Sir Clive Woodward on England’s World Cup 2006

I’ve finally got my hands on a copy of Sir Clive’s interview for 442 Magazine. He doesn’t disappoint.

I’ve mentioned before that I think Southampton are very, very lucky to have this exceptional man in their ranks. I’ll go further and say that Steve McClaren would do well to have him as part of his set-up.

What Woodward brings to any team – to any organisation behind the team – is a rich combination of flawless attention to detail, the infinite capacity to take pains (“to do everything humanly possible” is a Woodward catchphrase, not made in vain) and complete openness to new thinking and ideas. His approach brought real success to the England rugby team, who for a while were not only winning rugby matches, but doing it in considerable style. Woodward’s great team probably peaked slightly before the World Cup that they eventually won, but even when their form dipped in Australia they were still unmistakeably the best team, with the best preparation.

When a man of that calibre calls England “not properly prepared”, you’d hope that someone in the right place would listen. But as he says,

I hope we learn our lesson, but I doubt we will. Already we seem more interested in who’s going to be the new captain than how to progress!

He spends quite a lot of his article talking about penalties, and what he says is especially revealing about the English psyche when it comes to improving their performance. After 1998, fans and press wanted to be reassured that the team now “practiced penalties”. Realise that by “practice penalties”, they mean just that – spend a while on the practice ground taking shots from the spot. And leaving it at that, because, as Michael Owen said recently, you can’t reproduce the pressure of a shoot-out on the training ground, and it’s hard to reproduce the physical action you’ve practiced when, as a result of nerves, you can’t feel your legs. Sir Clive says

We’re told England were practising in training, but what are they practising? It’s no good practising the wrong technique – all you’re learning is how to do it wrong. Penalties are coachable. Our players should have been practising every day for the last four years. Does Ernie Els practice four foot putts on the few days before a Major, or does he work on it 365 days a year, hour after hour?

I’ve been told many times that you can’t replicate the atmosphere and intensity of a penalty shoot-out. Maybe not, but you can work on the technique of striking the ball correctly and at a height that gives the best chance of scoring.

And, as part of his blueprint for future success, this:

A penalty shoot-out should be introduced after every league game for England players as a priority in tournament years.

There’s much, much more – on team preparation, playing under pressure, (“Why was nothing done about Frank Lampard’s confidence?”), the attitude of the FA, and some encouragement for the new coach:

It’s Steve McClaren’s responsibility now and he has to prove himself. At least he thinks outside the box, uses new technology and draws inspiration from more progressive sports. That’s what Klinsmann’s done with Germany. He was ridiculed for using strange experts, but he silenced his critics by turning an average squad into one that performed above their potential and very nearly went all the way. We did something similar with the England rugby team: the players were sceptical of unusual methods, until they saw how they were improving.

Sir Clive glances at something in that paragraph that perhaps deserves spelling out clearly.

The growing wealth of the Premiership, and money spent on new stadia, and on new training facilities, might lead you to the assumption that our training methods have come along by the same amount. They almost certainly haven’t. When Simon Clifford asked why footballers spent so little time training by comparison with athletes in other sports, he was met with guilty sniggers and then with silence. He’s noted that players are still relatively undertrained compared to people in other sports, and I note that his protege, Micah Richards, is named in Henry Winter’s team for 2010. For a point of comparison, here’s the daily training schedule for squash champion Peter Nichol:

Nicol’s programme consisted of a 30-minute run at 7am followed by breakfast and then a lung-busting two-hour workout on court (without a break) immediately followed by another cardio session. After lunch he would put his body through three further hours of physical hardship both on the court and in the weights room before eating a carbohydrate-loaded dinner..

Clive Woodward’s blueprint for success includes this, too:

Profile all players to establish which of them can perform at world-class levels under pressure. Leave out those who cannot reach the level required, even if they are superstars.

