal given today’s events at Goodison Park- but let’s merely throw in the words Diego Costa, urge you to revisit the blog’s title and then shuffle forwards. Please. The extravagantly elbowed and foreheaded and indeed jawed one out-epitomises Hartley by a distance on our chosen theme. But yes – hastily – on!

Generally, sadly, I get precious little inspiration from footie these days and this is largely/precisely due to the charm deficit. Great that Leicester are flushing out the arrogance of the allegedly Big Four but the Premier League is surely characterised more by expensive barnets on underachieving heads than by authentic, Scholes-like genius? Fans know it feels

a) superficially exciting because it’s ‘open’
b) poor and in some measure fraudulent or expensive.

This reality is skilfully obscured by the sheer scale of the lurid behemoth that is Super Premier League Thing. Monopoly money. Corporate de-sensitising of the Actual Game-day. Pies at 5 or 6 quid. True the reassuringly tribal passions do remain but even they are being eroded; difficult to engage lungburstingly loyal mode when the blokes out there don’t seem bothered. Difficult to see the charm in shockingly high prices and mediocre quality sport and unlovable protagonists.

This then, broadly painted, is the challenge. In a word, mixed. You decide what applies to your team, your game.

As a conversation starter I’m saying that Dylan Hartley’s bland brutishness is merely and inevitably in contrast to Theo Walcott’s infuriatingly persistent adolescent blandness. But this leaves me feeling undersupplied. I know I’ve experienced richer fayre. I know it’s not unreasonable to insist on more. Because these essences, these defining-but-abstract things are appreciated, it’s incumbent on our Top Level People – players, coaches, directors of this and that – to provide us with authentic characters, with quality and with the charm that we deserve.

Sport Transcending.

 

Minor aside. I was going to write about football for bowlingatvincent.com but couldn’t summon the mood. There are subjects out there – the Chelsea Void, the ongoing van Gaal splutter-which-might-somehow-incredibly-lead-to-a-title, the wonderful Vardy nonsense – but something about the context, the deflating averageness of the Premier League undermines my conviction to really plunge into the stories. Temporary this, I hope.

Then I thought on the obvious; the Buttler Transformation. Magic but na.
Instead I’m going to recount stuff that I hope might just strike a deeper (sorry, pretentious gitdom alert), more inspirational chord with some of you. As I sit looking out over Swansea Bay in sharp sunshine it just seems right to blaze away on Bigger Themes rather than pootle around with transparently forced hypotheses around elite-level footie. And Buttler, Buttler’s been covered.
In any case, sharing something of the small fabulousness of grassy, grassrooty sport feels worthier and more pressing; so that’s where I’m going.

Friday I got up at 6.50a.m. as per and did usual the family stuff. (Dunno about you but this generally involves maybe 20 minutes of washing up whilst cobbling together medium-decent brekkie for t’other three, plus a swift jaunt to ‘look at the sea’ with pooch.)

Critically for me it also meant both trying to picture where a particular school is… and then rehearsing ideas for a first session of cricketstuff for (probably) two groups of kids (probably) aged seven to eleven. Hilarious but true it could even be that I’m visualising ‘capturing’ kids whilst stirring the porridge. In fact I’m pretty certain I am.

I’d not been into this school before. I’d spoken to the Head – whom I’d never met – and he had sounded right up for my pitch re delivering a couple of taster sessions with a view to inviting kids up to further cricket action at the local leisure centre. He’d also skilfully gently inferred that because of the ‘nature’ of his posse, it might be a challenge to actually achieve the transfer of children from (free) school knockabout to a leisure centre charging a not unreasonable £2.50 for the hour. I remember rating his honesty and generosity around this but was clear that there is real value in showing the game(s) at his place irrespective of any targets. I told him that and think this made us mates.

We’re a one-motor family so it was a scramble to get people to various terminals of departure before I could boot down towards the school. I arrived, very nearly a tad late, carrying big, unhelpfully decrepit bags of clobber in coolish drizzle, to be told I ‘needed to be round the corner at the Junior School’.

Given that I’m kindof Old School about being timely and gathered and stuff, this was not good. However, arriving at the destination proper turned out to be one of those rather lovely, confirmatory moments which denied any residual fluster.

The Gaffer met me and was friendly: there was clearly no rush. Within seconds two different people had offered me a brew and a ‘hand with ‘anything.’ The ambience spoke of proper welcome and the environment was visibly (whatever this means – we know what it means!) encouraging. Minor note; I’m a fella with very few prejudices but I’d walked in there wondering, just a little, about baggage in the ether – ‘reputations’.

