Archive | Sport Psychology

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Meeting Simon Clifford

Posted on 08 February 2011 by JamesHamilton

I don’t have heroes. Certainly, I don’t have footballing ones: any heroism that footballers have committed has been tangental to the actual game. Harry Gregg, yes. Bryan Robson, no. But for all that, there are people in football whose success I’ve an emotional commitment to. I haven’t often found myself around these people: it’s not something I’ve ever sought. When I am, it’s uncomfortably disembodying and disassociating. There’s a mix on these occasions, of plain old nerves and the urge to say, don’t waste your time with me, get on with it, it matters…

I last felt that way in late December, lunching with Simon Clifford in a restaurant’s private room beneath his offices in Leeds’ magnificent Victorian centre. It wasn’t an interview or anything like that – he’d offered me the chance to meet up and have a look around, and I was hardly going to turn down a chance to to see UK football’s best hope from the inside. And my nerves went, anyway, when it turned out that we’d both taken the same message from the same Rocky 6 clip.

Every time you meet someone “in football”, you come away with a stack of highly actionable stories that you could never possibly print. Clifford is a bibilophile, owner of one of the country’s most important collections of one of my favourite Victorian authors, and the stories were better than usual. I won’t pass them on. But I will pass on what else I learned.

I’ll also pass on what I learned from Clifford’s colleague Steve Nichol, now at Brazilian Soccer Schools and rated as one of the very best thinking coaches working in the UK today. One of the highlights of my day in Leeds was hearing Nichol analyse a recent Premiership match with the kind of succinctness and originality that only goes to confirm how little knowledge most of us who love the game actually have in Britain – and how much we need it. I tried to hide it from him, but I wasn’t keeping up, and felt ashamed.

In no order, then – here’s what I learned at BSS:

The future might be about to arrive

Aiden White, at Brazilian Soccer Schools from age 7 until age 18, has broken through into the Leeds United first team. Aberdeen have five BSS graduates under the age of 21 in their squad, and there are another 650 young people training up under BSS auspices in Aberdeen alone. This is happening across the country. A lot of us have wondered what would happen to the British game if real training was available to young people from the start. We might be about to find out. But:

BSS, Socatots and the Clifford philosophy are still developing

 

Clifford told me more than once that the existing setup of BSS and Socatots does not reflect the entirety of his thinking and that there are many more ideas awaiting execution than he and his team will have time for right now. There are further levels of attainment to be added at the top of the BSS scheme. Socatots, which is the great hope, starting young people off at the very beginning, hasn’t had time yet – it just hasn’t been around long enough – to generate its own cadre of graduates.

Local Socatots franchisees have signalled their belief – which I share – that appropriate training at that age level gives benefits far beyond football alone. Where football is concerned, the “new” ideology that we here more and more often now – that young people ought to be technically competent with the ball before moving on to game situations – has been baked into BSS and Socatots since the late nineties.

Player development

Some of what is still to come concerns fitness and focus. Steve Nichol posed the question – how do you prevent players stalling in their development after the age of 16? That is, how do you help them continue to grow once they are in the comparatively dead hands of Football League and Premiership clubs?

That’s not necessarily to criticize club academies, although the academies vary wildly in their quality, and are subject to the same coaching traditions that have held back British football in the past. But young players who make it into full contracts will do so on the back of a lot of hard work and sacrifice at an early age. The temptation to enjoy the immediate rewards is substantial and resisting it takes a level of maturity few people have at that stage in their lives.

Mental and physical discipline

Clifford and his team feel that the answers may come from boxing – a sport that calls on mental and physical discipline far beyond normal football training.

Football did originally associate itself with mental discipline. London social reformers like Quentin Hogg and Arnold Hills, saw football as a means of helping reintroduce the order to lives thrown into chaos by industrial change – mass demolition of working homes in the 1860s for Hogg, industrial depression, unrest and accidents for Hills.

But the problems posed by the modern game to young people are on another scale altogether: the human need for order and direction is obvious when survival is at stake. Less so when your choice is between extra skills training in cold weather or the chance to be the centre of female attention.

Boxing and the other martial arts put discipline and conditioning onto a different plane – presenting them as the key to adulthood and the only source of peer esteem. Importing these values into football won’t be easy, but it’s surely not impossible.

Because anyone who has spent time around good young players and decent coaches will know what I refer to as the atmosphere of “high seriousness” that they bring to their endeavours. It’s a cultural survival, a hangover from the pre-1960s Apollonian British culture that has vanished from academia, government and policing.

In football, that high seriousness has to share space with what George Best inadvertantly imported: fashion. Deep detachment: the universal application of satire and irony. The individual over the group – and groups, where they exist, are competitive, not cooperative. The priority given to sex – in direct contrast, here, to an older football tradition that evolved to deal with a world that had syphilis but no cure.

That high seriousness – friendly, but determined and implacable – was around me all day at the BSS offices. It made me realize – and think to myself out loud – they really are going to pull this off: they really are going to do this..

The place for thinkers in football

 

Mentors matter. Guidance matters. People, real or fictional, who guide and inspire.. and it was in that context that the Rocky 6 clip comes into play. Rocky’s message to his adult son – that to become what you must become, to have impact, you have to be ready for unlimited opposition, mental pain and physical discomfort – is a big Clifford/Nichol theme. How to find a way to exist for extended periods without outside approval or approbation.. It’s there in Raymond Blanc’s new autobiography, too, and in Ricky Gervais’ recollections: the worthwhile things lie on the wrong side of years of friendless, pitiless labour.

We’ve had League football in the UK now for 115 seasons, give or take a year or two. In that time, every single intelligent thinker who proposed that we transform the game’s skill and fitness levels has been spat out or destroyed. From Jimmy Hogan on and ever since, these people have had to make a way outside the League and FA systems. And these systems, so robust in maintaining stable competitions over an extraordinarily long time, are still digesting  the lessons of 1950 and 1953. No white smoke from Lancaster Gate yet. Not even bullet points.

Which means that any attempt to improve standards that seeks to do so via Leagues or Associations is doomed to failure. It has to be an outside job.

 

Clifford and Sir Clive Woodward’s experiences at Southampton show that, even at a club with a chairman who understands the issues at the right level and is open to progress, fear and ignorance win.

Nothing can move until professional footballers in Britain are equipped with skills, fitness and game sense beyond the levels achieved abroad. Anything else is beside the point. It won’t come from the clubs. It won’t come from the Associations.

It’s an outside job. And here’s the news from Leeds: the outsiders are working on it.

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Does it matter if Sport Psychology is Cod Psychology?

Posted on 28 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Usually, it starts with an email: “James/Hi James/Dear James: I’ve been reading some sport psychology textbooks and it’s all rubbish. Please could you point me to the real deal?”

These emails are hard to answer. Because what my interlocutor has noticed is that the content of sport psychology is unacademic, unproven, shallow, and all too similar – in their eyes – to that terrible thing called self-help. They want to be told that this isn’t true. They want to believe that they are just reading the wrong books, and that if I can point them to the right ones, the subject will open up to them like a flower in sunshine.

It’s the same reaction, responding to the same instinct, to the one found when people talk about “cod psychology”, “cheap psychology”, “shallow self-help manuals” and the like. It’s the belief and hope that out there beyond the Mind and Spirit shelves there’s a real body of established psychological knowledge waiting to be tapped into.

And without doubt, sport psychology and self-help do share a lot of the same principles. The importance of setting goals. The different kinds of goals. Visualization. Affirmations and mental rehearsal. The winning mentality. A general obsession with performance, achievement and change.

And this is in fact it, so far as sport psychology goes. It doesn’t have to be bad news: all of these things will “work” to some degree. Your mileage may vary, and if you have substantial underlying issues (which is where we blend into psychotherapy a little) you’ll probably find they do less for you than they might for others.

But it would be unfair to write sport psychology off just because it bears close resemblance to a field that intellectuals find repellent. Crudity and simplicity aren’t the only issues here. Politics is involved. Any psychology built for sport jocks is going to feel uncomfortable to the average left-leaning academic commentator.

Sport psychology is crude and simplistic when put up against 20s-style Freudian psychoanalysis, undoubtedly, yet the bulk of broadsheet-level media think that Freud (boo!) has been decisively seen off by CBT (hurrah!) which is scientific, peer-reviewed, etc. And CBT is considerably less subtle and ambiguous than psychoanalysis.

Any sensible review of CBT would applaud its willingness to undergo proper, extensive testing, and to adapt to what that testing found. Aaron Beck and his colleagues have done the entire field an enormous favour by making the attempt, and they would be the first to want to tell you about the real problems that have emerged and what plans are in place to deal with them.

I’ll come to those in a moment, but first I want to discuss self-help.