That issue was brought to his attention by the British Army. He’d taken the England rugby squad on a weekend exercise run by the Army, and towards its end, the exercise leaders took Clive to one side and advised him that, were his team soldiers, there were some of their number that those exercise leaders wouldn’t want next to them in battle. Clive, being a mature adult, doesn’t name the names. But he took the suggestion – that people who weren’t pulling in the team’s direction were sapping its mental energy – entirely seriously. And acted upon it.
I think it would be unfair to suggest that Sven didn’t understand this point or apply it – but Sir Clive would take the whole thing to another level. My personal suspicion is that there are relatively few among England’s more skilful players who would pass muster: I’d certainly love to see the results of any such profiling. My guess is that from the current generation, we’d be left with Crouch, Owen, Rooney, Neville, Terry and Beckham.

I can’t see profiling working for football just at the moment. The English idea of what is represents a good temperament for football is a long way away from the calm under pressure of the 2003 rugby players. The suspicion of psychology is still deeply ingrained: it’s all “mind games”… let’s use common sense and play four – four – fucking – two!… Just imagine what the players who fail to pass muster will do with their tabloid columns, imagine the response of the press every time one of the rejected stars turns in a good game at league level.

We’re not ready, yet, as a footballing country, to listen to the likes of Woodward and Clifford. What’s more, in the wake of Sven’s departure, our thirst for learning something new has gone away for a while. But with both men currently involved in the game, if at rather undercover levels, I suspect that this is a revolution from within, given time.

The main obstacle in its path is that we are going to have to decide to be intelligent about the game. It’s my impression that football is an area where intelligent people want to let down their brainy hair for a while, and enjoy being stupid and overly straightforward, even bigoted. I don’t think we’re ready to be intelligent about football, and I don’t think we want to be intelligent about football.
UPDATE: Some of you will have read Dr. Ken Bray’s new book, How to Score. Here’s an article in the Guardian from two years ago, reflecting his thoughts on penalties – which bear a strong resemblance to Woodward’s.

NOTE: I’ve edited out some comments made in the earlier version of this post that referred to other bloggers. Felt it didn’t really add anything, and no point in being unpleasant if you don’t really have to be.

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6 responses to “Sir Clive Woodward on England’s World Cup 2006

  1. Consistent with the old belief that football is the stupid buggers’ game. Your point, I think, is that it needn’t be. Judging by other blogs, and their commenters, it is. I used to play football for my rugby club in a football summer league. We found it all according to stereotype: we routinely beat more skilful teams by dint of intelligent hard work and organisation. We were much fitter, of course.

  2. Yes, I think so. I don’t think you’ll have read the earlier version of the post in which I let rip some of my frustration at other blogs.. best left to lie, perhaps.

    Whenever I think the football establishment are finally getting it, something comes along to disappoint me all over again. This week, I’ve read accounts of preseason training at Villa and West Ham. I never want to read the phrase “the players realise these days that they have to be athletes” again. Suffice it to say that I was on a similar fitness regime at school twenty years ago, and saw fit to augment it heavily myself in my spare time.

  3. What does he mean by this?

    A penalty shoot-out should be introduced after every league game for England players as a priority in tournament years.

    Surely not as part of the game? So where would the pressure come from?

  4. He means in a competitive situation, in front of a live crowd, preferably a hostile one. As opposed to just getting used to banging them in on the quiet and privacy of the training ground.

    His deeper point is that “practising penalties” has also to be about practising the context in which penalites will be taken – and his suggestion is at least a step in that direction.

  5. I was thinking some more and I suppose you could have some sort of competition over the season, with the winner (highest % conversion) getting £1m or something, maybe with an adjustment for home/away.

    Problems then woud be how do you know who will be in the England squad? And what if they only got into the club side late in the season? Still these are work-aroundable. Maybe you could have it in the last eight weeks of a season and then the winners actually take them in the WC?

    I’m sure the clubs would object as that is their role.

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