The Last Word: Cycling chief Dave Brailsford has balls to make it in football
With Fergie among his admirers, do not be at all surprised if cycling's guru makes the big switch
Sunday 12 August 2012
The London Olympics, a career-defining achievement, are already a golden glow in Dave Brailsford's rear-view mirror. His eyes are fixed on new horizons, the next all-consuming challenge.
His immediate priority is to balance the individual ambitions and contrasting characters of Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Christopher Froome with the need to retain a stellar team to defend the Tour de France. Beyond that lies the formality of a knighthood – for transforming cycling into a sport fit for heroes – and the rictus grins and rubber chicken of the awards circuit.
Such baubles will confer little legitimacy to his work. Brailsford's satisfaction is derived from the self-perpetuating nature of the system he has created, by delegating authority to individuals who share his acuity, drive, restlessness and obsessive attention to detail.
It is no exaggeration to suggest Britain's Olympic cycling team will be able to run itself for long periods in the build-up to the Rio Games. Brailsford was deeply offended by the quangocrats at UK Sport, who insulted his intelligence and integrity by ordering accountants to audit his dual role with Team Sky and British Cycling.
Such crass betrayals of faith are all-too familiar in Lottery-funded sport, and will not stop the perpetrators claiming undeserved credit for cycling's enduring success. In such a climate, those closest to Brailsford are conditioned to expect the unexpected.
As one colleague said, amid the pheromone frenzy of the Stratford velodrome: "Dave is a natural risk-taker. He seeks out unsteady ground. If things get a little too comfortable, he's likely to wake up one morning and take a huge personal gamble. He makes big decisions, because he's got the balls of King Kong."
This will amuse the flat-earthers who insist our national game has nothing to learn, and little for which to apologise, but I foresee him developing into a prototypical director of football, at a club of global stature. It is not as far-fetched a notion as it appears, even if he protests he is happy to stay in cycling.
His skills are supremely transfer- able, as is the essence of his philosophy – a conviction that the pursuit of individual excellence is the foundation of collective achievement. Anyone who has dealt with Le Tour's Byzantine politics, and convinced Sky to fund a £50 million dream, is unlikely to be intimidated by the barrow boys of the Premier League.
Brailsford has already shared team-building strategies with Sir Alex Ferguson, who was evidently struck by the simple logic of the technology cycling employs, and the human dynamics of an operation with more than its fair share of high-maintenance characters.
He has an affinity with Mike Forde, Chelsea's performance director, who has a similarly analytical nature. Each uses statistics to challenge conventional thought processes without taking the numbers at face value. They must be interpreted creatively, and put into context.
Ferguson, by all accounts, was intrigued by one graph Brailsford pulled up on his laptop, a bell curve charting the five different phases of a Tour de France cyclist's career, from aspiring professional to experienced rider whose value lies in his commitment to a team ethic. It was an objective assessment of the Manchester United manager's subjective judgment of his players. Each man has a harsh honesty and would identify himself as a leader, rather than a coach.
Brailsford is no less demanding than Ferguson, but he is more collegiate. He insists his staff have a professional obligation to contribute to team meetings and, once collective decisions are taken, is ruthlessly intolerant of a blame culture.
The cynics will, of course, draw comparisons with Sir Clive Woodward's hapless attempts to make an impact in football at Southampton. Not for the first time, they will be missing the point. Woodward's rugby World Cup win will be forever tainted by the rapid disintegration of a team without a philosophical foundation.
Brailsford, by contrast, has built something that will last. He may not need football. But football needs him.
Thanks to the backroom heroes
You will not find the names of Barry Fudge, Mark Ellison, Liz Sinton and Julie Pearce on any Olympic honours board. But Mo Farah, Nicola Adams, Michael Jamieson and Etienne Stott would happily mint a medal for them.
Farah is quick to acknowledge his reliance on Fudge, an altitude-training specialist who left a young family for five weeks to assist Mo's final preparations in the Pyrenees.
Adams, boxing's new star, was helped through the minefield of weight- making by Ellison. Her every meal was weighed, balanced nutritionally and tailored to her training regime. All she had to do was switch on the microwave.
Jamieson, the only British swimmer to maximise his potential, credits Sinton with his recovery from ruptured ankle ligaments. She was a counsellor as well as a conditioning expert, and helped Jamieson through his darkest moments.
Stott, the canoe slalom gold medallist, was given similar support by Pearce after a freak training accident left him with a badly dislocated shoulder. Her constant physiotherapy work essentially saved his career.
I'll come clean. All four backroom staff are employed by the English Institute of Sport, an organisation I helped establish.
There are many more like them, working without recognition. They have been central to the success of these Games.
Oscar Pistorius had his wish granted. He ran in an Olympic final. We almost forgot he has no legs. South Africa's double amputee is a uniquely inspirational figure, who will ease us into the Paralympics. Seventeen days, and counting.
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