Both British and American culture has a long-established place for books, tapes and films offering help and advice. British gardening guides have been silent best-sellers for years, but so have books on job hunting, sex, cookery, car maintenance, pet care and DIY. There’s room, surely, for books covering some of the real personal problems that people encounter. Because believe me, it’s far from the case that the UK has become therapy-ized. The people I met in my consulting room didn’t want to be there. Nor did they want to have their phobias, or their depression, or panic attacks, or their general sense of being in the wrong place, in the wrong time, in the wrong skin. Of having taken a wrong turn so far back in time…

Running a full-time therapy practice, even at break-even levels, costs enough to price such services out of the reach of huge numbers of people. State services are over-run with patchy coverage. It would take a decade to turn the state services into what the dedicated people running them would want to see. Then we come to the issues of getting time away from work and family. Why shouldn’t there be a genre of British book aimed at providing whatever help a book might be capable of delivering?

A couple of self-help “classics” helped me out in my teens when there were things I wanted to achieve that I had no experience in and no hope of advice from school, friends or family. So I have some bias in their favour. Without them, I’d have been entirely on my own.

The reality with self-help is that many of its fiercest critics haven’t actually read any (Frances Wheen reviews Tony Robbins in his otherwise excellent How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World… I say “reviews”, but the phrases he uses are all lifted from the back cover of one of Robbins’ books, and there’s nothing to suggest he ever went inside or felt that he ought to). What this means is that many of the most common charges made against self-help don’t ring true to anyone with more acquaintance with the genre. To take Tony Robbins alone, his books warn against aiming to become rich for its own sake – desolation, loneliness and unfulfilment lie that way. Nor is “success!” the goal – you must define your own success, by your own values, your own life, your own philosophy. Nor is it about “becoming a new person!!” – but it is about finding ways to frustrate yourself less.

Nor is it especially American. Not compared with Samuel Smiles, at any rate, whose Self Help, the British progenitor of it all, is the kind of destructive, dishonest claptrap that is supposed to characterize the whole genre.

But there are bad self-help books. Not as many as some people think, and few that are rotten all the way through or based on the kind of clicheed values that critics deplore. Some, if not the best, are written by CBT professionals and employ as much of established CBT technique can be employed by a reader working on their own. Nevertheless, self-help not being as bad as all that is one thing: an established body of knowledge “out there” to be drawn upon is quite another.

I admit to being frustrated by what follows. I envy people with my interests who will be young in fifty years’ time, because by then the really interesting discoveries about the human brain, the human brain acting in the concerted context of the body, and the human brain acting in concert with other human brains, will be coming on stream. All we’re able to do with the most extraordinarily complex organ and the philosophical problems it raises at present is learn what the right questions might be. At the moment, even the questions are uncertain.

Neuroscience and psychotherapy have developed separately from one another, as have neuroscience and psychiatry (crudely, in the UK psychotherapy refers to talk therapy and psychiatry to drugs. The US often uses “psychiatry” to refer to both talk therapy and drugs). It will all come down to neuroscience in the end, but the end is a long, long way off, and when we get there, it will in all likelihood be unrecognisable and quite possibly inaccessible to anyone without a postgraduate degree in mathematics.

The quickest way to get a flavour of where we’re coming from and where we’re going is to read Eric Kandel’s terrific memoir In Search of Memory. It’s Kandel’s autobiography, but also a great deal more than a potted history of the field. Kandel joined it some 30 years after the earliest pioneers, enrolling in medical school in 1952. Within 3 years, he’d switched to neuroscience, with the stated aim of finding, within the human brain, the physical locations of Freud’s ego and id…

Of course, by the time he retired, all that was well behind him, but at the time, the idea was far from foolish. There are certain to be hundreds of similar ideas being pursued now that will look every bit as bizarre fifty years from now. How I wish I was going to be there. But I’ll be dead in my deckchair under my Daily Telegraph long before that..

It’s easy, obviously, to decry a science in its formative years, which is what neuroscience is. But that isn’t the only problem that the established body of knowledge faces. Consider the situation of CBT.

One of the issues that prevented psychotherapy being tested in the manner expected of a drug has been the sheer number of unmeasurables in the therapy situation. CBT avoided one of the most familiar – the relationship between the therapist and the client – by deciding that the nature of CBT rendered that relationship irrelevant. Many early studies of CBT were done with just that assumption in place, and these studies helped elevate CBT to its current position. It wasn’t just an idle assumption – Beck and his colleagues had worked hard to make the CBT experience consistent regardless of whose name was on the door.

This is no longer the official CBT position. Change came partly through the experiences of CBT therapists, who found that working “from the manual” for studies was less effective than what they would do in sessions when a test wasn’t underway. And part of the change came through growing sophistication in statistical techniques (N.B. this is not my field – don’t ask me what the statisticians achieved. Matthew Turner and Dan Davies probably know) which enabled client-therapist relationships to be measured. “Transference” is back in the room.

CBT is one of over 280 recognized psychotherapeutic approaches. It, and the various forms of psychodynamic therapy, dominate a field that classic psychoanalysis has quit forever. Proper testing is now more or less accepted across the board, courtesy of Beck and his team’s pioneering determination which set the bar for everyone else.

There are a number of measures undertaken. Different therapies can be compared against each other. Therapies can be compared with equivalent psychiatric treatment. And elements of individual therapies can be “removed” from testing to see which parts of a particular approach are the most important.

Frankly, the results of all three directions of study are dismaying. Everything – every therapy, every psychiatric treatment – works. What’s more, it all works to more or less the same degree. This is known as the dodo bird verdict and that pretty much sums up the disappointment surrounding it. What’s worse for talk therapies is that removing elements of each therapy to find out what works, to find out what might constitute best practice, produces no significant conclusions. Nor is one therapy especially better at dealing with a specific problem than any other. It isn’t that psychodynamic therapy is better than CBT at dealing with PTSD, for instance. They’re about the same. The philosophical conclusions to be drawn from this if it continues for another 20 years are profoundly depressing.

Much the same goes for psychiatric drugs. Serotonin theories of depression have come, raised our hopes, and gone away again. “Brain chemical imbalance” turns out to be extraordinarily difficult to establish.

There will be, given time and work, the “body of knowledge” we need. It’s simply the case that this task is infinitely more complex, philosophically more challenging (I have deliberately avoided the study of what consciousness is here, although I believe that to be central to the whole problem) and potentially more expensive than the Manhattan Project or Apollo. Understanding the brain – and through that, understanding the existential experiences of mankind – turns out to be the work of ages, not the work of fifty years in American labs. Kandel and his colleagues broke the ground, but it’s stony and sandy ground by turns and it never seems to rain.

We thought, for a while, that measuring blood flows in the brain went some way to measuring relevant brain activity and that meaning could be drawn from the measurements. That one went away about two years ago.

It’s not that there’s been “no” progress. Far from it: there have been magnificent careers lived in this field, and there are thousands more underway now. The insignificance of the progress is relative to the giddying size of the task and its almost malevolent complexity.

In a real way, then, it’s all cheap psychology for the time being. And if you’re here, now, in the early twenty-first century, wondering what to do because you can no longer go outside because your phobia of rats has extended itself to squirrels, birds and dead leaves (I’ve treated people to whom this has happened. Don’t put any hope in “injections that can kill fear-inducing memories”. Phobia’s an experience of fear that is somehow not rooted in fear, or in memory), then what exists now, both self-help and therapy room, is imperfect and incomplete. And as many have found, you’re as likely to “revert to the mean” under your own power as find help in official channels.

So does it matter if sport psychology is cod psychology? Probably not. What exists does work to some extent, even if we have no real idea as to how or why. One day, which I won’t live to see, there will indeed be that body of knowledge out there beyond the Mind and Spirit section, and then we’ll really be able to get to work. Until then, go on the “B” of the bang, go for process rather than outcome goals, and if it’s dartitis or the yips, you have my deepest sympathy.

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Scotland’s National Team: Eleven Impossible Jobs, Plus Substitutes

Posted on 19 December 2009 by JamesHamilton

The first thing Capello said on becoming England manager was that when an Englishman pulled on his international shirt, he lost all the confidence he felt at his club: he played in fear. The task for Capello was to create the conditions for confidence that already existed at Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. And in that he succeeded, but could he have done it for Scotland? I argue not. The Scottish job, for the time being, is beyond the power of a single man. If the Scotland team are to experience what England experienced in 2009, change has to come from the Scottish FA, the Scottish press, the Scottish clubs, and, especially, in Scottish fan culture itself.

The problem doesn’t lie with Scottish managers, and it doesn’t lie with Scottish players. Scotland, as any glance at the English Premiership or at post-War European Cup football will show, has a competitive advantage when it comes to the production of fine football managers. Any country in the world, with the possible exceptions of Italy and Holland, would love to possess the Scottish managerial production line for themselves. Nor, as I will argue, are the players deficient. The obstacles are psychological. There are three of them. Sadly, just because it’s “all in the mind” doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to shift.

Obstacle One: The Scottish Team’s 2 Contradictory Roles

Scotland are underdogs, so the song says. I’ll come back to the song in a minute. It’s an easier position for a fan than a player: compare the joyous flagwaving and national pride with the fear and tension visible in that row of dark blue shirts. Beside them, the Italians, who were meant to be intimidated by the weather and the passion, jog easily on the spot and wait their turn.

