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England coaches join forces to talk tactics

Gordon Farquhar | 13:57 UK time, Friday, 23 October 2009

Sport? It's not about life and death. Know the next line?

Bill Shankly's insistence that football was, "more important than that," is one of the game's all-time great quotes. Of course, it's hyperbole, often taken out of context and every once in a while it's worth reminding ourselves of that.

So how refreshing to hear England's cricket coach Andy Flower, bring an audience of sport's biggest business hitters out of their orbital existence and back down to earth.

Holding his own on a panel which, probably for the first time, brought the head coaches of England's football, cricket and rugby union teams together to discuss their roles, Flower was contemplating how to deal with the big personalities, and how he keeps himself sane.

"Keeping things in perspective is the only way to do it. Training and playing as if it's life and death, but in the real knowledge that it's not, and that there are actually more important things about," said Flower.

"You can be obsessed with your sport, and obsessed with your skill, obsessed with the art of what you do, but also realise that it's not life and death and that the love of your family, or whatever your values are, are actually more important."

Martin Johnson is another not getting drawn into the "it's all about winning the big one" hype. Admittedly he can say this having lifted a World Cup, but he's adamant that sportsmen and women (and those of us who follow them) have to learn to appreciate the struggle.

"People always say to me, 'what's it like to win the World Cup?' Well, yeah, it was great, and that was the pinnacle, but for the players that did it, it was seven years of getting there that was what it's all about," he said.

"The symbol of it is lifting the trophy, but the six or seven years of ups and downs, of building yourself into a team that's capable of doing it, that's far more fun than the one game or one tournament.

"You always want to get there, but sometimes you won't. But to say that's been a waste of time trying to do it is wrong, because that's what you're in the sport for: to strive and to actually try to get there.

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"To try to get that across to our guys that actually striving and having bad moments in games and getting criticised by people who don't know what they're talking about is all part of it, and as long as you keep true to what you do, then you can be happy with yourself that you're going in the right direction."

Balance, perspective, hard work and self belief are, by common consent of this mutually respectful trio, the secrets of success: Fabio Capello retuned to a favourite theme of his. Overcoming fear.

"When I arrived here, I remember the first training. I was surprised, because the players were really good! I thought, what happened here? Such good players, why aren't they in the European Championship?" he said.

"I understood everything when we played against Switzerland. They were not the same players as in training.

"They played with fear, without confidence. I understand this is a big problem in the mind and we've worked a lot on this, and step by step, game after game, we've improved a lot."

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What impressed me about this trio, who were joined at the top table by legendary NFL coach Mike Holmgren, was their desire to learn from each other.

Capello admitted a fondness for rugby and ice hockey, volleyball and baseball. Johnson revealed one of his coaches had been spending time with British Sailing.

Flower's another fan of baseball, and Holmgren likes to get his players to watch other sports to appreciate excellence.

Modern coaches have to have an open mind, and increasingly the, "my way or the highway," characters are being left behind.

I want to finish where we started, with Bill Shankly, and the life and death stuff. This is from a transcript of an interview he gave on TV back in 1981. It's quite illuminating...

SHANKLY: "Everything I've got I owe to football. You only get out of the game what you put into it. So I put in all my heart and soul, to the extent that my family suffered."

INTERVIEWER: "Do you regret that at at all?"

SHANKLY: "I regret it very much. Somebody said: 'Football's a matter of life and death to you'. I said, 'Listen, it's more important than that'. And my family's suffered. They've been neglected."


  • Comment number 1.


  • Comment number 2.

    All three coaches have been in their jobs for fairly short periods of time. One of them is English and has been fairly unsuccessful. The other two of them are foreign and both have been relatively successful so far.

    I wonder if there is any significance to that? A look at the football Premier League offers more evidence: none the "big four" (or indeed the big five if you include Manchester City) is managed by an Englishman.

    Who, or rather where, are the top English coaches, in any of the big sports in this country?

  • Comment number 3.

    All of the coaches had interesting points to make and after listening to the interview I wish we could have heard more. The American perspective on coaching staff size was no big shock and to hear that rugby was following the same path to a certain extent was no surprise.
    What was a surprise is that no previous England football coach either saw or acted upon what he saw with regard to player/team confidence and attitude. It is something that I had suspected for a long time. Prior to the influx of foreign talent and pre Heysel, English teams and Celtic all won the European Cup whilst others such as Ipswich, Everton and Spurs were able to bring home Cup Winners Cups or UEFA Cups. This always suggested the talent existed and there has been no real reason to believe it magically evaporated. Post the European Single Market and freedom of movement the skill levels in the Premier League are much higher. There maybe fewer Englishmen in those teams but the ability is still there, it (the addition of more technically gifted players) has possibly improved skill levels overall. English teams now dominate the latter stages of the Champions League even if they don't always win it. My question is this: If Fabio Capello saw the confidence problem after one game against Switzerland why did no previous England manager see the problem and try to fix it? Were they all incompetent, blind to the issue or did they just hope miraculously it would go away? I am so glad we now have an England football manager who has the nous to spot a problem and isn't afraid to admit it exists and then deals with it. Ultimately whether England win a World Cup/European Championship or not I think this time we'll know for certain that if we fail that it won't be due to a lack of effort, team spirit or fear.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think that Estesark's questions are being asked by alot of people around the country.

