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Cameron and Miliband could learn a lot from Monsieur Wenger

Posted on 8 October 2010 | 11:10am

I was interviewed by a student paper the other day, and asked what I had wanted to be when I was 7, 14 and 21. The answer was footballer, footballer and footballer even if, probably by age 7, and certainly by age 14, I knew it wasn’t going to happen.

But even if you don’t fulfil your original ambition, you can fulfil variations of them in later life, when you have fulfilled a few other non-related ones. So what that I was 49 by the time I made my international debut in a charity match alongside Diego Maradona, Gianfranco Zola, David Ginola, Dunga, Marcel Desailly, Peter Schmeichel and others? Or 50 by the time Pele was wandering into the dressing room at Stoke City to wish me luck in another charity match, and 51 when I nutmegged Graeme Le Saux at Wembley, a few seconds before he got his revenge.

The Maradona match was up there in my top twenty all time experiences. So was my first marathon, my first triathlon, my first ascent of Mont Ventoux, my run in Ethiopia with Haile Gebreselassie and Paul Tergat, all done when I was well into my forties.

And one of the best things about my life of relative freedom now is that a fair bit of it revolves around sport, doing it, watching it, watching my kids do it, advising on it, thinking about it, meeting people in it.

So yesterday to a conference at Stamford Bridge on leadership in sport, where I was interviewing Lance Armstrong’s brilliant sporting director, John Bruyneel, and where earlier I managed to catch a session, and then have lunch with, Arsene Wenger and legendary baseball coach Billy Beane, who will be known to anyone who has read Moneyball.

Sport may be different to politics, but one of the reasons I love it is because you can learn so much about one via the other. I know Ed Miliband and David Cameron had other things on their plates yesterday, what with shadow cabinet elections and rows with defence chiefs, but both could have learned a lot listening to Wenger, Beane and Bruyneel, huge achievers in their chosen fields, and real experts in the building of teams.

Over lunch, the Arsenal manager accepted that it was easier to manage difficult members of the team in sport – you got rid of them – than in politics, where even if you sacked them, they were still hanging around the pitch and the changing room. Likewise as a result of the shadow cabinet elections system, Ed Miliband cannot even pick his top team, which may seem like it is healthily democratic, but in leadership and team building terms is a dreadful model.

Yet so many of the principles of leadership and team building are the same in both arenas. Clarity of purpose and objective. (Still a bit woolly from DC, and too early to see from EM). The requirement of an obsession about winning matched by a hatred of losing, requiring attention to every detail, and the margin of every detail that may have an impact upon outcome and performance. (Child benefit policy announcement suggests DC not great on attention to detail). Honest and ongoing analysis of strengths and weaknesses, of your own and of your opponents. Special attention for the special players. Never underestimating your opponents, or devising strategy according to what you want to be the truth, rather than what in reality it may be. (Labour activists have a habit of imagining everyone thinks like they do – to be avoided). Tenacity, never giving up, fighting hardest when the battle is toughest. Constant pushing of boundaries … I loved Wenger’s quote ‘the comfort-zone is the enemy of top level sport … every day is a battle between the comfort zone and “can I be the best?”‘

I have met Wenger before and have wondered whether he hasn’t been a bit suspicious because of my friendship with Alex Ferguson. Perhaps because their enmity has cooled in recent years, yesterday he could not have been warmer nor more giving in terms of insight. He definitely has a touch of the genius about him. He is a deep thinker.

He also knows the importance of always keeping your players on their toes, understanding they need the leader more than he needs them. Billy Beane put it another way – if your team wins eight in a row, you still have to make sure there is a ‘level of discomfort’ in the ranks, that they do not assume they are now invincible.

What came over from Wenger, much more than in his interviews, was a real understanding of humanity and human nature, and that too is one of the keys to leadership. He said people are lost in their dreams … they say they want to be the greatest player, or the greatest actress, or they want to stop drinking … ‘I say what is your plan? Your plan right now? What are you doing right now, in this moment, to make the dream come true?’

With data analysis now so much a part of elite sport, he was asked if he would like to see the day when managers could hire players without even meeting them, because so much information was available. He pulled a face, and said No, certainly not. ‘The value of the human being,’ he said ‘is to see, and to love.’ He loves good footballers, but the judgement is not just about their data, but about their personality, their character, their family, their friends.

Then there is another ingredient – he wants them to be frustrated, angry sometimes, always wanting to do more, to get better, to keep motivating themselves to keep improving.

Sport, politics, it’s all about people. Understanding them. Wanting them to do well. For themselves, and for others. Building them as a team. In politics, so much of the focus is on the leaders. But it is teams that win.