Football has plenty of real underdogs – Iceland, Slovenia, Faroe Islands – countries with neither population nor history nor experience to help them. For places like these, the status can work for them from time to time, and the sheer lack of expectation can work in their favour.

But Scotland’s footballing pedigree isn’t Iceland’s, or even Norway’s. Think of that managerial competitive advantage. Think of the comparatively huge domestic audience (far more Scots per head actively watch the game than any other country in the British Isles and indeed in Europe). Think of Scotland’s clubs, successful on the European stage.

Scotland’s song is an underdog’s song for a country that is not quite comfortable with playing the underdog. There’s the sneaking suspicion that, had it played its cards more cleverly, Scotland would not now be comparing itself with nations with 5m people – the Irelands – but with nations of recent international pedigree, like France or Holland. And unlike England, Scotland thinks it should play its cards cleverly.

So in trying to play the underdog card against Italy – by throwing rain and cold and bluster and bullshit against one of the most experienced sides in the world – Scotland was both true and untrue to itself. Italy scored almost from the kick-off. It was all the ringmasters at Hampden deserved for ungracious, psychogically ill-advised behaviour. All it achieved was to put the wind up their own men.

The Italian goal cleared the air of all the nonsense, and after that, Scotland put in exactly the sort of fine performance they are entirely capable of. If only they’d been able to approach the game in a more steady, mature and calm manner – which would have been both politer to their Italian guests and less likely to play into their hands – it would, I am sure, have been the means to the qualification that Scotland deserved.

But it’s easy to say, less easy to achieve. Consider this well-known and recent moment in the history of the Scottish national team:

This is the Scottish Underdog Rampant. (I can’t watch it all the way through: it’s all so embarrassing and painful). Note the various assumptions at work: for Scotland to win, one or more players has to put in a lifetime perfomance – beating a team like France is a once-in-a-lifetime miracle and not plannable for – hysteria and invocations of magic are appropriate and acts of patriotism. (I don’t want to take away from the win against France, which was enjoyed right across the British Isles – it’s just a convenient example).

But those ingredients aren’t the only ones around. Had that been Iceland, Icelandic fans would have celebrated the win without ever looking for it to happen again. McFadden’s had to go into subsequent internationals burdened by that goal and the other one – burdened because Scotland aren’t comfortable with the underdog idea, and end up wanting underdog-style victories at regular enough intervals to achieve non-underdog footballing goals.

Let’s go back to the song, now. For those of you not familiar with it, here are the most important lyrics:

And stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him homeward
Tae think again

I acknowledge, by the way, that this is Scotland’s choice of unofficial national anthem – their Land of My Fathers, their O Canada. It’s the country’s obvious right to choose their own song. But that passage is in all three verses. I just regret that Scotland chose something so.. Balkan, so Greater Serbia, when they had Scotland the Brave or The Banks of Loch Lomond to choose from.

It’s the England thing, and if we’re already having to cope with a clash between the desire for underdog status and the suspicion that underdog isn’t good enough, then don’t add the England thing on top of it. But Scotland has, does, and probably always will.

It’s a pity. Because I’ve learned two things about the England thing since moving to Scotland.

The first thing is that Scotland is not just different from England. It’s probably more different from England than France, Spain or Italy. The sheer number of basic differences in language, attitude, approach and opinion is so great that there is no danger – of any kind, at any time – of Scotland being remotely impinged upon to any effect by her southern neighbour. I’ve learned that not many Scots in Scotland realize just how secure as a country and as a nation they really are. It’s a shame: they can afford to relax into themselves much more than they do where England is concerned.

The second thing that I’ve learned is how few Scots realize that the English have gone away, never to return. The Scottish-English rivalry – it’s one hand clapping. The English just don’t care. The Scots can be as passionate in their distrust as they please. It makes no difference to the Rosbifs.

It irritates, even infuriates, some Scots that English football fans will cheer a Scottish team, club or international, as if it were their own. Not all: I’ve seen Scots hush Scots during an England game when they tried to catcall during the anthems. And England, don’t forget, are still stuck with God Save The Queen, and what that awful dirge has to do with sport or country is anyone’s guess.

I can see the Scottish point of view. I don’t agree with it, but I can see it. It feels patronizing to some, as though the English still regard the Scots as property. They don’t, but that’s a common view here, and because it plays a part it, and those who hold it, need to be understood and taken seriously.

The Scots are now alive to the cost to their politics of the England thing, and there’s what amounts to a consensus that the time has come for Scotland to stand on its own financial feet as much as possible, and that the costs of that are worth the trouble. The England thing has meant a dilution of responsibility – there was always Westminster to blame! but that’s fading fast now as experience of government from Holyrood (a place Westminster could learn from, incidentally) accumulates.

The cost of the England thing in sporting terms is best described as a distortion of ambition. Beating England matters too much. If beating England matters more than e.g. catching Holland or France in the World rankings, then certain things don’t get done. Because England can be beaten in one-off games, like 1967, like 1977, or bested without victory as in 1996 and 2000. But catching Holland requires that Scotland see all that as second class goods – all very well and enjoyable, but not to the point. Letting go to that degree is hard.

We’re not finished with the England thing, but let’s move on to our second obstacle:

Obstacle Two: The Scottish False Football History

It isn’t often said, so should be said more often: the surprising thing about the 1960s is not so much that England won a World Cup, but that Scotland didn’t. England have had periods in their history when they’ve had better players available in greater numbers than 1966. 1946, for instance, or 1957, or 1970. For Scotland, the 1960s were the boom years. I look at the qualification matches for the 1966 World Cup and note that, but for five minutes of madness against Poland at Hampden, Scotland would have matched Italy for points (and beat Italy, too, 1-0 at Hampden. It would have done in 2007..)

In 1970, Scotland had to get past West Germany:

It could have gone either way: had just one of those endless Law headers turned into a goal, Scotland would have gone into their final two games with everything to play for. Up against one of the leading quartet of world sides in 1969, Scotland looked… every bit their equals.

But did they know it? Is that how it felt at the time? Up against a divided country full of American soldiers and shoved up against Russians, unable to stand on its own two feet? Because that’s the thing: you can choose underdog status without realising that you’re doing so, and it leaks all over your talent and ability, corroding what would otherwise shine. It might have occurred to the West Germans that theirs was a client country, with only fifteen years of proper football participation behind them, up against the nation of Stein! and Celtic! a nation whose men sat even until then in tanks in the Rhineland.

I think the first obstacle – the reluctant underdog thing – creates a second: Scotland do not know to this day how good they are at football. On occasion, a sort of pumped-up hysteria is allowed in as a substitute for knowledge, as against Italy in 2007, or in the equally ill-advised Hampden farewell in 1978.

The real story of Scotland’s 1970s World Cups remains to be told. The one that’s out there is inaccurate and unhelpful in the extreme. I refer to what you might call the humiliation scenario, and claims of upset hubris.

The humiliation scenario sets out to portray Scotland’s teams of 1974 and (especially) 1978 as having gone out with big heads and come back with sore ones having embarrassed the nation in the process. That’s one way to describe a winning draw with Brazil and victory over Holland.

I see those two World Cups, and to a lesser extent the (in my view) equally misrepresented 1982 World Cup, as creditable perfomances from a side who had no idea, when all is said and done, of their own powers. A side who went into tournaments full of the knowledge that they’d never proceeded beyond the first round and empty of the knowledge that they wielded a squad containing Law, Dalglish and Bremner..

..and how Capello’s “fear” comes in and works its magic. And how the idea of humiliation and embarrassment leaks in and damages everything in sight.

No one outside Scotland thought them humiliated. Outside Scotland, everyone thought that you’d just about beaten Brazil (and Scotland must have thought themselves up against the 1970 lot to begin with). Outside Scotland, everyone thought you were coping well with Peru by playing your own game, and that it was when you tried to ape the short passes of south americans that things went wrong. And as for the Holland game, no one did better against that great Dutch side, ever: Scotland genuinely beat them, in justice as well as goals, something that neither West Germany (1974) nor Argentina (1978) could claim.

Scotland, in short, took the lessons from their ’70s and ’80s losing World Cups that Argentina could well have taken from their dubious winning ones. And in doing so, Scotland creating a rolling accumulation of pain and disappointment that was both unnecessary then and too much for men to carry now. It’s time for a reassessment.

The self-flagellatingly harsh assessment of Scotland’s World Cup performances has had two powerful effects on subsequent events. First, the weight of perceived failure has led to defeats in important games that would otherwise have been won. In 1996, the unnecessary defeat came against England, who were outplayed on the day, and even a draw would have taken Scotland through to meet France in the second round. How many Scots remember a fighting draw against the Netherlands of Bergkamp, Davids, Seedorf, Reiziger and de Boer? As it was, only a Dutch consolation goal against England kept Scotland out of the next round. Embarrassed? Humiliated?

The other impact is on Scottish players now. How does it feel to fill the shoes of men you are constantly told were legends who.. humiliated Scotland, a humiliation you – you inferior soul you – have to avenge? These players were one scuffed shot against Norway away from a World Cup playoff place this year, but you wouldn’t have known that from the treatment they and the manager received, not just from the press and television, but from their own Scottish Football Association.