    Speaking from the point of view of someone who wants to get into coaching with football, i think its clear that there is a transitionary period going on when it comes to management.

    Its clear that there is a new breed of english manager coming through, i use Paul Ince at Milton Keynes (despite the blackburn mistake) and Andy Scott at Brentford as examples of the new up and coming english managers. The modern English football manager has to deal with more pressure than that of managers from the Brian Clough, Bill Shankly eara.

    Where the has always been incredible pressure on the continent, there was a more laid back approach to the english game, and as our game takes on a more european mentality, its clear that there will be a generation of english managers who will miss out because there are more experianced foreign managers who have dealt with the pressure in their homelands.

    Also the difference may be that not many English players go abroad, whereas there foreign counterparts are more likely to move around to experiance different leagues.

    In ten to twenty years id be willing to make a bet that there will be more english managers in the premiership :)

    Very good article, really enjoyed it

  • Comment number 5.

    thanks for that, article and audio were excellent.
    interesting that all of them were excellent players ... and intelligent.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think this is one of, if not the best column/article I've read on BBC in my 3 years or so using this site.

  • Comment number 7.

    good article, very interesting stuff. capello has achieved nothing yet short of qualification but has clarly forged something england have not had for a very long time, a sense of purpose. as far as flower goes; he was part of the ashes winning team although i think he will be judged on progress as coach rather than isolated results. similarly to capello he and strauss seem to be forging a sense of purpose, or journey, which england had under hussain and vaughan.

  • Comment number 8.

    Good post but is it just a report of news?

  • Comment number 9.

    thanks for the full bill shankly quote -- it means a lot more now. . .

  • Comment number 10.

    The Liverpool vs Man Utd blog got 100 comments in less than five hours. This one has nine.

    This follows the rule that the quality of a blog post is inversely proportional to the number of replies it will gets.

  • Comment number 11.

    My thoughts on Estesark comment on quality vs replies is quite simple. I have always been lead to believe that the reading age required for a broadsheet is 14 and for a tabloid it's 8 years of age. This article is possibly too much like hard work for the average tabloid reader who likes their thrills handed to them on a plate wrapped up in a bow. This isn't sensationalism it's good honest journalism which makes you think about the issues. I'd like more stuff like this rather than have everything dumbed down.

  • Comment number 12.

    I think the last Shankley interview excerpt should be beamed to all the people out there who still believe it's a game of life and death but the root to that problem is that sensationalism has taken over most sports and which is why the England teams(especially football) take to the field with such trepidation. Even in friendlies the expectation is not just to win, but to destroy the opposition with little effort at all because, after all - we are England!
    That is the fear that Fabio Capello was talking about;it's no secret that England have the necessary tools at hand to do the job, but every time England lose, either deservedly or unluckily, the manager and players are lambasted from all angles with the press only too keen to stoke the fire. The fact that these men and women have actually put in a phenomenal amount of work to get to where they are chosen to represent their country in any sport gets lost completely as past failures are pointed to with past successes then proving to be a millstone because of expectation that's ridiculous because they could be the first since who knows when to win an event/tournament/medal since way back when and if they don't, then they're failures.
    This is, unfortunately, an integral part of the English psyche and I think maybe that's what is hindering most of these athletes, in particular the footballers:win and you go down in folklore, lose and you'll be remembered as a failure. But then again, that's a social problem...

  • Comment number 13.

    Maybe someone can put me right on this, but I seam to remember that quote of Shankly's coming from the late 60's or early 70's. Black and white tv anyway.
    I also think he said something to the effect "..people say football is about life and death, but it's not, it's more than that." but was being laconic in that dry Scottish wit that he had, and was referring to the fanaticism that surrounded Liverpool at that time. I think the subsequent quote from the 80's was after reflection. I may be way off as it's very cloudy....well in my mind anyway.

    As for the bit about getting out of the game what you put in, I recommend a read of Iain St John's autobiography, where he puts the blame for keeping footballer's wages low squarely on the shoulders of Shanks and Busby, dominant figures in the game at that time.

    Not having a go at these two by the way. No doubt someone will sort me out.

  • Comment number 14.

    A very refreshing blog post. I love listening to Andy Flower's subtle Zimbabwean voice.

  • Comment number 15.

    I would love to see a full video of this on the BBC's Youtube channel. Getting these four blokes here was amazing!

    The regretful bit at the end from Shankly was poignant, educational, and much appreciated. Merci bien.

  • Comment number 16.

    Goodness, why can't people just understand basic, simple prose? The Shankly 1981 exchange was NOT the origin of his original "life's more important than (that)" quote. The '81 exchange was his reflecting upon, and regretting, that very quote / attitude.

  • Comment number 17.

    The Liverpool vs Man Utd blog got 100 comments in less than five hours. This one has nine.

