Giles Smith is still away so this week the columnist baton is handed to Lord Sebastian Coe, who, as a lifelong Blues fan and chairman of the British Olympic Association, is well-placed to look at the start to the season and how English football could benefit from other sports…
Now, it’s understandable to have pretty high expectations for the season when it starts with Jose Mourinho as your manager because he is, in my opinion, the most thoughtful and inspirational one we’ve ever had – and I go back a long way! Some of the best football we’ve played in my lifetime was of course under Dave Sexton, who was as thoughtful as Jose and had a slightly different approach.
But Jose deserves great credit for the shape the squad is in already. We haven’t always played the best football this season – his words, not mine – but we are just a couple of points off the summit of the Premier League table and we’re top of our Champions League group, too.When Jose came back I suspected there was not going to be an instant transition because he was inevitably going to ask the team to do something different, but the journey has started and it’s been a really positive beginning.
The players, and in particular the younger players, should also take great credit for absorbing his ideas and philosophy as quickly as they have. The experienced guys will be very familiar with his approach on the training ground and during games, but for the young players – and we are a young side now – it’s a steep learning curve working with a manager as exacting and demanding as Jose, but I can remember having similar discussions early in his first tenure around Joe Cole, who he ultimately turned him into a world-class player.
It’s a long season ahead and the fact that there are so many new managers in the Premier League is going to make it even more interesting. Where I think we have the advantage is we have a man in charge that has already steered the club to a league title. Jose knows what it takes to close out a season as champions.
Psychology plays a pivotal role in modern sport. I don’t think I’ve ever met a great coach who hasn’t also been a very good psychologist. The best, like Jose Mourinho, know which buttons to press in a changing room, whether that’s at half-time or on the training ground a week before a game. There is not an unending conveyor belt of performance in sport, and everybody is very different.
The best coaches, across all sports, can quickly recognise who responds to what, and they will know when to be strong with somebody or when to put an arm around their shoulder. Coaching is as much an art as it is a science, and those at the top will always recognise that. They add the modern application of science to their own natural intuition and instinctiveness and so when it comes to the delicate and nuanced judgements that have to be made, they more often than not make the correct decisions. For young players, in particular, that’s a very important concept. You don’t want to bring them on too quickly because you risk losing that mental and physical edge.
There is nowhere where that is more evident right now than at Chelsea. I’ve been keeping a close eye on our Academy and I think our supporters are in for a treat over the next few years. There’s always an extra excitement when you see young players at the club who have the potential to break through, and there’s no doubt we have some youngsters who are going to force their way into the first team because they are really exciting, precocious talents.
As we look to the future, a lot has been made and said of the composition of the newly-created FA commission, which is pursuing a noble quest in trying to work out how to produce a truly world-class England football team. Of course, it has to focus on football, but one aspect that has been overlooked is that this may be too important a question to be left entirely in football’s hands.
We have some sports in this country that have unquestionably produced the best teams in the world, such as rowing or cycling, and have proven that during the past two or three Olympic Games. People like David Tanner (British Rowing’s performance director) and Dave Brailsford (performance director of British Cycling) have produced world-class winning teams for a great deal longer than England have played consistently good football.
I know you can’t compare football and rowing but you can certainly compare the philosophy that underpins great performance in sport. So I would like to see on the FA’s commission somebody beyond the game of football who does really understand what producing top-class athletes is about.
The kind of things that they do at the moments when it matters most, in terms of performance and athlete management, is a transferable skill.