The Last Word: Here's what really happens inside the dressing room
Sunday 20 October 2013
The manager settled his team down at half-time before, without warning, he punched the dressing- room wall. Counters from a tactics board cascaded across the floor in one of those moments of heightened awareness which seem to stretch for ever.
The principal targets during the subsequent three-minute primal scream were an indolent young forward and a veteran full-back who evidently believed tackling was not in his job description. Players, desperate to avoid eye contact, sat silently in survival mode.
This manager is one of several who have allowed me to study every aspect of their work over the next year or so. Incidents like that, in a League Cup tie earlier this season, cannot fairly be judged in isolation. Context is everything, as Roy Hodgson has been reminded.
Afterwards the manager explained he rationed himself to "one or two" such outbursts a season. His anger was real, but refined. It was expressed theatrically but strategically. He wanted to challenge complacency and provide the leaders within his team with a trigger point for their professionalism.
The best teams self-generate. They feed off collective emotion and shared values. They contain strong characters who impose their own personal and professional standards. A manager must wield power subtly and selectively. Secrecy is part of the process.
In the words of legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry: "Leadership is getting someone to do what they don't want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve." This can involve methods which, at face value, seem strange and surprising.
Another manager, who had gathered his thoughts in an ante-room at the end of the first half of a Premier League fixture, walked into the dressing room to find two of his players fighting. He took a polystyrene cup of tea, sat down in the corner and waited while the law of natural selection prevailed.
"The worse thing I could do was intervene," he rationalised. "I would have been perceived as taking sides. What they were doing, in blaming one another for mistakes, was futile. Don't waste energy on things you cannot change. They're gone. Concentrate on what needs to be done."
The distractions are occasionally bizarre – one player, in my experience, was found weeping with anxiety in the toilets – and explain why most managers ration themselves to making two or three concise points.
It is easy to see why football men talk of the dressing room as a sacred place. It is where their ark of the covenant waits to be discovered. Its rituals and rhythms are comforting. The humour is raw and cruel, but signals acceptance.
When an outsider like me is admitted in a search for perspective, mutual trust and respect is paramount. That trust has now been fractured in the England dressing room, even though it seems increasingly likely a third party leaked details of Hodgson's innocent, yet infamous, Nasa parable.
Any fair-minded observer must feel for Hodgson, a decent and courtly man unfairly traduced by outrageous opportunists who have called for him to undergo mandatory "race appreciation" training and instruction in "cultural capital and cultural intelligence".
Their transparent self-importance invites condemnation, but broader problems are not so simple to dismiss. The FA is in danger of imploding. The omni shambles of Greg Dyke's commission has alienated key individuals like Heather Rabbatts and highlighted the muddled, reactive thinking of many overpaid executives.
The consequence of the absurd spectacle which unfolded in the aftermath of qualification for the World Cup finals will be spin and superficiality. The projection of non-stories in certain sections of the media will poison relationships.
More players and managers will restrict themselves to platitudes. They no longer feel they have a mission to explain. The dressing-room door will be locked, and the sum of our understanding will shrivel.
What is wrong with the Aussies? sport feels very down under
Australia, a nation which once defined itself by sporting success, cowers in the corner, waiting to absorb the latest blow to collective self-esteem.
The All Blacks' clean sweep of the Bledisloe Cup series, confirmed by yesterday's 41-33 defeat of the Wallabies in Dunedin, was predictable. Michael Lynagh, venerated former World Cup winner, spoke for many when he observed: "I don't think it hurts enough inside."
The Socceroos, Australia's football team, have been beaten 6-0 in successive friendlies against Brazil and France. Lucas Neill, their captain, was commendably blunt when confronted by fears of embarrassment in next summer's World Cup finals:
"My question to the younger guys is, do you dream of playing for Australia? If you do, show me the hunger and the desire. I think that's where we are lacking now – our attitude towards our national team."
Rickie Ponting, the embodiment of an ideal which places honour and pride above cash and celebrity, believes the new generation of cricketers fail to understand the values represented by the baggy green cap.
His portayal of Michael Clarke, his successor as captain, as selfish and aloof set the tone for this winter's Ashes series. Bring it on.
Tiger Woods has wealth, fame and titles. He may no longer be a candidate for corporate canonisation, but he remains golf's best player and biggest personality. How will history judge him? He received an unnerving insight when many instinctively supported the slur that he is "cavalier with the rules".
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