Fletcher a fine example of the old school of coaches

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The Independent Online

A personal favourite among numerous anecdotes about education in sport concerns an amiable giant who performed as an enforcer for the Philadelphia Eagles. Since his sole purpose in the grid-iron game was to inflict pain and suffering, he could not see much point in concentrating fully on tactical considerations.

A personal favourite among numerous anecdotes about education in sport concerns an amiable giant who performed as an enforcer for the Philadelphia Eagles. Since his sole purpose in the grid-iron game was to inflict pain and suffering, he could not see much point in concentrating fully on tactical considerations.

One night on television, shortly before a big game, it was put to this fellow that he probably never let a moment pass without reflecting on intricate manouevres set down in the coach's play book. Smiling, he produced from his shirt pocket a photograph of the opposing quarter back. Writ large on the flip side were two words: Get Him.

What put me on to this was a remark passed by the England cricket captain Nasser Hussain this week following the victory that brought long-awaited success in a Test Series against the West Indies. In commending the influence England's coach, Duncan Fletcher, brought to bear on proceedings, Hussain pointed out that while Fletcher does not say a great deal what he does say is profoundly instructive.

Some contrast to the recent dark days of English cricket when it was ludicrously supposed that recordings of Winston Churchill's wartime speeches would lead to improvement on the field and that the playing of national anthems before Test matches (suggested by Alec Stewart) would be uplifting.

In truth, the progress England have made this summer (allowing for the parlous state of West Indies' cricket: take away their two great fast bowlers and Brian Lara and they were barely up to county standard) sprang from intelligent selection and practical measures that visibly undermined the opposition's fragile confidence.

So much gibberish swims around sport today it is no wonder that the public have taken it up as a language to be aired in letters to newspapers and on the airwaves.

For example, recently while flicking through the television channels I happened across the Sky Sports programme that invites viewers to test their opinions on past football heroes. One of the callers held clearly the notion that it would be disastrous for English football if Kevin Keegan reverted to he regarded as "boring old 4-4-2".

Aside from the fact that Manchester United and Arsenal have not strayed far from this formation, you have to wonder where people get their ideas from and whether it actually enables them to get more enjoyment from football. Are they concentrating more on the way teams are set out than the action?

Because it is fashionable to theorise about sport, coaches, especially football coaches, come under more pressure than old-time managers who rarely appeared on the training ground and left matters of strategy and tactics to the senior players.

A story is told about Johnny Cochrane, a diminutive Scot who managed Sunderland in the 1930s when they won the League championship and FA Cup with such notables as Raich Carter, Duns and Burbank. At some time or other during that heady spell, Sunderland developed the habit of missing penalties. Deciding that the time had come to do something about this, Cochrane entered Sunderland's dressing-room shortly before a home match and called for silence. Removing a bowler hat, he placed it on the floor and announced that there was nothing to scoring from the spot. Propelled by Cochrane's hefty kick, the bowler hit the ceiling. "F*** it. Missed," he said.

Things have moved on a great deal since those days but it strikes me that sport is in danger of being engulfed by the modern obsession with theory.

When an old timer gets on to something like this he cannot avoid recalling men who made it big as instructors of sport without complicating the process. By all accounts, Fletcher is in their mould, astute, practical and with a keen eye for important detail. No nonsense.

This reminds me of something Bill Shankly said in retirement. While watching a match, the former Liverpool manager saw one of the coaches leap up and heard him cry: "Apply the principles." He was appalled. "Jesus Christ," he said, "when I played people shouted: 'Shankly, justify your inclusion'."

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