Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Any Given Saturday

A good speech is a wonderful thing. It has the capacity to inspire, to lift your spirits, to make your soul soar above the mundane minutae that obfuscates everyday existence. Unfortunately, noted Churchill, there are only two things more difficult than making an effective one: climbing a wall which is leaning toward you and kissing a girl who is leaning away from you. If Sam Allardyce's media asault over the last few days has shown anything, it is that he understands the power of the spoken word. He may also have unhealthy obsession with Tony D'Amato. The latter was revealed in a radio interview with BBC London yesterday evening, when a tired sounding Allardyce suddenly referenced the film Any Given Sunday in a conversation about personal standards and collective responsibility.

Oliver Stone's meathead burlesque critique of American sports culture has multifarious faults but is partially saved by the now famous "Inch by Inch" panegyric as delivered by a coruscating Al Pacino. D'Amato's paean to the importance of making incremental improvements towards achieving a greater goal is one of the great sports sermons committed to film; a perfectly pitched oratory with a symbiotic alignment of the three persuasive appeals: ethos, pathos, and logos. It starts with the coach admitting he is almost overwhelmed by the situation...

"I don’t know what to say really.
Three minutes to the biggest battle of our professional lives.
It all comes down to today.
Either we heal as a team or we are going to crumble.
Inch by inch, play by play until we’re finished..."

It reflects in his person the feelings of his players, the embodiment of aptum/decorum. He appears like a "broken warrior", similar to his audience. His voice is mannered and low, his body language slow and not overly expressive. He avoids eye contact as much as possible. Compare it to the image of Allardyce in Sunday's Observer, head bowed, eyes closed and rubbing his forehead as if fighting against a headache-inducing memory. "No one else can put any more expectations and pressure on than me," Allardyce revealed to the Independent the same day, before declaring he will be sacked if he does not guide West Ham United into the Premier League. It is a massive burden on my shoulders, he states, before admitting he (and by extension the team) have "been hung out to dry" by the need to seek an instant top flight return. He repeatedly acknowledges that the need to gain promotion is intensified by the club's financial position; that the club carry debts of £80m and David Sullivan, the co-owner, has said that life in the Championship will "blow a £40m hole" in the business plan. Then there is the move to the Olympic Stadium in 2014 and the imperative to take Premier League football with them.

"We are in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me.
We can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us
or we can fight our way back into the light.
We can climb out of hell.
One inch, at a time..."

D'Amato begins to move from demoralization to a more rational appraisal of the situation and Allardyce does the same. "The club was is in despair really," he states. "Relegation leaves a club traumatised, from the owners to the fans, the players to the tea lady. You've got to get over the trauma and back to positive thinking. You win a game of football as much with your mind as with your ability." We are in Championship hell, Allardyce is saying, and we won't get out if we are feeling sorry for ourselves or take anything for granted. "It will be a tough division. It's going to be damned hard work over a marathon season of 46 games." There are recurring textual patterns; repeated reference to terms like 'consistancy' and 'winning frame of mind'; to 'graft as well as guile'.

"There's a lot of really experienced managers in this division who are wanting to do the same as me," Allardyce told the Independent, but there are also "young up-and-coming guys who want to make their names." It is the first oblique reference to the next part of D'Amato's speech; the confession of the 'broken warrior' who begins the process of conferring responsibility onto his young charges. It is here we see the "emotional structuring" of the life to game analogy. D'Amato begins his lament about the wrong decisions and actions he has taken in his life. He takes the strong emotions of personal failure and lets them converge into the game. Hence, there is not only a comparison of game and life on a logical level but also with an emotional background.

"Now I can’t do it for you. I’m too old.
I look around and I see these young faces and I think.
I mean I made every wrong choice a middle age man could make.
I pissed away all my money believe it or not.
I chased off anyone who has ever loved me.
And lately, I can’t even stand the face I see in the mirror..."

Reflecting on his evolution as a football manager, Allardyce bemoans: "I was a raging bull, an angry man, worrying, demanding." He would lie awake at night frightened by what the fans or the papers or the owners would say. "I used to be a terrible, terrible worrier, a pessimist," he says. "It's probably because I was a defender. One mistake and the manager will shout at you. I couldn't remember playing well. I could only remember mistakes. I used to worry like mad. But as I got older and established myself, that diminished and as a manager, it's the same. My style now compared to back then, it was just a part of the process. I don't think you can do it any other way, because you are too inexperienced to do it any other way. But if you don't learn from your experiences, then you don't last in this game."

"You know when you get old in life things get taken from you.
That’s part of life.
But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff.
You find out that life is just a game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small.
I mean one half step too late or too early you don’t quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in every break of the game, every minute, every second..."

