Unlocking the code

Among Michael Appleton’s increasing scrapheap of soundbites the one about finding the right DNA for the club endures above almost all others. To be fair to Appleton, I’m not sure he actually said it, that could have been Mark Ashton, but it is a philosophy he stands by.

Actually, DNA isn’t a bad analogy to use if you apply it properly. DNA is frequently presented as a mystery of the universe, a light-force, a product of some unknown power. This isn’t surprising because what DNA does is remarkable.

However, DNA is a molecule containing a code, a sequence of instructions that, astonishingly, give us life. Now, given that logic is the product of us humans and humans define what science and logic is, then DNA isn’t a mystical thing, it is the origin of logic and rationality. Finding the right DNA is not channelling some mythical power source, its applying logic, solving a code which will result in success.

To illustrate where Michael Appleton has got it wrong is to look at how codes work, how DNA works. Matthew Syed in his book Bounce talks about this in the context of learning. Here’s a code which is a sequence of eleven letters:


If I asked you to remember that code, you would probably be able to remember perhaps 4 or 5 of the letters. Moreover, if I asked you to tell me what it meant, you would have no idea.

Here’s another eleven letter code:


If I asked you to remember that code, then chances are you would be able to rattle them off without a second thought. Not only that, you would probably be able to tell me what the code meant.
That’s because we have developed a sophisticated set of tools to interpret that code, we understand them as letters, group letters together to make sounds, we group sounds to make words, and then we have a reference library of meanings to attach to those words.

Football management is infinitely more difficult than this, of course, the number of variables run into billions when you combine players’ attributes with injury and age with opponents and available resources and so on. Nobody should pretend this is easy.

However, the point still stands, because there is one utterly critical and controllable fact that has made establishing our DNA, our code to success, virtually impossible.

I chose eleven letter sequences in the above because there are eleven players in a football team. Say each letter represents a player, the order in which the players play should be recognisable if we’re to decode a team’s DNA. We know the first syllable is ABB, we know, because of the letters around it the ‘e’ is pronounced ‘ee’ and the second ‘a’ as ‘ay’. Each letter has meaning, but each letter also gives meaning to the other letters. A word is a surprisingly sophisticated code when you think about it, but we can solve it in a flash through endless hours of learning.

But, what Michael Appleton is doing is changing the code constantly by signing more and more players, replacing one with another. The changes are bewildering; it’s like asking the team to solve a code where a letter changes constantly. Keeping up with the letters in the code is hard enough, giving it meaning is impossible.

While we can provide endless arguments about resources and the pitch, the swapping of players is utterly controllable. Even if you take the difficult code above, with enough time you would begin to remember it, I could even give it meaning – like having a code to unlock a padlock. So, even a sub-optimal code is better than one which is changing all the time.

Of course in the perfect world you stumble across a DNA that works straight away, but we seem to have changed almost everything about the team on a continual basis. Quite how that is expected to deliver success, I have no idea.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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