First published in Training Zone
Any failure is hard to bear but one where the team finished bottom of the table and were the first to be relegated is doubly hard. No glorious fight to the finish or plucky rally but an ignominious downright straight up failure. No saving graces really and not much to cling onto in terms of “if only this decision… or if only that ball had gone in”. No this was defeat fair and square.
But there are always lessons to be learned. And lest self-pity overwhelms rational thought (this, after all, is a great club), here are my ten lessons learned for the wider benefit of the community and they are not just about football. Because if football means anything then it is universal in its impact and application. So here goes:
1. It is not about individual talent. This is somewhat of a cliche but it is true nevertheless. Here was a team laden with international players of high calibre yet they failed to retain their place in the Premiership. They did not look like a coherent team; they did not play like a coherent team; and, if the rumours of training ground discord are to be believed, they did not behave like a coherent team.
2. You have to believe in your team mates and trust them for the overall performance to raise. Discord and disharmony rush onto the heels of distrust and disrespect. Without that fundamental mutual accord, a blame culture begins, and then everyone is trying hard not necessarily to do the right thing but to do nothing wrong. Trying hard not to stick your neck out too far lest it get chopped off always ends up with poor team performance. This was a suspicious and distrustful operation and it got worse and worse.
3. Leadership is critical. This, again, may be a cliche, but it is still true at a profound level. The leadership was lacking and there was no plan or motivation. Avram Grant proved to be neither a gifted technician nor a powerful motivational leader. And without strong leadership there is no sense of direction and no commitment to get things right on the part of the players.
4. Don’t flog dead horses. It was clear by January that Grant was hopeless. Yet the owners persisted with him against all expectations (including Grant’s it would seem). There was only the flimsiest of evidence that Grant could turn round a failing team after not achieving much all the way through the first half of the season.
5. Hope over expectation is not a good philosophy. But we all persist in believing that everything will come right. Occasionally this is true but mostly the odds are correct. As the Irish saying goes: ‘the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that is the way to bet!’ Taking the hard decision early usually pays off in the end. Would Tottenham have survived in the Premiership with Jol in charge? Would West Brom have stayed up if they had not appointed Roy Hodgson in January. Two hard decisions that seem, with the benefit of hindsight, right and sensible.
6. Winning is winning. Saying that they played well, saying they were unlucky week after week does not make up for the lack of points. After protest upon protest, it appeared as though self-delusion had set in, and a leader who believed his own rhetoric was dangerous and out of control, because he was disconnected with reality.
7. Demotivation is hard to turn round. It is one of the salient truths that it is faster to slip into demotivation than it is to climb out of it. And a team with its head down just seems to lose out again and again. ‘You make your own luck’ seems hauntingly true when you see luck not just running out, but hurtling in the other direction.
8. We build our own luck. The great teams simply never give up. They fight for the full 90 minutes and can do spectacular things right up to the end. They believe in themselves and their own ability, so fighting is obvious and natural. And the opposite is obviously true.
9. This trauma was eminently avoidable. There was no need for West Ham to be relegated. They had plenty of really good players and showed form on a few occasions when they discovered a bit of passion and flair. But they could not survive without a change of leader and that decision was never made until it was too late. So blame no one but the people in charge who failed to make a tough decision. As a result, they will have to make a string of tougher decisions over the coming months. Another truth: avoiding action now often means tougher action later.
10. Doing nothing is often worse than doing something. Fear stops you making a difficult decision, and the result is paralysis. A ‘new beginning’ regardless of whether it is new or even a beginning clears the table and prepares those involved to get stuck in, with a different attitude and perspective. The Hawthorn research of the 1930s showed that. Allowing the status quo to stagnate and then fester, ends up in disaster most times.
So the great insight is that leadership is important and motivation is critical; (always assuming that your team has exceptional skills). A football team is like any workplace team except that their actions and talent (or lack of it) are visible on the outside. For all those wringing their hands in despair at their team’s performance or leaping at the memory of a great season – look inside the workplace: does it feel like West Ham or does it feel like Man U. And there should only be one possible answer to that question if you are going to hang around!