David Flatman: Johnson is a giant - just look at how he said farewell
From the Front Row
Sunday 20 November 2011
Allow me to begin by declaring myself unavailable for the role of England manager. I know it's perhaps not what you expected to hear, but everyone else seems to be partaking in this particularly odd ritual, so why not. Anyway, I'm turning my focus to the Lions tour in 2013 and I can't do it all. There just isn't the time.
It always feels a bit odd to have no England coach. We have come to treat as normal the repeated vacancies at our football clubs, but it doesn't happen that often in rugby.
I probably feel more uneasy about it all, having watched Martin Johnson's resignation on television. Plenty of managers roll out common phrases soaked in assumed modesty, stating that they will bear the responsibility, take the flak and answer for the team. Few mean it.
In all my time, I have never seen someone stand down under such duress without blaming a single other soul, as Johnson did. What a bloke. And don't bother to suggest he did so in order to secure some lucrative confidentiality agreement. You know him better than that.
Nobody could argue that things went spiffingly well for Johnson, but nobody could claim it was all his fault either. Whether or not he was the right man to lead England, he deserved more support than he got. Every team sport lives by an unspoken mantra: whatever decision somebody makes in battle, it is the responsibility of his mates, through instant and collective support, to make it the right one.
The balance of the team rarely looked right and at times the raging talents on the field seemed a touch stunted. But this happens to every manager, and this is when the support structures above and below Johnson needed to bring stability. Instead, he was forced to operate in the midst of the besuited soap opera that is the RFU, and anybody who thinks that shouldn't affect the rugby is naive. Imagine arriving at the office every day to see your superiors squabbling, jibing and apportioning blame to anyone but themselves. Releasing your potential would become infinitely more difficult.
He also had a raft of player issues to deal with. By this I don't mean injuries and form – I mean behaviour. My view hasn't changed, that in squads of 30-odd young blokes these things will happen. But add all of this to Johnson's to-do list and you begin to see what a hefty workload he had.
Did they respect him? Yes. To declare otherwise on the back of a few social misdemeanours would be to declare that because I got drunk after a school match once, or because I got done for speeding soon after gaining my driving licence, I didn't respect my father. Humans make silly decisions. Johnson hoped they wouldn't, but they did. And every one of these decisions made life exponentially more difficult for a man for whom life ought to be made easy.
Whether or not those in key decision-making roles above the team will make life easier for the next manager remains to be seen. The worry is that the most vital trait of anyone in power – humility – hasn't been too prevalent in recent times. If somebody accepts no responsibility when things go wrong, how likely is he to recognise that his modus operandi is in any way flawed?
All a man can hope to leave behind is a legacy, so how will Johnson be remembered? To me – as a rugby player and a fan – he will always be the most towering, monumental player I played with or against or saw. This gig didn't quite work out but because he's Johnno and because I saw how he behaved at the bitter end, how unflinchingly he stuck to his principles despite seeming utterly heartbroken, that memory will never change.
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