Properly organized, the men Scotland has at its disposal are perfectly capable of qualifying for one of the two international tournaments. But not if they are told that they’re a dud generation, lesser men than the heroes who let down their country. That’s too much to carry. It’s the same burden that did for English national teams in the wake of 1966: never as good, never as moral, never as.. English! as the crewcut heroes of yore.

There’s opinion in Scotland that thinks this is a national trait: “we”, meaning the Scots, just kind of.. go in for.. noble inglorious humiliating defeat: it’s part of our identity, part of our history…

..in which case, why do you sing about Bannockburn before matches, and how current would this view be now had e.g. Scotland scored once more against Yugoslavia in 1974, once more against Holland in 1978, and once more against the Soviet Union in 1982?

That’s how close it was, and that’s noble inglorious defeat and national humiliation for you. There’s another way to look at it, one that could help Scotland under a new manager now. But it’s hard to make that kind of change, certainly now when that historical cement has had 30 years in which to set fast.

Even if the trick could be pulled, there’s still another obstacle in the way.

Obstacle 3: Dances of Death

That’s two dances: between the Scottish national team and Scottish national puissance, which we’ve already vaguely touched upon – and between the Scottish national team and the Scottish Premier Division.

There’s nothing wrong, and quite a lot right, with a country choosing to use football to express itself on the international stage. Brazil chose to, quite deliberately, back in the 1920s, before they had any footballing tradition at all. 25 years later, they won their first World Cup, which shows what can be done with determination. Almost a decade after the Brazilian decision, Germany decided that football was a lower class pursuit and that there were better ways to assert one’s nationhood.

Scotland is in the perfect position to choose the Brazilian approach over the German. And it may be about to do so. Henry Mcleish taking on the job of reporting ways of promoting Scottish football is the equivalent of Tony Blair doing the same for England – except that, to match Mcleish, Blair would not have watched Jackie Milburn as a child (which he never claimed to have done, by the way) but have been Jackie Milburn.

There’s only a 5 million population to play with, and not many of that population actually play at present (10% of Dutch turn out in one form or another). But the depth of knowledge and the history is there, and there are good things being done quietly in some of the smaller clubs up and down Scotland that promise much for the future.

But for now, it would be better if Scottish puissance were not seen as quite the function of Scottish footballing performance it is now. It’s too much for men to carry, not without the infrastructure, training and attitude necessary to bring it off. And when so few Scots actually play the game, it’s unfair on those who do. Choose literature; choose wave power; choose Edinburgh’s superb pubs. Choose something else until football can manage it.

As things stand, any Scottish team has to carry not just the hopes, but the perceived reputation of the country on its back. No one outside Scotland thinks that the country is somehow diminished by its footballing performance, and in any case, outside perception of what that performance is is almost certainly higher in Paris or Rome than in Glasgow.

Then there’s the matter of the Scottish Premier Division. Europe’s triumphant overachievers in European and UEFA Cups, over the entire period up to and very much including Celtic’s UEFA Cup Final of a year or two ago: but there’s a perception that when the Premier Division fails, it’s the job of the national team to compensate. Or, when the Premier Division succeeds, it’s the job of the national team to do likewise. With options like those, it would be as well to take “Proud Edward” (by the way – the 1967 songwriters mean Edward II!) out of the tune and replace him with a front two of Scylla and Charybdis.

Conclusion

I don’t think the national side can get away from any of this: it’s the backdrop they’re stuck with. But continue in this vein, and there’s no other future but more of the same: a potentially perfectly competent side carrying too much baggage and fear to play in the way it needs to to achieve what it’s capable of.

There’s no quick or easy way out. But there may be a way out. If the Mcleish report comes up with a sensible development plan that can deliver a steady stream of decent players to back up the ones that are produced more or less by accident as they are now, that, added to the gradual away-from-England, away-from-the-past lensing effect that Holyrood is achieving (albeit by inches) might be enough.

There’s no need for a foreign manager, although I believe a case should be made for the continuing excellent crop of Scottish managers to seek work in mainland Europe more often than they have before now. But Scotland has fine managers. Learn from a Capello, sure: but Scotland’s managers have plenty to teach others. That isn’t the problem.

Flower of Scotland isn’t the problem, although it’s a nonsense and not anywhere near as good as older rivals. Playing the underdog card is the problem. Call it The Fan Delusion if you like: the idea that the emotional experience and attitude of the fan in the stand is the one required by the players on the pitch if they are to succeed. It let Scotland down badly in 2007.

I felt it coming before the game. Scottish commentator after Scottish commentator came forth to claim that Scottish passion! and Scottish weather! and the Hampden crowd! would make life hard for Italy and sweep the Scots home. It betrayed football, that attitude: it betrayed Scottish footballers. It said, you aren’t good enough. Only hysteria and superhuman (“McFadden! James McFadden!”) performances of which you aren’t ordinarily capable will get us there.

It took an Italian goal to clear all that nonsense out of the road. After that, Scotland played an excellent match. Why did they have to give Italy a goal start in order to do that? Because, as things stand, playing for Scotland is eleven impossible jobs. It’s a psychological burden that would bring down an Ali, a Waugh brother, a Michael Johnson. I wish I could see it ever being shifted. In fact, I see it getting worse.

Happy New Year, Craig Levein.

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Why Aren’t English Football Managers More Intelligent?

Posted on 22 October 2007 by JamesHamilton

There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? to say that English football managers just aren’t as intelligent as their foreign counterparts. In a comment left on an earlier post, John Sinnott said “I’ve done lots of interviews with overseas players and managers and invariably they were always smarter and brighter and more analytical than their English peers.”

There’s a lot of truth in that. Here’s why.

English Education

Professional football emerged onto the scene at the same time as state education. Many Edwardian players were the first people in their family who were able to read. There are conditions specific to the Edwardian situation, but by the time Bobby Charlton was at grammar school in the late 1940s and early 1950s, intelligent, talented young sportsmen were being encouraged away from the playing field and towards white collar careers. Brian Clough’s long-time captain, John McGovern, was bound for university and a very different kind of life when Old Big ‘Ead intervened. Education creams off some of the brains that might otherwise have been inclined to football.

The Maximum Wage

The Maximum Wage for footballers was introduced in 1901 at a level of £4 per week. At the time, this was well in excess of what most players could hope to earn, so there was relatively little opposition to the move and much of that was weak. What’s more, £4 per week would remain a good wage in relation to what could be earned in mine, mill or factory. The maximum wage would remain good in such limited terms until after the Second World War. The effect on many contemporary players was small. But the long-term effect the Maximum Wage would have on the game was not. League football became permanently class-based. In 1901, it was far from unknown for an amateur player like Vivien Woodward to turn out for England. The Maximum Wage finally closed the door – which, it must be admitted, was already swinging to – on middle class players, or intelligent boys for whom there were other, more lucrative options by the time the 1950s consumer boom was underway.

That wouldn’t have mattered so much was it not for the unconscious creation of a management tradition in the ’10s and ’20s.

Only a Horse Can Become a Jockey

Edwardian Secretary-Managers weren’t always former players – there simply wasn’t the pool of ex-professionals in retirement that would exist a decade later. But by the 1950s, it was assumed almost without question that a manager would have played, preferably at the top level:

To be a good coach you must first have been a good player (Bill Shankly)

There are arguments for and against this position. A glance at the Premiership shows Arsene Wenger, Avram Grant, Sven Goran Eriksson, and Rafa Benitez amongst those who failed to reach the very top as players for one reason or another. Jose Mourinho, recently at Chelsea, was another.

Mourinho himself has argued that a good former player will have an instinctive feel for parts of the game that the intelligent non-playing observer will miss.

Whichever side of that argument you are on, one thing is clear. Management has not been a way back into football for Englishmen who missed out on playing. Becoming a player is the footballing equivalent of the 11+. Fail it, and you are gone for good.

Sir Clive Woodward was a brilliant young footballer, invited to trial by serious League clubs. His father disapproved, and packed him off to a rugby-playing navy boarding school. He’d eventually find himself in rugby, both as a player and a very successful coach, but when he sought to bring his expertise into his first sporting love, he was obstructed and rejected. Sir Clive Woodward is a case study in the self-imposed exile of English football from the possibility of bringing in intelligence and innovation, not from outside itelf, but merely from outside the ranks of former players.

Kinds of Intelligence

There is an urge – don’t you feel it? to assume that the kind of intelligence you possess is the kind those purblind other people need in order to progress. The same goes for your outlook: I’ve often pondered what a middle-class English football culture would look like. One where the kind of impulse that creates a Beagle 2, or a Concorde, held sway.

So when surviving England players from the ’50s and ’60s lay into “blackboard manager” Sir Walter Winterbottom for being too much the well-spoken scholar, it’s natural for me to want to leap to his defence, to say “you could all have done with a bit more of that.” Natural, too, to watch blurred 1970s interviews with Rinus Michels and to feel Holland-envy.

