In our May newsletter and with possibly some blind optimism, I commented that 52 years after last winning it, this time it could be “England’s year” in the World Cup.
Well, I had no idea how close England would get to winning it – at best expectations among the majority were for the 2nd round or the quarter-finals, and let’s face it, when you get to the semi-final, you begin to think that the dream may just become a reality.
It was not to be. But what has impressed so many of us is how well this England team has played – very much greater than the sum of its parts. At club level, this is an easier task because of the frequency at which the manager and the team get together. But at international level and for nearly half a century, that required cohesion has been missing.
So what exactly changed this time? Well kudos must be given to the manager, Gareth Southgate. For an ex-player who was at best, an average-performing club manager, expectations were not great when he was appointed. However, the man certainly did his homework.
Psychology appears to have played a part – Gareth knows the pain of defeat only too well, as he missed a penalty in the semi-final shoot-out against Germany in Euro ’96 that England lost. He also spoke to the coaches and managers of other teams, and not just football either – for example, it is known that the methods and tactics used in English Rugby and American Football played a part, in addition to management techniques employed in areas outside of sport – here was a man that undertook a huge amount of research and showed that he is keen to learn from far and wide.
In addition, Gareth also collected together a squad of players who did not inspire confidence initially. Too young and not enough experience it was said. However, tournament squads have contained cliques in the past, and previous managers ended up picking players that were great individual talents but didn’t necessarily make a great team.
The lessons of the exit of England in Euro 2016 by Iceland (a country with 0.66% of England’s population!) were also learnt – players that appeared to be scarred by that exit, were in the main, jettisoned this time around, for fear that their negative experience would carry over into this tournament.
In short, Gareth put together a squad that was mainly young, keen, yes inexperienced, but overall willing to take onboard new techniques and methods.
A recent report on how diversity made for a more productive and successful workplace, also highlighted the importance of collaboration (in reality, co-operation and co-ordination, so much more relevant in a sporting context).
These elements were very much in evidence in the way England team played – they tried things which as someone that has watched England play for many years, I had never seen. And in the main, these things worked too!
Their encouragement of each other as well as their willingness to help their team mate(s) out in times of difficulty on the pitch was also visual. Everyone had a role and knew what they had to do.
By no means was this a one-way process – reports emerged that players were empowered and encouraged to make suggestions and evaluate ideas they had learnt from their clubs as players. The manager and his backroom staff showed a willingness to listen and incorporate these into the team’s learnings.
So on this occasion, it’s felt that the team ‘overachieved’, and perhaps the World Cup was a tournament too early for them. Southgate’s philosophy suggests that learnings will be taken - and Euro 2020 is the team’s next opportunity.
Can destiny play a part too? Quite possibly…the Euro 2020 final is being hosted at Wembley Stadium in London – “It’s coming home!”.