The day was cold and wet, the venue distant and dilapidated. As we began changing, Dave, our manager, gathered the boots of Ted and Cab, threw them out of the window, and said: “You won’t be needing those lads. You’re not playing.” The pair had failed to turn up the previous week, having enjoyed a lively Saturday night. Neither had driven to this match so they had to wait while the remaining 11 played.
Ted was our best player, by a distance, but that cut no ice. Whatever the level, loyalty to the team counts. In the soundbite beloved of some coaches: “There is no ‘I’ in team.”
But, there is an “I” in “winning” and, in professional sport, it is not the taking part that matters most, it is the winning.
While the England and Wales Cricket Board and its lawyers were drafting their carefully worded character assassination of Kevin Pietersen, across north London Emmanuel Adebayor was scoring his seventh goal in 11 matches since being recalled by Tim Sherwood, securing another victory for Tottenham. When this news reached Lord’s the more astute might have pondered: “Isn’t Adebayor another gifted but difficult bloke who keeps falling out with the management? Seems to be happy enough now.”
It takes all sorts to make a successful dressing room and the best players are often the hardest to handle. When dealing with them the art of good management is knowing where to draw the line, not drawing it inflexibly, and getting the rest of the team to accept some players do deserve special treatment. Neil Warnock has described on these pages how he indulged Adel Taarabt at Queen’s Park Rangers, noting a key aspect was getting senior pros like Clint Hill and Sean Derry to assent. As he told them, “You may not like how he behaves, but we won’t get in the Premier League without him.” Taarabt once turned up shortly before a game having gone missing for several days. Warnock asked goalkeeper Paddy Kenny what he should do. “Play him, gaffer, he’ll win us the game.” And he did.
Sherwood inherited a player who had been frozen out by Andre Villas-Boas primarily for questioning his authority – much as Pietersen seems to have done with Andy Flower and Alastair Cook. To judge from his time at Chelsea, Villas-Boas is prone to making enemies, but so is Adebayor. He has not only fallen out with Nicklas Bentdner and Roberto Mancini, which is easy enough to do, but also Arsène Wenger, Robin van Persie, Vincent Kompany and Harry Redknapp. And those are the ones we know about.
Adebayor is high-maintenance. But when his mood is right he is as good a centre-forward as any. Sherwood is not an arm-round-the-shoulder manager, but he has publicly massaged Adebayor’s ego, picked him, and played to his strengths. If Adebayor is partly driven by a desire to prove Villas-Boas and others wrong – as his comments suggest – Sherwood will not mind as long as he keeps doing so.
And this is the crux. Difficult players are tolerated as long as they perform. Warnock left out Taarabt after QPR were promoted because his performances dipped. So have Pietersen’s. His status as England’s highest run-maker (in all forms of the game) is less significant than his declining average. However, so abject were his team-mates he still topped the averages in Australia.
Pietersen has always been a man apart. After England won the 2005 Ashes Trent Bridge Test I had the fortune of spending some time with the victorious team. Geraint Jones had been having a difficult series but he was very much at the centre of events and it was easy to see why he had kept his place, as the wicketkeeper is a key player in team harmony. After a while we left the team to it and we went to a bar next door. Where we found Pietersen, celebrating separately. So what? A few weeks later he secured the Ashes at The Oval and everyone loved KP.
Eight years on, many still do but not, it seems, at ECB HQ. Cook has evidently decided he cannot handle Pietersen and the new managing director and head of selectors have backed the captain without waiting for the incoming team coach, or for the World Twenty20, which Cook is not playing in. The coach for that tournament, Ashley Giles, had praised Pietersen’s value, but must now do without him.
It is a horrible mess. No one is suggesting Pietersen is easy to deal with, but the hurried manner of his axing suggests a failure of leadership. It is England’s fortune that this summer’s visitors, India and Sri Lanka, travel so badly they will probably get away with it for now, but the affair confirms the sense that Cook’s England cricket team is a functional one, which values solidity above genius and whose victories, when they next arrive, will be grinding rather than exhilarating.
Don’t compare Olympians with ‘overpaid’ footballers
The hills are alive with the sound of happy Olympians delivering refreshing interviews, which means within days the op-ed columns will be full of unflattering comparisons with our cliché-ridden, monosyllabic and overpaid (don’t forget overpaid) footballers. Expose those Olympic athletes to year-round scrutiny of every sentence or foible, pay them millions of pounds, surround them with hangers-on, agents and press officers, and then see how many remain innocent and charming. Rugby and cricket are already beginning to show signs of the mix of (understandable) wariness and (unforgivable) contempt that comes with money and attention. Athletes, whether footballers or snowboarders, are all human, and as such subject to the caprice of human nature.
Upsets are part of the beauty of the beautiful game
By all measures of superiority except the most crucial Manchester United dominated Fulham at the weekend as utterly as England dominated Scotland. But while rugby is a game in which controlling territory and possession nearly always results in victory, because the defence has to protect 70 metres’ width, in football an inferior team can succeed through heroic defence, good fortune, and a couple of moments of brilliance such as that displayed by Lewis Holtby. Which is why upsets are more common in football. Whether this is good or bad depends on whether you believe the best team should always win.
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