But football isn’t a Space Race or a work of art, for all that it can feel as exciting as the first and as beautiful as the second.

Footballers need to be barked at by sergeant-major types. (John Aston, ex-Manchester United)

He didn’t know how to handle players, how to talk to them. He spoke too well, too precisely, like a schoolmaster. Walter had this impeccable accent, whereas football’s a poor man’s game, players expect to be sworn at, a bit of industrial language. (Sir Bobby Charlton on Sir Walter Winterbottom)

Communication, in other words. You can have all the ideas in the world, but if you can’t take people with you, they are as good as none. It’s been part of Sam Allardyce’s success that he has brought in new ideas by the cartload, to Bolton and now to Newcastle, whilst making them sound like bootroom tradition. It’s not just intelligence, but intelligence properly applied, and less intelligence, well applied, will trump genius delivered by tactless, insensitive, arrogant means. The intelligence that writes a novel, or composes music, or builds a business, or creates technological innovation, is not the kind that holds a team together and makes the most of its combined, limited, strengths.

There are managers who can do both. Jose Mourinho would be considered an intellectual in many English circles if they knew more about him. But that doesn’t stop him playing a very effective leader of his band of brothers. The question is, do class vs intelligence issues keep the English Mourinhos out of the game? We can’t really know. I think so, probably. But it’s only my hunch.

English football is like the National Lottery

Steve McClaren is reported to be earning £2.5million per year as England coach. Premiership stadia are the newest and best in Europe, and so are many of the training facilities. Why isn’t football becoming attractive as a career choice to the middle classes?

Perhaps it is, but the trend is too new to show up. But I don’t think so.

Because, in a white-collar, middle-class world, football is a handle people can grasp when they want to make working-class claims. It’s the preservation railway of a long-finished class war. And middle class values of intelligence, change, creativity, aren’t welcome because, by and large, we don’t want them to be. Football’s always been an entertainment more than a sport for the English, and now it has that escapist quality; it’s a place where you can STOP being so middle class and can shout and swear and drink and just stop thinking for a little while.

And it’s fake money: there are only twenty Premiership coaches, and 81 English players, in the Premiership. Since 2004, the National Lottery has created nearly 500 millionaires in the South East alone. If we have such long odds on tapping into Lottery winnings, how much less chance do we have of cutting in on Premiership wealth in playing or coaching roles? Instead, the middle classes are in charge of the new football support industries – reporting, broadcasting, product placement, kit design, stadium development, market expansion. Sport medicine. Even catering. Everything except what is going on on the pitch itself.

So, why aren’t English managers more intelligent? Because there are too many ways in which you can not become a football person, and not enough ways in which you can change direction, and become a football man later on in your life. Because you have to have been a horse. And because, ultimately, we just don’t want this sort of change to happen. It would be like asking for a more intellectual version of “Play Your Cards Right.”

Football’s a heritage industry, and it ain’t that kind of heritage. Be careful what you wish for.

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Passion and Commitment vs Skill and Composure

Posted on 06 February 2007 by JamesHamilton

I never meant it to be a central theme at this site. You can blame the press that it has been. It was their myth after all – that the kind of feelings fans experience watching football are the same feelings that the team needs to have on the pitch in order to win.

It’s hard to argue against, because it doesn’t come from argument or from thought. It comes from other things – category errors, footballing exceptionalism, football-as-soap, football-as-war, the myth of the inspirational manager.

The inspirational manager became the central point at issue. Then we had the bizarre spectacle of people on the one hand pooh-pooing the existence of football’s psychological side, on the other lambasting Sven for a perceived failure to enact that non-existent psychological side.

We’d agree, wouldn’t we, that for most sports, what you want is to keep your nerve, apply your strengths, keep going and put failure behind you as quickly as possible. In most sports, we want our representatives to show a concentrated, determined calm, and we want them to keep trying until the end of the event.

Except in football. There, we want – at least, the vocal amongst us want – a traditional captain shouting at his players, we want Churchill in the dressing room at half time, and we want – those ever-changing other things that we want.

There’s something violent and punitive about all that, isn’t there? Always someone on the receiving end of something, whether a speech, a rant or a kick up the backside. I suspect that it’s always the same sort of people who urge on this kind of thing – that they think they are the salt-of-the-earth, university-of-life, common-sense ones – that they think they speak for the silent majority – that if they aren’t paid attention to, then they should be. I think they are the ones who crack under pressure – who can’t stand being isolated – who spend their time laughing too loud at the rest of the world with the boys in the crowd. Gents – and it’s mostly gents, if I’m not stretching the definition of gent too far – you’re hollow.

Is football different? So very different from this, say?

Because here’s a little slice of football, don’t you think, in the form of McEnroe, up against the ideal sportsperson, in the shape of Borg. Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, I was just a fan, of whatever I could find on television or in the park, and I was first for Connors and then for McEnroe. This was partly underdog support – Borg was just better than the pair of them – and partly a reflection of Borg’s pulling power. Girls liked him; I was a boy, so I liked his opponents. And I never quite got over the fact that I really enjoyed the kind of behaviour you could expect from Connors and McEnroe. And from the young Agassi after them.

Is football so different from other sports that the kind of mental state that flourishes in every other sport – including boxing – is to be mocked and derided? Or is the difference in our attitude towards football – is it that we don’t want it as a sport qua rowing or athletics, but a kind of national ritual to display what we hope are still our native characteristics? Even if those characteristics – all that bulldog stuff – mean that we fall short against teams who are prepared to be clever, or cunning, or even just prepared to pace themselves?

Thierry Henry said this week that his young Arsenal side now had the character to win titles. Did he mean that they had decided to become eleven Danny Millses? If not, what did he mean? That their skill had ceased to matter? That they had learned to toss tactics into the bin for the last fifteen minutes of every game and lump it up to the big man? That Henry himself was going to do a Gerrard and spend those last fifteen minutes hopelessly out of position, peppering the goal with hopeful long-range shots, seeking to be a hero? That they had all shaved off their hair and were now bawling at each other constantly? Or did he mean that they had learned faith in themselves sufficient to keep their shape for the whole length of the game, to keep on playing their way, confident that they can thereby come through often enough to make a difference?

So, heart-on-sleeve passion against calm and control. The tie-break continues:

I suppose it’s inevitable that of the three men – Borg, Connors and McEnroe – it’s been the latter who has been taken to the English bosom, and it’s been the latter who has reflected most usefully on his career and experiences.

There are three points to take from McEnroe, to be distinguished from the points we’ve just seen Borg take from him. First, that social background and wealth have no impact on sporting desire. McEnroe came from a family who’d be considered extremely wealthy over here. (For that matter, Frank Lampard’s weren’t exactly poverty-stricken, nor Michael Owen’s, and I could go on). Second, that you can care too much and that can lower the quality of your play. Third, that “personality” is less effective in the big arena than none at all. McEnroe was number one in the world for a long time – but how many like him have been, compared to men like Federer and Sampras? The greatest tennis players have been the cool heads, or, like Borg and Agassi, have made themselves into cool heads. Brad Gilbert is trying the same thing with Andy Murray, with notable success. Oh, and tell me about Murray’s poverty-stricken background and good traditional working class values while we’re on the subject. No?

McEnroe wins the tie-break, but loses the match.

McEnroe is loved here now not because he was a great champion, or a beautiful player to watch, although he was both. He’s loved because he has said the right things to us late in the day, and because, through the window of time, his personality-driven “performances” have become the subject of comic nostalgia. And it’s nice – that niceness that’s part of the genuine pleasure of watching Wimbledon, or almost any UK broadcast golf.

I noticed yesterday that the DVD of the 2006 Ryder Cup is out. Here’s what’s written on the cover:

It has been called the greatest Ryder Cup in history and surely none of the tens of thousands present at The K Club, or the one billion people watching the event live on TV would disagree!

For noise, passion and emotion The 36th Ryder Cup, played for the first time in Ireland, is unmatched. Europe, with arguably their finest team performance ever, made history by winning the Samuel Ryder Trophy for a third successive time.

From the courageous Darren Clarke, who was carried along on a wave of home support, to the sensational Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie, once more the heartbeat of the European team, Captain Ian Woosnam had a dozen dynamic heroes. Just as at Oakland Hills, two years earlier, the American side were again overwhelmed by the record score of 18½ points to 9½.

I swear this nonsense is spreading. Mark my words. It’ll be chess, next. And then it’ll be fishing.

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Football: The New Religion?

Posted on 16 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

Football’s full of throwaway lines – and this is one of them: the game as religion, the grounds as cathedrals, the supporters as worshippers. Throw in Bill Shankly’s life-and-death quip and you have the perfect metaphor for a country that went from Vitae Lampada to Itchycoo Park in two generations. Like so many of these things, when you look more closely it all falls apart. But in this case, the falling apart leaves something behind that is far more interesting and thought-provoking.

