Monday, 21 June 2010

Would More Mystique Help England?

Well, well, yet another English sporting campaign veers off target.

Having come to London from Downunder 16 years ago, I've had many opportunities to wonder what lies at the heart of this strange English tradition - and equally why, occasionally, the Ashes are won or a rugby world cup victory is achieved.

Of course there's nothing peculiarly English about losing sporting series or tournaments. Even the All Blacks have problems winning a second World Cup, despite the Haka, being ranked first in world rugby and winning the most games in the lead-up years on two occasions (both won by the Springboks).

But what is singular is the consistency with which English national teams that appeared to be capable of winning on paper seem to fracture internally or never gel in the first place. Note the entire French football team has gone on strike in this World Cup, leaving their manager to explain, as opposed to an individual English player holding his own press conference about a challenge to the manager, and another player holding a press conference to allay concerns.

It's tough to find a root cause for this tendency to fizz rather than bang. But this latest melodrama suggests to me there's no great shared mystique associated with an England cap, no sense of a higher calling that subordinates all the individual egos in the team and galvanises them in pursuit of victory. No ethereal link between all players, past and present, that drives a steadfast belief that England will do whatever it takes to win.

At least not on the scale of, say, Brazil, or the way an All Black, Springbok or Wallaby jersey, or the 'baggy green' cricket cap, appear to transform and bind those who wear them into a cohesive unit, more often than not. Manchester United has succeeded at creating this sort of mystique, so that no player would claim to be more important than their club. But any attempts at branding the England team (as opposed to the 1966 England team) as bigger than the stars who play in it from time to time seem to have fallen well short of the others I mentioned.

So how could such a team mystique be generated?

Sir Clive Woodward appeared to build mystique around the England rugby team, which he coached from 1997 to 2004 (59 wins, 2 draws, 22 losses - and a World Cup). Only Jack Rowell (1994-1997) had a slightly better win record, though he only coached 29 games - and no World Cup. There have been 5 England coaches over the past 6 seasons. In 2003 the England rugby team was ranked first in the world, yet today it is sixth - behind New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, France and Ireland. The following extract from a report of Woodward's departure points to some of his distinctive methods (tellingly, these also earned him a reputation in England as "the crazy professor"):
"Woodward went as far as asking BBC TV's Changing Rooms team to revamp the home dressing rooms at Twickenham.

He set high standard of discipline for his players. They were banned from swearing in public and had to adhere to "Lombardi time" - named after the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi - meaning they had to be 10 minutes early for all pre-arranged meetings.

Anyone who made public what went on inside the camp was out - as hooker Richard Cockerill found to his cost when he spilt the beans to the media and was never selected by Woodward again.

Woodward was fiercely loyal to those players who believed in him.

On tour in South Africa, he moved them out of their hotel - booked by the RFU - when he deemed it sub-standard, and took them instead to a five-star establishment.

"Who is paying for this?" asked the concerned hotel manageress.

"I am," replied Woodward, handing her his credit card."
One obstacle to building team mystique may be the English media, as is hinted at in Woodward's sacking of Richard Cockerill. They seem more focused on the foibles of individual players rather than the success of the national sides. And that approach probably suits the tabloids in particular, who would otherwise lose valuable sources of content. So it's important to persuade the players of the value in controlling themselves in this department.

A worthy example of a mystique-building approach to an individual tournament was that of Alan Bond's Australia II syndicate, in their successful attempt to win the America's Cup for the first time in 1983. Their efforts included shrouding the winged-keel; flying a vivid re-design of the boxing Kangaroo flag; reviving the 1981 Men At Work song "Down Under" and ensuring it was played loudly every time the yacht entered or left Newport harbour; and putting the crew through a fairly public, brutal, early-morning physical training regime.

But possibly the best team mystique award should go to America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, who've won an NFL record 33 of 55 postseason games, the longest consecutive streak of winning seasons (20), the most appearances in the NFC Championship Game (14), and the most Super Bowl appearances (8), of which they've won 5 during two periods of sustained success, 1966-85 and 1992-96. I confess to having been a fan since 1981.

The complexity of American Football defies any brief summary of the mystique-building tactics that supported this level of sustained success. And the fact that Woodward borrowed from Lombardi's playbook in this regard suggests that the Cowboys' ethos may be too much to instil rapidly. But it is worth noting that the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders squad has evolved from this in 1969:

... to this in 2009:

Perhaps England teams should employ such mystique-building tactics to more tightly bind successive star players to the plight of the team and instil the sense of belief that seems to be lacking...

She'll tell you the same thing.

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