Player To Managers, Managers To Coaches: What Makes 'Underdogs' Soar, When 'Favourites' Crash & Burn?

by Paul Dyer
10th Jul 2018

As another episode of The A-Team drew to a close, Hannibal Smith would chomp down on his cigar and say: "I love it when a plan comes together." My old school teacher preferred the adage: Prior planning prevents p*** poor performance. Either way, the meaning is the same - and one grasped, finally, by a manager of The E-Team.

It can surely surprise no-one that England are playing better after clearly having practised something. All of the penalties taken in that extraordinary shoot-out against Colombia were hit with conviction - even the missed one by Jordan Henderson. It may have been a nice height for the goalkeeper but it was still travelling at speed into the corner. It was just very well saved.

All through the build-up, the squad have said the same thing: it's down to practice, practice, practice.

Glenn Hoddle, when he was England boss, said they never practised penalties because you cannot recreate the crowds or the pressure. Made worse, I'm guessing, by having to make that long walk to the spot under the gaze of a desperate nation without, er, having practised.

Needless to say, this current crop succeeded in a penalty shoot-out where the class of '98 failed. 

England's work on the training ground has also been evident elsewhere in the tournament. Their set-pieces in the first two games of this World Cup were a thing of beauty. Well-thought-out routines executed superbly. Kieran Trippier delivered pin-point balls into the area, markers were lost and John Stones or Harry Kane applied the finishing touch.

Similarly, in the quarter-final against Sweden, the 'love train' lined up at a corner, Ashley Young paid for the ticket with the perfect in-swinger and Harry Maguire thundered down the track and headed home. 

Now, that did not happen by accident.

Boss Gareth Southgate has been ably assisted by his backroom team, who in turn drill the routines into a receptive playing staff. Yet it wasn't always like that. Some - most notably the players - would argue that previous managers were less well served by their assistants. Building up the players and maybe shouting was seen as the way to get the best out of them. Look how that worked out...

Steve Holland and Co., on the other hand, clearly have the trust of a thoughtful manager, who treats his players like adults. Likewise, a decent, dependable No. 2 is worth his weight in gold.

Of course, it is no guarantee that Liverpool would have fared any better in the Champions League final had Zeljko Buvac not left in the build-up, but it certainly didn't help.

Buvac took a temporary leave of absence for 'personal reasons'; whereas others have quit steady jobs behind the scenes to become top dog elsewhere. However, it doesn't always work out. Just ask Alex Ferguson's old deputies Brian Kidd and Steve McClaren. Both were considered fine assistants at Manchester United, yet both struggled in the hotseat away from Old Trafford.

Kidd's time at Blackburn is not fondly remembered (probably by any party) as even he could not save them from relegation in 1999. However, he's made a slow and steady comeback, returning to background roles and last year helped title winners Manchester City to a string of records.

McClaren will always be known as the Wally with the Brolly after sheltering from the rain as his England team blew their chance of qualifying for Euro 2008. Admittedly, he did win the Dutch title with FC Twente but, apart from a spell at Middlesbrough, success in the English game has remained elusive.

Plenty of others have proved that being a great player does not mean you will be a great coach too. Gianfranco Zola anyone? Paul Ince? 

Now, Southgate was a terrific defender and tipped early on to make it in management; yet his first foray into it gave the doubters plenty of ammunition. It takes a special person to learn from past mistakes. Southgate's relegation with Boro taught him a fundamental lesson: do what you think is right. If you give people what you think they want against your better judgment, you serve no-one. Perhaps Mrs May could learn something from him.

Southgate took Boro down largely because he betrayed his own principles. In sticking to them, he has gathered good people around him and rebuilt an England team to be proud of, one that is uniting a fractured country.

Even if football ends up not coming home, a hero certainly will.

I love it when a plan comes together.


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