The great post-Suez decline in churchgoing and in new vocations was every bit as anti-Betjeman as the destruction of our town and city centres 1955-75, the Beeching Programme or Mission Praise. It goes to show that football doesn’t always follow other trends in society: three of my “best-ever” England sides came and went in 1955-75, and British club sides, along with Italy’s and Spain’s, dominated the European competitions. Religion’s perceived decline, at its steepest in the sixties, left people wondering if a vacuum would be left in its wake, that other things would rush in to fill. Drugs, shopping, television – football.

But there are at least two stuns to memory operating here. In the first instance, we’ve forgotten what an architectural holocaust the 1880s and 1890s were – the Victorians built their townscapes on top of older things, and, especially in relation to London, there are thousands of mournful photographs of lovely Stuart and Georgian buildings, taken by sad men and women who had no mechanism to protect these ancient, beautiful things. And we’ve forgotten that the real damage to universal religion in England – if it ever existed – came via industrialization and population growth. By the 1850s, by Church of England reckoning, there was space in the nation’s places of worship for less than half of the living population. The problem was worst in the cities, and there, if anywhere, would have been the vacuum left by religion: all one can say for the proposed vacuum fillers is that they took their time turning up.

By the time I developed my own religious life, all of that was long in the past, and football was creeping towards the end of the dark days of hooliganism, bankruptcy and shattered old stadia. As the only Christian in my family, I learned early on the extent of the dislike and resentment the Church, indeed churches, generates, how much of that is actually richly deserved, and how bizarre the attempts to reduce or deflect it have been. As I write I get a picture in my mind of a gowned cleric in the foothills of old age laughing as he toepunts a football in front of the local press…

…and I found out the difference between the lay idea of what “having religion” means and what it actually entails. I’m not going to enter into a full discussion of that here; suffice to say that if religion is a crutch, then you have that crutch with you wherever you go, even on your way down the stairs at Hampstead (Northern Line) when the lifts are out of order.

Instead, let’s compare football-as-religion with religion-as-religion.

Football stadia are constantly compared to cathedrals, and like cathedrals they can be spectacular, area-dominating structures pulling in large numbers of people. The largest English cathedrals, when full, typically hold somewhere in the region of 2000 people. On Saturday 13th January, 2,547 people saw Rochdale lose 1-0 to Bristol Rovers. Football, at almost any level, has a pull that completely eclipses anything any church has ever managed. If Spotland Stadium, home to perhaps the least successful club in League history, is outselling Ely Cathedral (to which entry is free) and has been doing so since before the decline in religion is supposed to have begun, then we can at least say that football isn’t filling any kind of vacuum but exists for its own sake.

That’s not to say that people don’t worry about football taking religion’s place. They do. Here’s a lengthy discussion of the relationship between football and Islam, written from a Muslim point of view.

Certainly, the parts of religion that most intrude on you when you are deeply involved in it don’t seem to have direct equivalents in football. Football tells me nothing as to why I exist. But it can provide a secondary level of meaning. Because I really do care about what happens to the small number of clubs whose results I look out for. (We all have a little stable of clubs, don’t we – one main one, and some minor ones we become affectionate towards for one reason or another.) If things are going badly in my own life, it does help if one or another of my clubs is doing well – it really makes things better for me. But it’s no good in the face of death. (Cricket might be good in the face of death, though – how many dying men’s last words have been an enquiry as to the score? I’ve always wanted to die at a cricket match, quietly in a deckchair with a broadsheet newspaper over my face.)

Nor does football tell me a great deal about how to live my life. It’s a comment I often hear both from foreign friends and from foreign-born clients – that the British just don’t know how to live, a comment usually made in response to a visit to the High Street on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening.

But it does tell some people some things. How to operate within a team – how to play “fair” with others – how to lose gracefully – to keep on trying – to do your best – to channel your energies in productive ways – to control your emotions. These are real life lessons. Yet aren’t they all the result of playing football, when the “religion” metaphor is mostly about watching the game? Hints there of that lay idea about Christianity, that it’s all about going to church. (C.S. Lewis was right about going to church – it’s all about tolerating people who are different from you and never living up to the tenets of their faith and enduring your wrongheaded vicar and putting up with boredom and stupid music and uncomfortable chairs and – these days – getting through the “Peace” without making a dash for safety. Not unlike playing football altogether, and, in some instances, not unremoved from watching it, although this definitely isn’t what people mean when they describe football as a religion!)

What about the relationship between football support as a gesture of allegiance, versus religious sectarianism? Of course, there is a point to be made there. I don’t like hostile club rivalries, and I don’t like religious sectarianism (nor do I like the intellectual dishonesty behind the idea that all religions are different ways up the same mountain). The two collide all the time, most obviously in Glasgow and Edinburgh with Rangers/Celtic and Hearts/Hibs respectively dividing the cities along a Protestant/Catholic divide replete with malice and stupidity.

So, yes, there are parallels and meeting places – but no, this isn’t what people mean by football as religion.

The religious allegiance is, in any case, of a particular kind. Even Anglicans do not pelt God with tomatoes when he comes back from the World Cup in disgrace. We do not seek to have him sacked and replaced with Martin O’Neill. We do not think he would do better if he had a holding midfielder behind him to free him up for those rampaging runs into the box. We do not stage protests at the way he starves the manager of funds in the transfer market.

I can imagine Anglican men, working themselves to death on the Burma Railway, giving God three games to get things back on track. But let’s keep these metaphors at an appropriate level. Between 100,000 and 170,000 people died building the Death Railway, and it’s in those sorts of conditions that you discover which metaphors hold, and which are frivolous.

Nor does football give me any sense of what will happen to me when I die.

More of us have done that peculiar, modern, Cupittian thing of internalising our religion: privatising it in the knowledge that there isn’t anything or anyone actually “out there”. One of the oddest hunches – false hunches – that history can give you is the sense that there was once something and someone out there, someone who coped badly with the aftermath of a drinking bout with David Hume and was subsequently voted out of the League along with Barrow and Workington.

At the same time, history also shows the place that religion actually had in pre-Darwinian, pre-Enlightenment society, and it isn’t what many people might think. Outside of the plague years, the general population seem to have been quite content to leave religion to the religious and to the clergy. In some parts of medieval Europe, religion was left to professionals. Ottonian Germany used monasteries as prayer banks, covering the sins of the warrior castes with supplication and worship, and as depositories for otherwise-dangerous non-inheriting second and third and fourth sons. Nunneries too were prayer banks, but also safe havens for heiresses otherwise in danger of kidnap from said non-inheriting second sons. In some places, southern France being a case in point at about this time (c.1000) inevitable warrior caste rule could lead to effective anarchy and mayhem, which the larger church would occasionally seek to damp down.

The religion of men such as Otto I had something distinctly fetishistic about it. Holy relics were considered possessed of great power, and Otto’s own large collection played a significant part in his personal preparation for the Battle of Lechfield in August 955.

Holy relics.. there’s an echo there, isn’t there, of the huge market in football memorabilia that thrives on Ebay and elsewhere today. Perhaps the most famous piece of memorabilia is Michael Browne’s painting The Art of the Game, which displays Eric Cantona rising from the dead in Christ-like fashion whilst his MUFC colleagues (who look very young compared to the way they look today) lounge about in Roman uniforms.

It’s a religious image, sure – but, and I’ll come back to this, it’s also a military one.

I’ve mentioned here before that football grounds are becoming cathedral-like in another respect, that is, the accumulation of memorials to the glorious dead. That thought was triggered by my visit to Craven Cottage last year, when Fulham had just renamed a stand after Johnny Haynes, and were encouraging fans to sign an enormous “Johnny Haynes shirt” for the club museum.

I might have spoken too soon. A brief survey of the Premiership clubs reveals that there’s been relatively little memorialising going on, and most of what has been done has little to do with football as religion.

Manchester United have the Munich memorial, and a statue of Matt Busby. Liverpool have the Hillsborough Memorial, a statue of Bill Shankly, and gates named for Shankly and also Bob Paisley. Charlton have a statue of Sam Bertram, and a stand named for Jimmy Seed. St James’ Park, Newcastle, where you might have expected this kind of thing to be let rip, have a bar named after Alan Shearer which contains the stone steps from the long-vanished Gallowgate stand. Arsenal have a bust of Herbert Chapman, and will have the Highbury Clock in due course. Beyond that, it’s all stand renamings. It doesn’t amount to much, and I must admit I’m surprised (and quite pleased) by that. It turns out that the over-obsession with historical minutiae and absurdly minor commorations (“it’s forty years since Peterborough scored two goals at Burnden Park” etc.) is all commentator’s colour. It’s all about trying to find something to say about a match. It’s not a reflection of a culture taking a morbid turn.

What’s more, a large proportion of Premiership stadia are either brand new, or so heavily rebuilt in recent years as to be unrecognisable. The problem many clubs now face is how, having moved to a beautiful new high-capacity ground, to recapture the atmosphere of the old one.

It’s something the Church never quite pulled off. When Richard Poore moved the bishopric of Salisbury away from its traditional ground at Old Sarum, it was to a brilliant new cathedral on a new site. Like Ashburton Grove, the new building was architecturally consistent, in the Early English style. I have to say, it lacks something next to e.g. Wells, Winchester, and, most of all, Canterbury. Even the Close fails to awaken anything in me, and I can’t see any future memorial to Ted Heath changing that.

