It’s been a funny close season, signings have been sparse and understated, there was a brief flurry of interest around Kelvin Thomas’ departure and the new kit, but all in all there have been much more interesting things to take up our time; Tour de France, Wimbledon and, of course, the Olympics. Difficult to believe that something as mundane as the new season is days just away. So, what have we learned from our sabbatical?
If you’ve got a strategy that’s working – stick to it
Team Sky dominated the Tour de France, their focus was on delivering Bradley Wiggins to Paris in the yellow jersey. Other ambitions were secondary; Mark Cavendish’s defence of the sprint title and Chris Froome’s potential claim for the big prize. The press tried to create a news story by suggesting there was a rift between Froome and Wiggins after the latter’s burst up La Toussuire which left Wiggins momentarily flagging. For all the debate about whether Froome was the stronger rider one thing was ignored. Plan A – get Wiggins to Paris – was working.
In any sporting event, whether a game or a season, there are stresses and strains; but if things are generally going right, you shouldn’t panic into making changes. Oxford have made year-on-year progress for four years now, yet some are still looking for something to change because the progress isn’t the right kind or not fast enough or not fancy enough. By rushing into a new strategy – for example, changing the manager or investing more heavily introduces uncertainty and makes progress far less certain.
Just because you’re losing, doesn’t mean you’re not trying
Both Rebecca Adlington and Andy Murray have had their critics; Adlington’s critics are just cruel and it is surely time to retire the ‘when he wins he’s British, when he loses he’s Scottish’ joke about Murray. Murray is the best British tennis player for nearly a century and Adlington is amongst our best female Olympians. Both suffered defeats over the summer and both reacted emotionally. The pressure was evident; that comes from a combination of effort and expectation. The idea that failure only results from laziness and a lack of effort is a nonsense, few sportspeople go into any sport ambivalent as to whether they succeed or fail.
Football fans everywhere are prone to over simplification and the presumption of laziness is particularly, well, lazy. We could learn to think a little more carefully about why we lose. Speaking of which…
There’s always an opponent
After Danny Boyle’s fantastic opening ceremony, the script was run into the first day of the Games and Mark Cavendish’s gold medal on The Mall in the road race. Britain had the strongest team by far; the British road race champion and 4 stage winners from the Tour, including the yellow jersey. But a team of 4 (with Cavendish being towed to the line) will always struggle to control a field of 160. To the outsider, this looked like failure, and for Cavendish it no doubt felt like that. There were many capable riders in the field, if they worked together then it would make the British team’s challenge difficult, possibly even impossible. The winner Vinokourov, was not – as The Mail said, a nobody, but one of the top riders in the world. The silver went to Rigoborto Uran who rides with Cavendish on Team Sky; it’s a bit like calling Ryan Giggs a nobody because of his record with Wales.
We become obsessed with ourselves to the point where we assume victory. We forget that even in the worst teams there is a desire to win, and that winning requires effort both on the pitch and in the stands.
Neutral sport is a different country
I watch Oxford at the expense of nearly all other live sport. It is a visceral, habitual experience to which I’m probably addicted. There is no better feeling than entering the post-apocalyptic world of the Oxford Swindon derby with its police helicopters, steel barricades and seething hoards baying for each others’ blood (metaphorically and literally). But in this environment everyone plays to type; it’s partisan and aggressive, so the police and stewards have to be authoritative and, well, police-like. It is rarely light and fun; except when you’re winning, in which your opponents are angry and sad.
I saw three events; the time trial, a quarter-final of the football and a session of women’s basketball. They were happy affairs. The football was peculiar because the 81,000 fans at Wembley cheered all six goals with equal vigour. We saw Canada v Australia in the basketball, there was a slight Australian bias as the game started, but when Canada closed the game to within 3 points, having trailed by over 10, the allegiances changed. Afterwards, some Canadians and Australians had an impromptu game of hoopla outside – Australia won. The following game; China v USA was slightly different, like a bad 80s analogous sports film about the cold war – I had visions of the Chinese being pumped full of growth hormones and performance enhancing drugs while the USA trained in log cabins in the remote wilderness – fittingly the USA destroyed them. The cycling was always likely to be a happy affair with Bradley Wiggins’ current form, but the whole day was filled with people enjoying themselves and stewards being happy and helpful. I saw more stewards high-fiving spectators in those three events than I’ve seen in more than 30 years watching football.
Neither experience is wrong; but I do think that football has more to learn from other sports in terms of how it conducts itself. It’s supposed to be fun.
Is football just a big bully?
On the night that Jessica Ennis, Mo Farrah and Greg Rutherford won three golds in less than an hour, the Team GB football team went out, unsurprisingly on penalties. This just seemed typical; the equivalent of a frustrated bullying child breaking the toy of a group of others just because they were having fun and he wasn’t.
Football is omnipotent in sport, and its presence in the Olympics is not welcomed by many. Certainly Team GB threatened to turn their participation into a grand testimonial with the inclusion of Ryan Giggs and, almost, David Beckham. Even the squad that was announced seemed a bit of a snub. It’s not hard to see why people dislike it so much. But, it’s still the most watched sport in the games, and dispassionately, it would seem strange not to include the world’s most popular sport in the world’s largest sporting event.
People complain that football is just a money-making exercise at the Games, those people also seem surprised that the biggest companies expect special treatment for their multi-million pound sponsorship. If you think that football’s inclusion is invidious, then consider Beach volleyball, a truly awful sport that seems openly included for men to ogle at women in bikinis. In Rio, we’ll see Olympic golf and rugby champions. Both are clearly money decisions.
So, football is not quite the black sheep of the sporting family but it is disliked. Rather than continually trying to dominate other sports, we’d do well to recognise that we are part of a much bigger sporting family. Let’s show other sports a bit more respect rather than continuously trying to grow maniacally to prove how rich and important football is.