Because of the tiddly specks outside and the availability of a spanking new and perfectly adequate hall, I bundled my kit inside. Another teacher came to say hello and offer help. Whilst we chatted it became apparent that the weather was breaking for the better and that though it might remain marginal we could go for it outside, on a new, tarmacked space. Outside is better; we engaged Plan B sharpish and I re-gathered to think about first outdoor introductory sessions for feisty kids. It’s cold. It’s grey. It’s okaaaay, actually but best get these guys at it.

So, movement and maybe teamwork and a few giggles. The setting out of a friendly, challenging-in-a-good-way matrix through which we can gambol. Pressing that ‘earthlings you’re gonna have to listen because the games are gonna change’ button. Making even these instructions engaging/dynamic/part of some irrepressible bundle. Do all that pal.

First group comes out. Mix of Year 5 and 6. I launch likeably enthusiastic geezer mode, with a deal based around F.U.N. for ‘top, top listening’.

I think they get me and we shake hands excitedly-metaphorically on a guaranteed smiles-for-listening agreement then off we go. Twenty-five boys and girls passing teddies, beach balls, (spongy) rugby balls and other assorted unthreatening globes to each other as they jog across the space and back, Emily having set the tempo by demonstrating a treble-fabulous and stylish jog immediately before the happy stampede.

It’s chaos but manageably so; it’s undeniably smiley. They do get me. Of course Jonni and Marc are hogging the rugby ball and the expressed aspiration to get everyone in the game is missed, first time out (so reinforce that). But this is great.

‘Earthlings, looking spookily good. But I told you my favourite word is TEEEEEAAAMMM so we have to get the guys who didn’t catch a ball or a teddy in the game. Let’s go again and this time we must pass within three seconds. Go!’

Some thinking going on and some great, energetic movement. Still some daft overthrows but blanket engagement and strikingly good catching – really good catching!

I’m weaving in and out to get those words of encouragement into their faces. ‘WODDA CATCH!’ ‘Ooooff –how’s your nose?!?’ ‘Great hands!’ ‘Blimey, that’s pass of the century!!’

They’re fizzing, almost uniformly – what was that cobblers about ‘challenging kids’? Somebody film this quick; show the Governors, show The Government, show our funders, show EVERYONE!! You watch this develop, now!

‘OK. Next up we can’t go cuddling that teddy; remember how many seconds before we have to pass? Three! And this time we can’t throw to the same partner all the time. This Frankie-Millie/Frankie-Millie/Frankie-Millie thing is now… a no-no. How many seconds before we pass? OK. Go!!’

We shift forwards through a one second interval; in other words catch and pass immeeeeediately. ‘How can we make that baby work, people? What can I do if I don’t have the ball? YES! Communicate! What might I do with my hands? Yes, show them! Because I’m joining in with the team.’

Enough on that warming up, switching on thing. Ball each. ‘Show me some basketball – show me some control as you go. There/back. Tell me what works, how you get some control’.

Then catches and bounces of a zillion kinds, whilst moving – must be moving to crack the cold, to crack the smiles.

I’m in the mix of strikingly co-ordinated ease and refreshingly willing flap, constantly, cos I’m charged with bringing the personality here. The game is everything but I am Agent of Boogie, encouraging fringe-players to break through into the song ’n dance of it – defying them all not to enjoy this daft, doable thing. We’re all lost in the swirl of it and it’s magbloodynificent.

Fifty minutes-worth and done. Revert to pitch about *also* coming out to play at the leisure centre, Tuesday nights. Reassure them Yes! I am here next week. ‘Course I am. They’ve been wonderful.

A break and another, similarly zaptastic group. Teacher asks if some kids from ‘the unit’ can join in – meaning children with issues I may need to consider – and I emphatically assent. Without singling them out I scatter some further encouragement as the group flies around, engaged. It’s magbloodynificent; they are.

It finishes (or actually I call it) after some booming hitting from tees. All of them brimming with their own enormous or enormously minor triumphs. They shared, they clouted, they caught, they couldn’t believe they connected. Take the me thing out of this, here was an absolute model, a goddam advert for the case for sport transcending.

Forget the Premier League. It’s been simply overrun, overshadowed, shrunk – if only for a moment. The world got better here, because these kids accepted my (Cricket Wales, asitappens) offer. They invested in it; they threw it forward and then they caught it. They listened, they were thoughtful and busy and strategic and inventive and there was barely any drift. As they go back in, a teacher is beaming back at them.