But then – exciting my emotions is all what a football ground is supposed to be about. Not the emotions I want raised by a cathedral or church – nothing reflective or eternal. If football is a religion, it’s one that exists to service emotional needs quite unlike any of the great religions of history.

Think of what we want from sportsmen in Britain. The following, now offline but written in response to the last England Ashes defeat, puts it particularly well:

In blighty, there are millions and millions of sporting fans who work hard, pay taxes, put up with a lot of sh** with the weather, the public transport, crime, rip-off prices and cr** food. All we ask for in return for putting up with this miserable life is a bit of pride from our national football and cricket teams.

The football team is made up of overpaid thugs who have as much pride in wearing the national shirt as Borat does in donning his tight-fitting thong. And what do we get from our cricketers on a mission more important than the moon landing of 1969? Here’s what we get; Marcus Trescothick feeling homesick so has to go home; Harmison homesick and bowling balls in the direction he throws his toys out of the cot; Ashley Giles spinning the ball about every 20 overs; the two wicket-keepers holding the bat as if it is a live grenade; Saj Mahmood looking like the world has come to an end whether he bowls bats or fields; dropped catches; lousy bowling; key advantage points lost; poor captaincy; capitulation by the lower order on a regular basis. The list, I’m afraid, goes on and on and on.

And some bread and butter from the ECB (David Collier) I think actually defending the massive cost of bringing out wives, girlfriends and children (some of them at an age now to suggest there had been clearly too much jiggery-pokery on the last winter tour). Sitting in the cold in Clapton, east London, I see life very differently. If I was honoured to be picked to represent my country at cricket and play in an Ashes series, to stay in five-star hotels, to pit myself against the best in the world, I think I may just be able to motivate myself and put in a performance that my fellow suffering countrymen back home would be proud of.

What we have witnessed is a spineless, gutless capitulation.

It isn’t winning. It’s pride. It’s a display of courage, of pluck. We want our footballers, indeed our sportsmen in general, to display a particular sort of puissance: to embody on our behalf some basic virtues that we value. It’s more important than skill, or beauty. When a non-league team goes to a Premiership club and loses by a couple of goals in each half, but runs itself into the ground until the final whistle, both sets of fans will stand to cheer that team off the pitch.

Much as we enjoyed winning the Rugby World Cup in 2003, there was still a feeling that our failure to come out and attack – to win through pack strength and the boot of Johnny Wilkinson – wasn’t quite what we loved. Jason Robinson’s great try in the Final gave us permission to really celebrate: had we won without a touchdown, I wonder.

All of this – the desire for a group of men to embody values on our behalf, the fetishistic collecting of objects connected to them, the ability to turn on them viciously if they let us down, the wearing of colours and singing of songs, the local rivalries, even the fan violence – all sounds less like religion to me – and a lot more like the behaviour of one of those medieval warrior castes and their coteries. In fact, it sounds exactly like that. And I find that interesting, because precisely none of the people concerned has any idea of the parallels between what they are doing and events in some mead hall in the Dark Ages.

And suddenly, the war comparisons leap forth, don’t they? We want players who are fighters, we bombard the opposition penalty area, but despite that, the other team are killing us. We’re not on the march with Ally’s Army, not any more. Campbell is a Judas, but we really mean he’s a Quisling.

It all brings us back to Vitae Lampada, but also perhaps to another Newbolt verse, taken from “He Fell Amongst Thieves’: our hero awaits execution at dawn at the hands of the tribesmen who have betrayed him:

He did not hear the monotonous roar that fills
The ravine where the Yassin river sullenly flows;
He did not see the starlight on the Laspur hills,
Or the far Afghan snows.

He saw the April noon on his books aglow,
The wistaria trailing in at the window wide;
He heard his father’s voice from the terrace below
Calling him down to ride.

He saw the gray little church across the park,
The mounds that hid the loved and honoured dead;
The Norman arch, the chancel softly dark,
The brasses black and red.

He saw the School Close, sunny and green,
The runner beside him, the stand by the parapet wall,
The distant tape, and the crowd roaring between,
His own name over all.

He saw the dark wainscot and timbered roof,
The long tables, and the faces merry and keen;
The College Eight and their trainer dining aloof,
The Dons on the dais serene.

He watched the liner’s stem ploughing the foam,
He felt her trembling speed and the thrash of her screw;
He heard the passengers’ voices talking of home,
He saw the flag she flew.

And now it was dawn. He rose strong on his feet,
And strode to his ruined camp below the wood;
He drank the breath of the morning cool and sweet:
His murderers round him stood.

Light on the Laspur hills was broadening fast,
The blood-red snow-peaks chilled to dazzling white:
He turned, and saw the golden circle at last,
Cut by the Eastern height.

“O glorious Life, Who dwellest in earth and sun,
I have lived, I praise and adore Thee.”
A sword swept.
Over the pass the voices one by one
Faded, and the hill slept.

We don’t feel that way about real war anymore, but the attitude has nonetheless found itself a new home to go to, and lives on in a modern form. It was the Great War that did for all of that, of course. The famous 1914 truce, discussed in yesterday’s England v Germany video, took place after four months of unprecedented horror and bloodshed, during which officers and men of both sides had attacked whilst kicking footballs out ahead of them. There was still little sense of what was to come, and the kind of thing that took place only a decade and a half before at Mafeking would soon be gone for good.

In April 1900, more Boer troops arrived to join the besieging forces surrounding the British at Mafeking. Among them was a young Field Cornet, by the name of Sarel Eloff, Kruger’s grandson. Eloff was keen to launch an all-out attack on the town, but General Snyman held him back. What he did then seems almost inexplicable to us.

He sent Baden-Powell, the British commander, a message suggesting that Eloff bring a Boer cricket team into Mafeking to play the British.

I suppose it would have helped pass the time, but even so!

Baden-Powell’s reply was equal to the occasion.

Just now we are having our innings and have so far scored 200 days, not out, against the bowling of Cronje, Snijman, Botha… and we are having a very enjoyable game.

It’s magnificent, but I think we’re content to internalise the football-war links now: we want football to present us with a display of the virtues that we think might be worthy in the kind of old-fashioned war we know we can no longer have. War never really was like that, of course.

In fact, I think that’s the key to the real value of football now. For the first time in history, in the forms of football and (I think) manned spaceflight, mankind has things more exciting than war to get on with. Football in particular seems able to suck into itself the kind of desires and emotions that otherwise spill over into actual, not feigned, conflict. And it does so leaving us with honour, reminding us that

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind -
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

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A Good Use For The Game

Posted on 22 March 2006 by JamesHamilton

In the Netherlands, a Muslim football team and a gay football team played each other to prove that after all, it is possible for us all to just get along. (Hat tip: Norm). The Muslims won 4-0:

The soccer tournament was organized as part of a conference on fighting discrimination against immigrants who come out as gay — particularly, against gay Muslims by other Muslims.

As well as gays playing against Muslims, a team of women played Latinos, with some players swapping sides to illustrate competing identities.

Long renowned for its tolerance and liberal attitudes on issues such as gay marriage and cannabis use, social tensions have risen in The Netherlands since the 2002 murder of openly gay anti-immigration populist Pim Fortuyn.

High-profile attacks on homosexuals in Amsterdam last year stoked a debate about homophobia blamed on the country’s growing immigrant community — particularly Muslims, who make up 6 percent of the Dutch population of around 16 million.

A survey published last week showed that about 40 percent of the gays polled believed that violence and aggression against them was on the rise, while about the same number said they were the victim of homophobic abuse last year, most of it verbal.

It can be done: England v. Germany is just a football match these days, the game sucking up all of the old hatreds and putting them somewhere where they can be got off the chest safely. (Although the Germans really don’t understand the English take on that – their great cultural enemies are the same Dutch mentioned above).

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Jose Mourinho – The Mind of the Chelsea Manager

Posted on 17 March 2006 by JamesHamilton

What follows is a thinkpiece I created for IMGTV in relation to their August 2005 programme, “Being Jose Mourinho”.


An attempt to answer three questions: what sort of man is JM? what sort of man does what he does? and how does he do it?

Football is a game full of men who are motivated by the pain of failure: they hate losing, they fear losing, and they mark defeat with some of the most emphatic body language to be seen anywhere. For men such as this, victory is as much a relief as it is a triumph – note how similar the scenes at MUFC’s FA Cup win in Cardiff in 2004 were to West Brom’s relegation survival game in 2005. Both in their own way showed the euphoria of escape. Roy Keane has commented far more often on shortcomings and failure than on success. Gudjohnsen commented before the Champions’ League semi-final with Liverpool that he “didn’t want to feel like that again”; he was referring to defeat in the same fixture to Monaco twelve months ago.

