A Team Game

Who hasn’t been confined to the ‘naughty corner’ or missed a playtime for punishment at school? The agony of hearing your mates shouting and laughing outside and the thump-thump of a ball being kicked around whilst you’re forbidden the fun cuts deep in childhood. We’re social animals and any type of exclusion, unless it’s some kind of self-imposed exile or escape, is difficult to deal with. So, too, with rejection. Such experiences can be instantly devastating and long-term traumatising.

Team sports, at any level, deal with selection. By definition, that means players will be in or out of a squad. The key to this conundrum is how situations are managed. A shared team ethos – team-spirit – is crucial to success and for that we look, principally, to the manager.

Tongue-in-cheek, it’s said that the world of football can be divided into those who support Manchester United and those who ‘hate’ the club. There’s little, it seems, in-between. Reasons vary as to why this might be so but envy of wealth, success and mass-marketing of their merchandise would figure. So, too, the arrogance that football fans feel is all too evident at Old Trafford. If the last week at United has drawn sighs of despair from the faithful (and that’s without considering their latest 1-3 home loss to Brighton!), it’s had the rest of us football followers wondering just what is going on at the club.

United might manufacture some stories to maintain their high-profile in the media but not the kind of recent horror show played out by at least three players and a manager at the latest count.

Antonio (already suspended by Brazil) has been given leave of absence to address accusations of violence against women; Harry Maguire – his future unresolved – is left to sit and seethe on the bench; and Jason Sancho, missing from the squad for disciplinary reasons, is becoming a key character in a battle of wills with manager Ten Hag. All of which has been fuelled by shooting-from-the-hip social-media snarking.

It’s easy – as a non-United fan – to sit and gloat over their current in-house challenges but they are, at heart, a reflection of some of the issues football is dealing with at a more general level.

Aged 23, Sancho should be hitting his prime as a player and yet here he is, embroiled in an ugly squabble which might have been resolved had it not been for his taking to social-media. According to him, he’s the victim of ‘scapegoating’ in an underperforming team. For Ten Hag (brought into the club, in part, to restore discipline) his suspension from team selection is because of his performance in training. According to an official club statement, Sancho is now: ‘On a personal training programme away from the first team group pending resolution of a squad discipline issue’. He’s been excluded.

Brian Clough was legendary for knowing which players to berate, which to cajole and which to console. That is: who’d get an ear-full and who an arm around the shoulder. He didn’t have to deal with social-media, which may have significantly tested his management skills, but he was supreme, along with Taylor, of engendering a fantastic team ethic. All of their teams were greater than the sum of their parts. I’m sure there were times when individual players felt they didn’t get a fair deal, a decent run in the first team, but there were few complaints and certainly no outlets for players to vent their frustrations in public.

Times change and football, particularly at Premiership league level, has evolved faster than many other industries. Managerial skills move with the times but its heartbeat is still working effectively and fairly with a bunch of very talented individuals to galvanise them into a successful unit, a cohesive team. That’s best achieved in a culture of inclusivity, where there’s mutual respect and trust. That would be relationships.

Bring on Steve Cooper. Any manager who can deal with a new squad before launching into a first year as a Premiership manager deserves some respect. What Cooper has done – and continues to do – is maintain a balance between the needs of the team (to survive and prosper) and the needs of individuals to feel part of the plan. He is still learning and finding out that there are no easy fixtures in the top league. Forest need to be better organised than last season, more cute to the strengths (and every team has quality strikers) of the opposition.

But we all know that individual moments of skill win matches and so players have to be given freedom as well as responsibilities. Cue Callum Hudson-Odoi. He first crossed paths with Steve Cooper as an England player at youth level. Now they’re reunited. There is history there, a ready-made bond. Result? The striker scores a wonderful equaliser against Burnley to keep the Reds on course for a decent start to the season and to maintain a proud home record. A happy beginning for all at the City Ground.

Meanwhile, back at Old Trafford, there’s work to be done. Sancho has been petulant, Ten Hag playing-up his hard-man-disciplinary style. I’m no fan of United but I don’t like to see talent go to waste. Rule number one, surely, in any team game, is to make all individuals feel included, part of the plan. Exclusion is neither healthy for players, managers or clubs. Perhaps Steve Cooper – on current form – has a lot to offer others in the game of football. Who wouldn’t want to be in his team?

*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

*Main image @NFFC Steve Cooper has now been in charge at Forest for 2 full years.

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