THE BLOG

Corporate Soundbites, Real Leadership

08/07/2015 12:39 BST | Updated 06/07/2016 10:59 BST

Mark Sampson realises his stock is pretty high now. He has also proved me wrong in the last two weeks, and I'd hazard a guess I'm not the only one.

I'm not going to be hypocritical and say that the prospect of watching women's football is as exciting as watching elite men play because for me the product just isn't the same. As the Women's World Cup started and England put in a pretty conservative and uninspired performance against a France side that looked, player for player, superior both technically and physically, I made my mind up. I wouldn't be staying up into the wee small hours to watch this.

But it now, in retrospect, occurs to me that this is where the similarities between this England team and previous, men's, England teams began. Italia 90 particularly spring to mind.

England grew into the tournament and eventually covered themselves in glory with an inspired performance. Sampson and his team worked to a plan, one based on getting the very best out of their available resources to enable them to not only compete against the traditional giants of the women's game, but prove that they can beat them.

Anyone who watched couldn't help but be impressed by the togetherness of the whole squad, the belief they showed, the bravery of their performances and the emotions that were clearly running so high. They did their country proud and it was wonderful to see.

And for me, Sampson deserves a huge amount of credit, much of which he is deservedly receiving. His leadership qualities really impressed me, but so did his football brain. But just 2 weeks earlier, I was not so impressed with him.

His interview after the France game was, for me, full of corporate soundbites and references designed to kid the viewing public into thinking this was all part of the plan. Despite his team having been 2nd best by some distance, he suggested that they "managed" the game well. I didn't agree, and I felt Sampson lacked authenticity and honesty. A team can only be lauded for game management performance if they are at least in with a chance of getting a positive result from the game - England weren't. It certainly didn't appear to be the "excellent performance" Sampson suggested it was, but he fell short of suggesting we the viewers should look into his eyes (and not around his eyes). I wasn't convinced.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/33073928

I made my mind up about Sampson - a coach who had read his FA rubber stamped job description and England DNA manual but who couldn't deliver. Worse still, he seemed dead set on trying to kid the world and in doing so, lacked authenticity and honesty. If you're kidding yourself the players will see through your messages. Not a recipe for success in my book.

But from that moment on, the performances of the players on the pitch just got better with every game. Victories against Mexico, Colombia, Norway, and Canada showed the hallmarks of a team that was growing in belief. The semi final against Japan ended in glorious, and undeserved, defeat before they picked themselves off the floor to beat Germany in a 3rd place play off that was so fiercely competitive that they could have been mistaken as two teams in the final.

What gradually became apparent was the team ethic that Sampson has developed, a steadfast belief that if they all worked together to a plan that they could achieve great things. The players clearly bought in, they believed in the plan Sampson and his staff had created, and they trusted him. The emotional bonds developed between the players themselves, and with the staff were very evident. The work that went in to all of this must have been exhaustive, behind the scenes. And all the time, Sampson and the FA managed the media messages - the external communications, the very public expressions of unity and togetherness, the words spoken by the players in their press interviews....it was extremely well co-ordinated but by the knockout stages, we all believed it. The authenticity I felt was missing was in fact there and probably had been all along. At the final whistle just seconds after the heartbreak of Laura Bassett's own goal against Japan, I was converted, inspired by what I had seen.

And then I saw a tweet from the BBC's Caroline Barker the day after that implored me to watch footage from the post match press conference

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5XC2M6j1bc

The very best coaches in the men's game will tell you that the emotional connection you have with your players is what sets the best coaches apart from their contemporaries. They will also tell you that raw passion is a key ingredient, if you don't live for the game and care deeply about it, how can you expect your players to?

I will use Sampson's words as a reference point for this in the future - his leadership qualities are beyond doubt for me having watched this.

But I also want to highlight Sampson's football qualities. He didn't conform style wise to the England DNA - the FA's recently developed blueprint for all England teams, but that's of little concern to me.

What he did do was adapt, probably the most important tactical quality a coach needs to be successful with a team. He changed the shape, he changed personnel, he made changes during games to deal with challenges or expose opportunities as they became apparent. All very impressive, but it only works if you have spent long hours working with the players so that they understand their role in that plan - without complete understanding the plans don't get executed. Clearly Sampson is a great leader, manager and tactician, but it appears he can also coach too

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YE1EU1Zlc-g

It can be a subjective thing, looking at a coach at work and judging how effective they are. But for me, I've seen enough there to say he's a very effective coach.

In addition, Sampson added the detail that can win you football matches. It may sound cynical, but managing the officials, planning when players should stay down when they've taken a knock to take the sting out the game and other such game management tactics are important, and his players understood this. Their very robust approach to the challenge the German team represented was also clearly driven by Sampson. The Germans has bullied opposition sides in previous games and England made sure that they were the ones who were going to do the bullying right from the whistle - they did it without being irresponsible and picking up cards and it was a key psychological win that gave them a platform to go and win the game. Meticulous planning, excellent execution.

So in the words of Dr Jake Houseman (come on, everyone has seen Dirty Dancing haven't they??!!) - "I was wrong and I say I'm wrong".

Can Sampson continue the growth mindset he has created? Like any project, it's about the environment and the culture as much as the people, but England has a great leader and I take my hat off to him.

As for the men's game and what it can learn from this....it's complicated and we'll leave that for another day