I recently saw an interview with athlete Dame Sarah Storey who is about to compete in her eighth Paralympics. Asked if she still felt any pressure after winning seventeen gold medals over such a long period she said no, she simply trusted the process that has worked in the past and she’ll see where it takes her.
Trusting the process is a common theme in elite sport; the process is the bit you control, not your opponents, context or even the ultimate outcome, even when they scream for your attention. When Luke Shaw scored after two minutes in the final of the Euros, the analysts were as lost in the emotion of the moment as the fans and players. England’s swashbuckling opening was praised, what was noticeable was not that Italy struck back immediately – they had to weather more of the storm – it was more that they didn’t. Their experience told them to trust the process and play the whole ninety or one hundred and twenty minutes. They were confident they would create chances, score goals and win the game.
Where England were anxious to get things over with quickly, putting it to bed before half-an-hour was up, Italy took their time, allowing their opponents to blow themselves out before overhauling them. The best teams do this; they’re not impatient to win, they trust their ability – the process – and don’t get distracted by the intended outcome. Ninety minutes is plenty of time to make a process work.
Last night’s win over Crewe showed signs in us of the patience you see in the better teams. After Saturday’s win, the temptation may have been to put on a proper show against a comparatively low-level side. Rather than trying to blast through their defences in an attempt to win the game before half-time, we seemed to take a more mature approach, trusting the process and turning the screw.
It was clear that Crewe would offer little threat as long as we didn’t panic. In the main, it worked. We created chances and pegged them back even though the opening phase was peppered with frustrating micro-mistakes that fragmented the play. Maybe plans to keep turning the screw in the final half-an-hour were scuppered by the injuries to Holland, Williams and Bodin, which forced Agyei and Whyte into the play before we really wanted them. We were dealt a difficult hand, but we didn’t panic, we still handled it.
Years ago I saw Alex Ferguson-era Manchester United playing Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League at Old Trafford. Despite conceding early, it struck me how Manchester United fans were as patient as their players. The team’s performance was undoubtedly below-par but their experience of winning meant the panicky hollering, scapegoating and frustrations you see in other grounds were absent. Everyone trusted the processes that had brought success previously. Fittingly, Ryan Giggs came on and provided a masterclass cameo to set up an equaliser before a last minute Ronaldo free-kick overhauled the Portuguese.
Trust is, without doubt, the hardest thing to achieve in sport. It’s very easy for fans not to trust players’ effort or ability, players lose trust in their own ability, maintaining a sweet spot where fans, management and players are at peace with each other is a huge challenge, one that we’ve met so far this season.
The relationships are now as solid as they’ve been in years; we know the players can compete, they know we’re behind them, it might be that we’re ready for that push to the next level.
Perhaps it’s because the fans are a little less reactive at the moment, pacified by the 18 months away from games, content with just being back in the stadium. Maybe we’re not quite warmed up or on edge like we would be in normal circumstances. Whatever the reason for the newfound patience, it’s allowed us to build the solid start we all know we needed.
It helps that, up front at least, there are always options – if one plan isn’t working another can be brought into play, the assuredness that comes from having a plan, and a backup is important. Our Achilles heel is at the back; last year Robinson relied on Atkinson, Moore, Ruffels and Long for most of the season, praying they stayed fit and on form, this season is already showing what a risk that was, we’re already looking a bit threadbare.
But this is the never-quite-finished feature of lower-league football, in fact any football with the exception of a handful of mega-clubs who can buy anyone they choose. Trust will ultimately bring success, a big part of which might have to be our trust in the risks we need to take along the way.