Is football too insular?

 

clive-woodward

Clive Woodward. Photo by Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, http://www.flickr.com

Last month, Europe retained the Ryder Cup. Captain Paul McGinley has been lauded for his leadership, attention to detail, and decision making. One of the things he decided to do was have Alex Ferguson address the team on the eve of the tournament. McGinely didn’t choose Ferguson just because of his legendary powers of inspiration and motivation; he wanted him to talk about something specific: how to deal with being heavy favourites.

By consulting Ferguson, McGinley showed a willingness and ability to look beyond golf to learn lessons and find ways to help his team. He also apparently referenced Team Sky in the Tour de France when talking to his players about how the team would function. My question today is whether, unlike McGinley, football is rather too insular when it comes to learning from other sports? I think it is.

Possibly the most famous example of a football club looking to another sport was the appointment of Clive Woodward as performance director at Southampton in the summer of 2005. Two summer’s earlier Woodward had coached England’s rugby union side to victory in the Rugby World Cup. Like McGinley, Woodward was revered for his attention to detail and desire to learn.

The reaction to Woodward’s appointment was hardly surprising. Henry Winter wrote in The Telegraph: ‘Woodward should go away, avoid interviews, acquire all his coaching badges, learn the ropes and then apply to work as a youth-team coach somewhere.’ Winter seemed miffed that Woodward hadn’t ‘paid his dues’ in football.

What a silly and ignorant attitude. Woodward didn’t pay his dues in football but he certainly paid his coaching dues and acquired outstanding credentials along with a world cup winner’s medal. Winter hailed Sam Allardyce as someone who’s made it to top level management in football by paying the appropriate dues, even driving the ‘Fiesta van’ when youth team coach at Preston North End. Such experiences, Winter writes, ‘cannot be found in the manuals Woodward pores over.’

True – assuming of course that Woodward wasn’t reading a manual on Fiesta vans – but also entirely incidental to being a top class coach. I have a lot of respect for Big Sam and I actually doubt he would share Winter’s attitude. Allardyce has always been a keen student of the game and of sport science. West Ham fans however may be forgiven for occasionally wondering if he wouldn’t be better off coaching a rugby team.

In the same article Winter refers to Mourinho’s apprenticeship under Robson and van Gaal and the information he ‘absorbed’ from them. As apprenticeships go, the special one got a special one but has there ever been a football manager that did more poring over manuals than Mourinho? He seems to have been quite successful.

A superb insight into Woodward’s methods was provided in an interview he gave to the Guardian just before this summer’s World Cup. The subject was penalties; England travelled to Brazil having lost on penalties in six of the past 10 major finals that they had played in.

Woodward recalled an exercise he did with Southampton’s academy players. He asked them to take 10 penalties each. There was no goalkeeper, just two ropes hanging down from the crossbar around three feet inside each post and the aim was to hit as many penalties as possible between the rope and the post. All of the penalties were filmed by four different cameras.

The results were not good. A couple of days later the players were called to a video analysis session. They were shown their ten penalties and for most, each time their run-up, foot position or body shape was different. “Everything was different,” Woodward remembered, “but to kick a stationary ball, you need to have the same routine, to do the same things over and over again.”

The master of that as Woodward pointed out is Jonny Wilkinson, who would spend hours practising, working on his foot position and honing his technique to withstand the most intense pressure. Footballers should do the same and it’s clear that some do but by no means all. The responsibility also rests with the coach though.

According to Woodward: “There’s a big body of football people who are terrified of it, who are saying: ‘You can’t coach this.’ That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! I think the FA should employ a specialist penalty-kicking coach. And listen: it wouldn’t just make them better penalty-takers but better footballers. The whole team should be doing it. This is about striking a dead ball, but if you strike a dead ball well, you will be able to strike a moving ball better too.”

Woodward lasted just over a year at Southampton and it seems he and his methods were never exactly embraced by the various managers and coaching staff that worked alongside him. Of course the concept of specialist coaches is not entirely absent in football, it’s increasingly common these days to find coaches employed to work specifically with the strikers or defenders and the position of goalkeeping coach has been around for a long time.

I would argue though that the level of such specialisation in football is not as far advanced as it is in other sports such as rugby or American football. One interesting exception is the case of Gianni Vio in Italy. Until a few years ago, Vio worked in a bank but in his spare time he wrote a website devoted to strategies for set-pieces. Eventually he wrote a book as well.

Former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga discovered Vio as a result of the book and got in touch. At the time Zenga was coaching Red Star Belgrade. He invited Vio onto his coaching staff in a part-time role. Zenga took Vio with him when he returned to Italy to coach Catania. From there, Vio went to Fiorentina and this summer moved to Milan.

Zenga says of Vio: “He isn’t just a free-kick wizard. He is like having a 15- or 20-goal striker in the team. A 20-goal a season player can get injured. He can get suspended. But there are set-pieces in every game. Always. And he knows how to exploit them best.” Woodward would surely approve.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this innovation happened abroad rather than in British football. Arsene Wenger practically professionalised English football when he joined Arsenal in the mid-1990s and even today it seems as though many British footballers fail to appreciate the level of sacrifice required to make the most of their careers as professional athletes.

There’s a lot that British players can learn (and indeed have learned) from their foreign peers but equally there’s a lot that could be learned from other athletes. Anyone who has watched Andy Murray train can only be impressed at his utter devotion to being the best he can possibly be and his willingness to consult various specialists to improve all aspects of his physical and mental performance. I’m sure footballers would also have benefited from watching Woodward put Jonny Wilkinson and co through their paces in preparation for the Rugby World Cup.

Perhaps the biggest benefit that could come of football shedding its insularity would be in the development of kids and young players. There’s so much that kids can learn by playing a wide variety of sports from an early age. The best advocate of this is Judy Murray.

She has a wonderful initiative – Set 4 Sport – which is all about helping parents teach kids agility, balance and coordination, as well as passing and catching, through fun games. Visit the site at www.set4sport.com where you can find out more and download a free book.

The programme was born in Judy’s back garden as she tried to entertain and encourage her sons. As she says: “They went on to become pretty decent tennis players as you know, but Jamie has a 3 handicap at golf and Andy once trialled with Glasgow Rangers.”

So if you have high hopes for your child excelling at football then of course give them a ball and let them play freely and naturally. But don’t just stop there. Wouldn’t it be an exceptional footballer that had the strength of a gymnast, the balance of a boxer, the bravery of a rugby player, the mental strength of a golfer or a tennis player, and the analytical mind of a chess player?

Oh, and one more thing. Make sure they practise penalties.

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