JM is the opposite of this. He moves towards the things that challenge and please him. He comments that he could have stayed at Porto and been a hero for the rest of his days; instead, he takes a job in what looked at the time like a managerial snakepit, Chelsea. He has turned it into something far more attractive and stable, but that was his doing, and it’s his willingness to do that that is interesting. Erickson is of the same mould, but not Wenger. Ferguson once was, but no more.

The psychologically significant characteristic of JM in this regard is his attitude to failure and mistakes. He seems to regard himself – his specific person – separately from what he does and accomplishes. If he makes a serious error, he does not interpret it as a comment upon himself or upon his ability. He cannot be damaged at the level of his own identity by error. Neither does he take error and setback as predictions. Learning situations, perhaps, but not a means to tell the future. At the end of Chelsea’s (unsuccessful) Champions’ League semi-final, it’s notable how quickly he turned the attention of his press conference to the future.

In relation to this, JM is curious – he is a noted learner. That small elite of international coaches are all characterised by the depth of their study of the game; only JM and Steve McClaren actually took time off from their careers to learn more, and only JM has encapsulated his findings in the famous “black book” way. Unlike other coaches, JM takes the widest possible view of learning in relation to football – “what does he know of football that only football knows”; he is alleged to have acquaintance with literature and philosophy in additiion to fitness, tactics and coaching. Whilst this is the source of his confidence and certainty – he knows that none of the competition can match his knowledge across the board – he takes no kind of pride in knowing more than others – he still sees learning more as more important than resting on his laurels.

Another facet of his moving towards what he wants and enjoys is his energy. Energy has to do with physical fitness, to be sure, and JM is fit. But it is as much to do with psychological energy. JM is not sapped by self-recrimination or self-doubt because of his attitude to error and failure, as above. He is able to remain interested in trying again, in moving forward, in seeking out new approaches and new experiences.

Likewise, he is willing to take risks. He has put himself in a position to take informed risks – see learning – and he knows he is not going to suffer unduly psychologically if they don’t come off. So dramatic gestures such as the triple substitution in the FA Cup against Newcastle are open to him where lesser managers would have neither the knowledge nor the attitude to attempt anything so bold. (It’ll be interesting to go over the pattern of his substitutions across the course of the season). Going to Chelsea was a risk; his various, deliberate run-ins with authority have been risks.

This moving-towards meme is also visible in his attitude towards his players. It’s very much the British way to take too much out of a player in terms of what they CAN do, and then to hammer them repeatedly over what they can’t do (Hoddle’s relationship with Beckham is a superb example of this). JM seems to concentrate on improving what is already there – as exemplified by the success of mediocrities such as Carvalho. What JM has done to transform Joe Cole seems different but it isn’t: he hasn’t attempted to add anything to Cole’s range of skills, just make them team-friendly. Cole is not the only Chelsea player who has had his in-team performance transformed, but he’s the obvious focus for media opinion given the frustration of Erickson et al with him.

JM operates with an internal frame of reference. That is, JM is genuinely his own judge as to his performance, his next action, his relationships; the opinion of other people is feedback and input, but never decisive. For all his recent denials, this is where I would put his “special one” comment: he knows his ability, and that knowledge is not open to adjustment by the opinions of other people.

The advantages of this to a football manager are many: how many managers end up selecting their team in line with their press coverage? JM seems to regard his relations with the press lightly, seeking only to shield his players from its pressure. If it’s JM being pilloried by the press, or by UEFA, then it’s not his players, and he is unlikely to be psychologically hurt by whatever is said about him, all the less for having provoked such comment deliberately.

JM is what is called a mismatcher – a noticer of differences. This is another vital part of the makeup of the small elite group of managers. Attention to detail, which is one facet of noticing differences, is one of the two important means of motivating players, of being a leader (the other component is the communication of certainty). In JM’s case, he watches a game of football in a different way from most managers, indeed, most people. In talking of a game of football as consisting of 3d movement, JM notices multiple patterns where his competitors notice only one. In one Portuguese game, he substitutes his centre forward, who had just scored, because he had noticed a pattern in play that everyone else had missed completely, that he felt was better exploited by a different kind of player. (It will be interesting to compare JM’s decisions with the automated Championship Manager ones).

Roy Keane’s autobiography constantly calls attention to the importance of attention to detail for players. It’s more than just diet, or making sure that training facilities are adequate. It’s the difference between treating all players in the same way, and knowing how to manage each player in relation to their own individual personality. It’s the search for new ways in which to give players the opportunity to improve, more, than their competitors. The eagerness of players to join Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea is as much that they are sure to become better players and perhaps internationals, as it is for the money.

JM as a mismatcher is a man in search of new experience and variety, and he will bring these things to his players also. Players comment about all of the small elite group of managers that training is more various, more interesting, with them than with the mass of bosses. JM has had an extremely good idea of how he wants training to be at his club for a long time; variety, at Chelsea, has come as much by building a new training ground (where Ranieri and Vialli failed, notably) as by ringing the changes in an already various routine.

JM’s status as a mismatcher – a noticer of differences – has given him one advantage that seems unique among even the elite group of managers. He sees his communication and relationship with the Chelsea owner and board as equally important as those he has with his players. I know of no similar example anywhere. By taking intense care of his relations with the board, he maximises his decision making capability, and minimises his complications. So, he writes a report (daily or weekly; I forget) for Abramovich, explaining what he does and why. Equally, he keeps the lower echelons of the club involved.

In understanding JM, it’s important to compare how he becomes acquainted with other people’s ability as compared with other managers. As with all of the elite group, he needs to see a player himself to be convinced of their worth or otherwise. In terms of skill and ability, he needs perhaps a couple of training sessions – no more. In terms of character – none of the elite group will work with bad-attitude players, whatever their level of skill – JM seems to need a maximum of two weeks to know if he wants to work with a player or not. One of the key differences between JM and the non-elite coaches is that the latter group can take up to two years to decide whether or not a face fits. They lack workable criteria to make that kind of decision in the optimum time frame. JM’s criteria are relatively fixed, but he is still willing to make a mistake (he seems open to have Crespo back at Chelsea, for instance) as we have discussed above. Many “average” managers will buy on the strength of scouts’ opinions alone; if a player’s face doesn’t fit, they won’t communicate this, leaving that player in the dark and taking that much energy out of the team unit.

JM is motivated by what is possible, not by what is necessary. This is a common trait amongst the elite group of managers – none of whom have any need to do football as opposed to anything else. But JM has used the freedom this basic trait allows more liberally than most. Taking time out of his career to focus on creating his coaching “black book” would have been looked on as suicidal by all of his contemporaries, who would have urged him to take a job, any job – and indeed, not to have left his old job without having a new one lined up. Only Wenger’s trip to Japan is comparable among the managers currently in the English game. Likewise, he was remarkably unwilling to be intimidated by the pursuit of a quadruple for much of the season – he didn’t feel compelled to write off the possibility or to play it down – it excited him, and he saw it as doable. Again, his adventurous substitutions come in here. As does his failure to rest his principle players in the run-in to the title, where many managers would have been tempted to win the title more slowly by grinding out results with bit-part players, JM (who doesn’t have bit-part players) went for it. Wenger and Bryan Robson are two other managers who successfully ignore “necessity” and achieve playing football their way, having seen the possibility and opted for it.

JM operates what is called a “proximity strategy” at Chelsea. Namely, he works in a group of people, but he is in charge. Whilst his relationship with his players is notably warmer and closer than that of either Ferguson or Wenger, to the point where one wonders if he is committing the ultimate managerial sin of befriending his players, in my opinion the fact remains that he has made them “his” players by one means or another. They owe their position to him, and feel that emotionally. Either he inherited them from Ranieri and made them his own by keeping them (Gudjohnsen, Terry, Lampard) or he brought them with him from Porto (e.g. Carvalho) or he bought them (Drogba).

JM motivates his players by: providing them with certainty and attention to detail, by fostering a them-against-us attitude (in the pure Ferguson style), by building on their strengths, not hammering on their weaknesses, and by making them his overt choices. Unsurprisingly, his players report that he makes them feel like “big men”. He is a communicator and explainer, not an autocrat, and tells the players why he wants a particular approach taken, a specific tactic adopted. The certainty he gives them has two sources. His own certainty, first of all, is based upon his preparation and intelligence, and his awareness of both of these. He is better suited to the job than most managers, he has prepared vastly better, and he knows it. Secondly, because his training methods are more effective than other managers’, his players realise quickly that he is indeed able to improve them as players and as a team, thus to take them to the fulfilment of their ambitions. If they go along with JM, they will achieve what they want to achieve. The them-against-us attitude, of course, comes from generating anti-Chelsea press and then telling the team that no one wants them to win, that everyone hates them. This tactic is being applied to a group that he has already chosen for its group dynamic in the first place, so it is doubly effective (it wouldn’t have any effect on a disparate group of players who don’t get on with each other). JM has explicit team and training reasons for his belief in a 24-man squad; one reason must surely be that 24 men can continue as a viable unit where the 33-34 of MUFC cannot; 24 men can all expect to take some significant part in events, unless their name is Scott Parker. But JM’s slashing of the Chelsea squad means that those left are the survivors: “chosen men” in the military parlance.

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