Even in defeat, English sport still gives us much to cheer | Emma John
England rugby fans know what to expect. Yesterday’s result in Yokohama is going to hurt for a while yet, much like the bruises that the South African forwards left all over Elliot Daly’s body. However magnanimously we praise the Springboks’ performance, those of us who devote our lives to following England’s sporting teams will still be waking up to the cold, clammy thought of “what if” for at least the rest of the week.
It can be hard to see the positives. And yet, with a little perspective, England’s sporting teams have never looked so healthy. Two World Cup final appearances in the same year is an achievement well worth celebrating on its own; the England cricket team’s victory at Lord’s was the first of its kind, while our footballers are in the best form in more than a couple of generations.
Google can’t keep up with England’s new identity as a sporting powerhouse. It still autofills the question: “Why are England so… ” with the kneejerk suggestions: “bad at cricket”, “bad at football”, “bad at penalties”. Although I can’t be sure whether that says more about Silicon Valley’s algorithms or my tortured search history.
Still: Google is an ass. England aren’t bad at cricket or football; they’re not even bad at penalties any more. Both Gareth Southgate’s men and Phil Neville’s women reached their last World Cup semis. At a time when Britain is plunging down the world rankings of global politics, it is a comforting and even surprising reminder that England remains capable of holding its own on the international stage.
This kind of sporting progress requires more than just money; as the England football team’s serial failures have demonstrated, the money needs to be well spent. It needs to purchase wisdom and competence and it needs to be put to work within effective systemsthat serve a common goal. The triumph of British athletes at the past two Olympic Games demonstrated what was possible; since London 2012, the big three of football, cricket and rugby have hoovered up the ideas and inspiration of less prominent and wealthy sports (marginal gains, anyone?).
Focus and organisation have prevailed – to a fault, in English cricket’s case, where the single-minded pursuit of one-day victory has left the Test side looking weakened and, frankly, a bit of an afterthought. There has been much talk this year of England sides being allowed to “express themselves” – to play in confident, risk-taking styles that have often felt rather at odds with the traditional British way of doing things. But that fearlessness has, in each case, been accompanied with sensible oversight and a humility as attractive as it is effective.
Perhaps it helped that the men’s cricket and rugby teams were both charting a course from rock bottom – both were embarrassingly eliminated before the knockout stages of their respective 2015 World Cups. Both, too, have captains happy to stay out of the limelight – neither Eoin Morgan nor Owen Farrell is likely to launch their own cologne – and who share an instinct for promoting harmony in very diverse dressing rooms.
For a long time in this country, governing bodies and supporters alike subscribed to the Great Man theory of sport. Success was seen to rest on a star player – we needed an all-rounder to replace Ian Botham, a right foot to match David Beckham’s, a fly half to fill Jonny Wilkinson’s boots. England’s never-ending football woes could only be solved by selecting a magic manager, be that a foreign Svengali such as Sven-Göran Eriksson or an honest John such as Roy Hodgson.
Something has changed. Southgate was no one’s idea of Napoleon. Trevor Bayliss, England’s cricket coach, repeatedly sought to undermine the importance of his own role and his profile when he left the job, the first ever to shepherd England’s men to a World Cup win, was still not as high as his soundalike who invented the wind-up radio.
As for players, Southgate and Eddie Jones have both demonstrated there’s no such thing as favoured status in their sides. And while Ben Stokes may have one clawed hand on the sports personality of the year trophy, his summer heroics were forged from a selfless determination to do whatever his team needed. There is a generosity to each of these sides that has made them a joy to follow: Eoin Morgan was parading the cricket World Cup a week after winning it and a fan asked him if he could touch the trophy; he handed it over with the quiet words: “It’s as much yours as it is mine.”
At a time when so many political leaders are revelling in the division they create, wouldn’t it be nice if those in other spheres could learn from our sporting heroes? The ability to put egos to one side and find a mutually beneficial goal to aim for would be a start.