    This follows the rule that the quality of a blog post is inversely proportional to the number of replies it will gets.


    This has nothing to do with anything but I'd say you know you are talking a load of tosh.

    A crappy poorly written blog about Man U/Liverpool will always pull in more response than a superb blog on say, coaching.

    Nothing to do with the quality of the article.

  • Comment number 18.

    If there's one thing I learned overseas that I NEVER learned in England it is that a coach is only as good as the trust he has earned from his players/apprentice etc etc.

    Year after year in this country those who belittled me for deficiencies I had highlighted months before, hoping for help in finding a solution and never getting it, thought they still had my trust. They had regular access to my father's wallet, that's all. How pathetic, eh?

    If you have ever stood, shaking, before a new coach in September, in their fiefdom and had them accept your fear before proceeding to start with the basic building blocks in a mood where they express confidence in you when you have little or none, you will know what it is like to make a conscious decision to trust someone and see what happens.

    And if you come back, once a fortnight, each time better, you find that by Christmas you are confident enough to challenge their thoughts without undermining them. And if they are good, they are fine with that. It is the second test of the great teacher/manager.

    And you may find that they decided in the New Year that some gentle chiding is OK to make you work EVEN harder. The fact that you only stopped each day because your fingers/muscles were fatigued to the point that tomorrow's practice might not happen if you went on did not worry you. Because you understood what they were pointing to and you agreed with them, within the limits of strength, agility and fitness.

    I cannot speak for the arrogant young so-and-sos who respond best to a right kick up the arse. Arrogance is not an state I have ever experienced. And it is a measure of the incompetence of many who sought to manage me that they considered that I did....because they could not tell the difference between confidence and arrogance, nor could they tell the difference between my bottom line of when something no longer became worth doing and a refusal to work hard. And a refusal to understand that 16 hours exhausted achieves less than 6 hours fresh. The biggest single failing in Britain. And America probably, although I cannot say for sure......

    These are the higher skills of management. Discerning between alternatives in individual people through understanding them, their drives, their values and their motivational routes. And sadly, this may come through failing with a few.

    I failed with someone who needed a right kick up the arse when they were being paid more than me to learn from me. I failed with someone who undermined my authority on day 1 when I was exhausted and needed respect. And I failed by refusing to tell someone to get lost when they wished to download my brain to change career whilst making it quite clear that, despite me knowing all that and them knowing nothing, that they would get the top job and I wouldn't....

    But I succeeded with a few others too.

    That's how you learn.

    By identifying those you can't handle and steering clear of them, unless you have someone as a sidekick who can sort it out for you.

  • Comment number 19.

    @ Spenk_Me

    I said:
    "This follows the rule that the quality of a blog post is inversely proportional to the number of replies it will get."

    You said:
    "A crappy poorly written blog about Man U/Liverpool will always pull in more response than a superb blog on say, coaching."

    So we are in agreement...

  • Comment number 20.

    Really good post, especially liked the quote at the end.

  • Comment number 21.

    Spenk_Me - do you know what inversely proportional means ????!!!!!!

  • Comment number 22.

    Why are there few English managers at the top of English sport now? Unlike what some critics of England and the English like to perceive I don't think it is because we have all become useless now. I think it is mainly to do with the popularity and importance of English sport (ok that sounds arrogant but it is true). English sport has the financial clout in football, cricket and rugby that means many of the best players throughout the world want to be here, and this applies to coaches. Many of the great players also want to stay here after playing here so they look to coach here too. It's a big world out there and if you dilute all the best talent into two or so leagues, then the local talent is bound to suffer and their opportunities diluted. It's the price we pay for having the opportunity to see the best talent here every week.

  • Comment number 23.

    I totally agree with your post, and its all down to what we as a nation want, the best talent or only British talent, as a paying customer i always hope i'm paying for the best and if that means less local players what is the problem?

  • Comment number 24.

    Thanks all for your comments, some thoughtful stuff in here. There was actually a fair bit more audio from the coaches than we've been able to stream, the whole session lasted about 50 minutes, so I tried to pick out the bits that for whatever reason stood out for me. I hadn't realised what a rugby fan Capello truly is....and he also likes a bit of a punch-up, as he was explaining in his comments about other sports he admires...when talking about ice-hockey, it wasn't the speed, stick skills or the tactical demands of the game he picked up was the brawls!! I also didn't really get into talking about the audience, packed full of chief executives, lawyers, movers and shakers, but it was a bit incestuous...would've been great to have been able to get a top table like that together for a 5-live phone in! Gordon.

  • Comment number 25.

    Ok. I've read this twice now and nowhere does it tell you what the event was? Why were these 3 people on "a panel"? Where? When? Shoddy journalism - expect better from an "old hand"!

  • Comment number 26.

    I fear Johnson might have been a bit out of his depth there...

  • Comment number 27.

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  • Comment number 32.

    I would adulation to see a abounding video of this on the BBC's Youtube channel. Getting these four blokes actuality was amazing! The apologetic bit at the end from Shankly was poignant, educational, and abundant appreciated.


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