Allardyce has lasted. He recalls again that he once said that he would like to see through his 10-year contract at Bolton and retire at 56. "By the time that birthday comes along, I would think I would be looking at other things in my life." Yet, he's now 57 and still consumed and driven by the challenge in front of him. Yes you lose things in life, he means to say, but you also gain things like a toughening of the skin and the self-belief engendered by survival. Insecurity has given way to conviction. Man-management remains Allardyce's greatest strength and he maintains that he could win trophies at the very biggest clubs, such as Real Madrid and Internazionale, if he was given the opportunity. "I still feel like I can walk into any club, anywhere, any time and deliver," he told the Telegraph. "It's a bit like a CEO, isn't it? You can take up a position in any industry and if you're a good CEO, you can make that company profitable. You put me in a football environment anywhere in the world and I can deliver the module. I can modify the module for the particular culture and the way of playing. I turn dreams into reality and that is my job".

Thus begins the tonal shift, just as D'Amato changes gradually form the "broken warrior" to an "old wise warrior" (who knows how to overcome any situation) with a strong spirit and experience. There is an increase in energy; his voice, body language, movements, content. He engages in strong eye contact with the audience. Finally, he offers the solution to winning in life/game by expressing that it is achieved by taking small steps (logos); while at the same time pushing his character (ethos) and creating emotional resonance (pathos) where the former is a pre-requisite for the function of the latter.

On this team, we fight for that inch.
On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us to pieces for that inch.
We claw with our finger nails for that inch.
Because we know when we add up all those inches that’s going to make the fucking difference between winning and losing, between living and dying.

It is about standards Allardyce reiterated to BBC London. "If they are not met then I'm not very happy," he said. "As a manager you should always set higher standards than everybody else and you strive and push for those standards and drive and push your staff forward and constantly remind them what their responsibilities are; that they're paid to deliver, paid to entertain, paid to send a group of people home as happy as they can." If you want to succeed, Allardyce tells his players, you must dedicate yourselves to producing your very best every time you run out onto that field with a West Ham shirt on. "That's my values and standards and I hope some of that will rub off and we'll hve a successful season," he stated. "At times it will be difficult, at times it will be a long haul against lots of very good teams with some very good managers in this league, but I think it can be very exciting."

I’ll tell you this.
In any fight it is the guy who is willing to die who is going to win that inch.
And I know if I am going to have any life any more, it is because
I am still willing to fight and die for that inch.
Because that is what living is.
The six inches in front of your face.

Now to that personal Allardyce missive that dropped onto the doormats of season-tickets holders across the country this week. The one that talks of the "great thrill" of being Hammers manager, and the "special feeling" you get at the start of a new football season. "A lot has gone into our preparations," states Allardyce. "We began at the end of June, have been to Switzerland and Denmark since then and even had the lads running in Hainault Forest. It has not just been about form and fitness but also about changing the mentality of the football club and creating a more positive environment at the training ground." It talks of the positivity of the new signings he has made and how the youngsters have been given a chance to prove themselves. He speaks of how every effort has been made to ensure "no one has been allowed to feel sorry for themselves after last season."

The intent of the message is clear; living is to keep fighting. Allardyce wants to show he is motivated and energised; that he has done everything in his power to give his players the chance to succeed. "I said when I arrived that I was joining a fantastic club with a strong tradition and loyal supporters who deserve to be in the Premier League," he continues. "I wasn’t wrong. Everywhere I go there are Hammers fans and we have had a great following. Talking to fans long into the night in the car park at Dagenham & Redbridge last Tuesday, I could feel the passion and pride. My staff and I are determined to bring success but we also have a responsibility to bring on those players coming through the Academy and development squad. We also owe it to the owners to repay their faith."

The final line is the kicker; the moment when Allardyce reclaims his energy to underline he not the player/team ("warrior") but the coach ("wise warrior"). "We will need every single one of you right behind us," he insists, and with it completes the final transference.

Now I can’t make you do it.
You gotta look at the guy next to you.
Look into his eyes.
Now I think you are going to see a guy who will go that inch with you.
You are going to see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team
because he knows when it comes down to it, you are gonna do the same thing for him.
That’s a team, gentlemen and either we heal now, as a team,
or we will die as individuals.

That’s football guys. That’s all it is.
Now, whattaya gonna do?

"If we all work together and pull together in the same direction inside and outside the football club if we all try and improve by a small percent and add it all together it will be good enough," concluded Allardyce in his interview on the BBC. As in football so in life, like climbing that wall or kissing the girl, you'll get where you want to go an inch at a time.


2muchtime2kill said...

unemployed by any chance ?

Peabody said...

Fucking hell, loved that! Absolutely sublime. You're wrong about Any Given Sunday though, it's a cracking film.

Prince H said...

One of the most interesting sport articles, and certainly West Ham articles I've read (at least) this year! Thanks! And I agree, Stone has done so much better...

Jimbob said...

Big Sam as Little Al? I can't get the image of Allardyce starting and ending his teamtalk on Sunday with a hearty 'Hoohah' out of my head now! Another unique and engaging post Sir. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

I've just read through this post about five times and I don't think I've ever done that before on a blog lol. I've always loved that speech (if not the film) and am genuinely astounded by what you did. If you do happen to be unemployed then that would be a criminal waste of talent.

Lipton said...

That first comment should please Emlyn! Sorry if it's boring but that was another fine read. Thanx.

Anonymous said...

Very random and very cool! The reasons why I keep coming back here.

Anonymous said...

Nice read. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article. Always find your pieces very entertaining.


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