Kervin on Woodward

One late addition to my books of the year is Alison Kervin’s Clive Woodward: The Biography.

Usually a sporting biography will fall into one of these categories:

  • The pointless but money-spinning autobiography
  • The tabloid hatchet job
  • The ivory tower hatchet job
  • The hagiography

Kervin manages to stay clear of any of these, partly because she is genuinely finds Clive Woodward interesting. That doesn’t happen often in sports biography. I wonder how it’s selling?

She builds up a complex picture of her subject, which is why I’m not going to attempt a five-word summary. Enough to say that the usual themes are very much in evidence. Defeat and desperation drives reluctant change in traditional sport with spectacular results, but because few people are comfortable with innovation on that scale, everything new is jettisoned as soon as possible after the victory which is credited to traditional English sporting values. And the usual picture is there: our sportsmen are as talented as their foreign opponents, but our sports don’t attract sufficient numbers of intelligent, imaginative, communicative people to sustain a top-level coaching regime so there is no one around capable of pulling the talent together into a successful unit.

All of which rather highlights one of only two weaknesses in the book. Kervin is apt to describe anyone with new ideas in the same way: Paddi Lund, who had a huge impact on Woodward, is described as “crazy”, and Woodward himself as “nuts”. It’s not much of a weakness – her lengthy description of Lund’s ideas is actually better than Lund’s, and she takes what he has to say seriously enough. But who’s bats now? Woodward? or the people running English rugby with such effect that we lose at home to Argentina?

I’d also like to have known about Woodward’s business career in much greater detail – we learn that he has been financially very successful, but not how – I want to learn what it was he did, specifically, day to day.

Kervin’s is also the first account we have of Woodward’s Southampton. I’m personally bitter that he has been forced out of football and I’m eagerly awaiting the nemesis of the vandals responsible for that. Luckily, Simon Clifford, with Woodward at Southampton, is still in football, but what follows shows just how much work he and the few like him still have to do:

The situation reached an all-time low when Clifford told a local newspaper that, in his opinion, professional players did not work hard enough. ‘I said it because I believe it,’ Clifford said afterwards. ‘But one of the coaches copied the article and stuck it on all the players’ lockers. I found it hard to stay from that moment on. The cuttings were up on the lockers for 72 hours. Now if that had happened to another member of staff, the chairman would have hit the roof. But because it was among the coaching staff, nothing happened. To me, the fact that that kind of thing was allowed was a sign there was something wrong with the coaching culture at the club. When I asked one player why the piece hadn’t been torn down, he told me he couldn’t touch it because he wanted to keep his place in the side.’

Clifford was very critical of this ‘fear factor’, whereby players were warned about speaking up or standing out from the crowd. No one pulled his notice down because no one wanted to step out of line. Clifford also spoke about the ‘busy bastard’ mentality at Southampton – saying players were accused to being ‘busy bastards’ as soon as they did any work other than that which was directly forced on them. When Clifford ran early-morning training sessions, he said they left the players tired after 45 minutes. ‘This was a team which had been relegated the previous year, and this season they’re still letting results slip in the last five or ten minutes of a game. Right now at Southampton, goal scoring is a problem but I didn’t see one player hitting a ball in a shooting exercise,’ he said. But none of the players wanted to do extra training, or spend hours alone with a ball. That was being a ‘busy bastard’, and though men like Steve Redgrave, Jonny Wilkinson, Freddie Flintoff and Ronaldo may have been the busiest bastards in sport, no one at Southampton would tolerate it.

Not that things were all that easier for Woodward, despite a warmer relationship with Harry Redknapp than was reported at the time. Of Clive at Southampton, Kervin has this to say:

I recall being at a drinks party soon after Clive had done this (attempt to improve Nigel Quashie’s kicking of the ball), and news of his ‘arrogance’ had swept through the media. A highly respected football writer told me the story of how Clive had dared to suggest to a player that he could improve his kicking. ‘What makes you think he can’t?’ I asked innocently. ‘What makes you think Clive cannot bring in a host of professionals who could totally transform the guy’s kicking?’ The journalist’s response was that Quashie wouldn’t be in the team if he couldn’t kick. That’s true, too. But what about improving performance? It happens in every other discipline – sporting or otherwise. The greatest writers still have agents, editors and publishers to advise them. Their work is edited. No one is perfect. The perfect footballer will never exist. It is in the striving for perfection that the essence of coaching can be found.

The fact that the striving in football stopped once the phone call had been made and the cheque signed was a source of constant frustration for Clive. He felt it created a block in the skills being learned by players in most English clubs. Jonny Wilkinson was taught to improve his kicking every day of his life, and he could hit a centimetre square target by the time he ran out for the World Cup final. Football players across the country were missing the goalmouth because no one was improving them, motivating them, inspiring them, explaining to them, giving them feedback, testing them under pressure.

I’m writing in December 2006, and thus far Simon Clifford has seen two of his direct protegees play for England (Theo Walcott and Micah Richards). Not bad for a man who has spent less than three months working for a professional football club, really, is it? I wonder how well his fellow coaches at Southampton score? Redknapp himself can account for six significant England players, including his own son, plus Neil Ruddock who won his cap against Nigeria in 1994.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’d like to see Woodward and Clifford really given their head for a sustained period at a good club – nor that I think Southampton have passed up a supreme opportunity. Passing up opportunities – well, perhaps with the Ashes win and the Rugby World Cup, there are some signs that we as a sporting nation are beginning to take the odd chance when it comes. Here’s a footballing one, if we feel inclined.

1 Reply to “Kervin on Woodward”

  1. I missed all the fuss about teaching Quashie to kick, but before you get too carried away surely footballers experiment with how to kick a ball all the time. What are required are skills coaches such as Muniz at Tottenham

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