As Southgate walked around the pitch at the end of the game he gave each of the players a consoling, father like embrace, whispering sweet words of encouragement in their ear. I needed one of those that night too.
Every hero’s story normally begins with the hero not wanting to take the challenge at hand, before reluctantly accepting the calling. As they set out to conquer it, they face many roadblocks along the way, before finally tasting the glories of the battlefield. We are simply at the start of this story.
I don’t want to celebrate our glorious failure. I want to use this to move forward, or as Southgate would say “fulfil our potential”. These players were unlikely to win the World Cup as their first major trophy. They simply have not failed enough in the past to do so.
Every breakthrough is preceded by a breakdown. This is what living a full and meaningful life is all about; being out there committed to making breakthroughs, not sat in our comfort zone trying to avoid breakdowns. Combine this with a belief that overcoming difficult circumstances is what builds resilience and you have a recipe for success.
What has happened since Southgate took over, and has bubbled to the surface over the last few weeks, is largely based on psychology. No longer is it an opt in, opt out approach. The whole team has bought into it. It is simple stuff, incredibly difficult to master and far removed from the Eileen Drewery experiment of France ’98! Maybe Gazza’s hotel suite demolition or Beckham’s petulant flick would never have happened if we had employed a couple of these simple practices.
It is this psychology that took us to the semi-finals in Russia 2018, and it is this way of thinking that will take us to the final in Qatar in 4 years-time;
1. Performance over results
Southgate has consistently spoken about and praised the performance of the team, over the end product. Inputs over outputs. How over what; highlighting Sterling’s impact on the opposition rather than his lack of goals as well as his preference for how the team played in the narrow victory over Tunisia rather than the free scoring stroll against the Panamanians.
The focus is on what you can control; applying a skill to a task. Pickford handing the ball to the penalty takers in the shoot-out, rather than the opposition goalkeeper, is all about ‘owning the process’. No other sport has such fine margins as in football and so mastering this is paramount.
Focus on what you can control and influence, not what you can’t.
2. Excited, not nervous
It is easy to be consumed by our emotions and thought processes. The meaning we apply to a situation can be edited, as can the subsequent flow of emotions and thoughts that follow it. When a situation is interpreted as a threat, the challenge is in being present enough to reframe it as an opportunity. Thereby also reframing the emotions and thoughts associated with it. Dele Alli put this beautifully by describing how he felt about taking a penalty “excited, not nervous”. They are two sides of the same coin.
3. “I trust you”
Human nature is reciprocal. If you trust me I am more likely to trust you. If you take away my social media, my WAG or in Capello’s case, my humanity, it will only serve to tell me how little you trust me to be responsible and make the right decisions.
Sessions to help the players open up and share their story acted as an invitation for others to do the same. This created connection, fostered understanding and broke down silo’s – the curse of the modern business.
Southgate gets this. Stretching beyond the players and staff, his hand-written notes to the media demonstrated how this really was a team game. Waistcoat leadership is based on the principles of empathy. Our millennial generation of players no longer respond to the barking orders of the alpha male Big Sam’s’ of the footballing world. That dinosaur is dead.
4. Embrace failure
Breakdowns, or failures, are what enable us to grow, learn and feel alive. If you are not chasing failure you are not pushing yourself hard enough. We are socialised to live a comfortable life … and a slow painful death. Never mind that, let’s live life in our stretch zone and bathe in the eustress it brings. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, that is exactly the thing you should be going towards. Hold your vision and trust the process.
5. Talent and succession
St. George’s Park has been a success. England’s youth teams are winning major tournaments and the connection with the fans has been restored. All of this will continue to flood through to the first team. Imagine this side four years on; Loftus-Cheek, Rashford and Alli in their pomp, injected with the likes of Brewster, Foden and Sancho. Talent and succession planning will win out. The great Dutch, French, German and Belgian sides have all been built on it. Our time is next.
We have created an identity and with it a positive future for the England team, controlling fear and not allowing it to have its wicked way with us again.
And yes, the challenge will be bigger next time; we will improve and so will everyone else. The draw will not open up like it has this time. And we will be playing in amongst the sand dunes. However, we will be ‘owning the process’ of winning in the World Cup once more.
The England team is suddenly important again and football fans across the country no longer need to fear the international break. This is the most I’ve enjoyed watching England for 20 years. Thank you for an amazing few weeks. One more game would be wonderful next time.