  • James

    Teams do win, but they are usually lead by a small group of decisive people. In New Labour it was Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell who offered the real vision and direction. Great days indeed.

    It took the distaster that was Gordon Brown to bring it to a shuddering halt and now we have ‘Lack of Cred’ Miliband showing us all how it shouldn’t be done.

    Let’s hear a ringing endorsement for Ed from someone who knows what it takes to win 3 elections. What’s that Alastair, complete silence? You for one know your politics.

    Total shambles, Cameron must be laughing his head off.

  • Olli Issakainen

    When meeting new players Brian Clough used to ask: What is your problem – betting, booze or women? I think footballers should think themselves as top sportsmen and behave in that manner both on and off the field.
    When Burnley FC signs new players, they want right sort of persons. Primadonnas do not do well at Gawthorpe. Burnley have a tremendous team spirit. Annual trips abroad are important for bonding.
    It seems to me that Messrs Cameron and Osborne simply do not know what they are doing with Big Society and cuts. Big Society is not going anywhere on rhetoric alone, and there is now talk that some of the cuts will be delayed.
    There is no clarity or sense of direction!
    My ambition in life was to become the London correspondent of our “BBC”. The post is now scrapped, so perhaps I was lucky not to achieve my goal. Instead, I am now “reporting” on British politics from Finland to Britons thanks to AC´s site!
    Having dealt with shares since the age of 12, I have spent the last 30 years analysing stock markets and quoted companies. But my ambition is still to work in Britain one day. Ed Miliband, do you want any additional advisers in your team?

  • Paul Farrell

    I am loving your attempts to be loyal and supportive of Ed Miliband when you clearly think he is not up to it … your problem, AC, is that whilst your opponents say you lie, in fact you are not very good at it because you prefer to speak the truth. So if I read you well, people like you, Blair, Ferguson, Wenger are people who get others people and who do everything they can to get their organisation on the right track … Miliband does not get other people and is arlready taking his organisation on the wrong track … Am I geting warm??

  • Sarah-dodds

    Really interested in this, because it has helped me quantify why the head of my school is so exceptional. Many of his qualities are the same – the ability to balance that bit of friction and leadership, whilst at the same time ensuring that everyone is and feels truly valued and nurtured (staff and kids). It truly is all about people.
    And just to hark back to yesterday’s blog about Labour’s record. Half way through the evening I realised what it reminded me of…does anyone remember the Monty Python clip (from the Life of Brian, I think) about “what the Romans ever did for us?” It most be on YouTube, if I can I’ll find it…..

  • Felicity Wardle

    But is the kind of obsessiveness you seem to admire really a good thing? Is it healty? Does an organisation need it or are organisationns not better off with calm more than obsession?

  • Taximan

    Let’s be honest, as ed might say, fergie only likes wenger more than he used to cos since invincible season he has been less of threat. Good blog tho … enjoyed it

  • s chapman

    Hitting thw wrong note again dude….I think there is plenty clarity and plenty direction re the cuts….needed , required and essential.
    By the way if you are so bearish re Cameron and Osborn best you don’t come to the UK for work….do us all a favour.

  • Richard Brittain


    Wenger occasionally comes across as bad tempered when he loses, but the greatness of the man cannot be questioned. This insight into his inspirational skills is fantastic. I ask myself whether I am doing anything right now to fulfill my dreams and the answer is no. “I’ll start that pretty soon”. Wenger’s simple yet brilliant questioning inspires me to do something today.

  • Nicky

    Oh yes, plenty of clarity/direction regarding the Child Benefit fiasco that Dave and George just sprang on the rest of their Cabinet – dropping poor old Theresa May in the s*** in her interview with Paxman, when it became clear that nobody else knew about it until they heard it through the media.

    It takes a level of quite stunning incompetence from the ConDems to get the usually utterly compliant Daily Mail and Telegraph seething with rage over their ill-thought out ‘policies’.

    And what’s with the jive talk, ‘dude’?

  • Sarah-dodds
    What did they ever do for us?

  • E Davies

    I thought politics was something that individuals did because they were generous in terms of spirit. Most sportsmen all share one trait – they usually have huge egos and they are usually totally self obsessed. Why on earth would you want politicians who are supposed to win over the electorate with their integrity behave in such a manner ?

  • Foreigner

    How about looking for talent? Elitist, old-fashioned, but rather tends to deliver results.
    I don’t give a toss what kind of person you ‘think you are’, I am interested only in how you behave. How you perrom. And how you treat others.
    Which is exactly why the previous government has been sacked.