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The cartoon joke that Woodward tried to make real in football

By Liam Heagney

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Ex-England rugby coach Clive Woodward has reflected on his bizarre year in football’s Premier League, the 2003 World Cup winner linking up with Southampton in 2005 as part of a long-term plan to become performance director of the England Football Association. Woodward had been approached by FA CEO Mark Palios and the idea was for Woodward to be appointed along with Gerard Houllier coming in as technical director. 

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Woodward, though, wanted to spend a year in club football to complete his badges and learn the ropes before making the step-up with the national association and that colourful adventure has now been recounted at length in an interview with The Athletic which begins with a humorous recollection of a back page newspaper jibe on the day that he joined the Saints in July 2005 after he had finished up with the Lions tour in New Zealand.

“On the back of the local paper the day I joined Southampton there was one of my all-time favourite cartoons,” remembered Woodward in the interview introduction in The Athletic. “There was a corner kick and two guys were lifting Peter Crouch like a second row in rugby. My immediate thought was, ‘Can you do that? Can you actually lift someone up?’. Nobody has been able to answer me to this day.

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“I’m thinking that if we had a guy who was as good as Jonny Wilkinson at taking a corner and we could get a touch off someone like Crouch who we would lift in the air, then we are going to gain an advantage. This all came from a cartoon that was taking the piss out of me. But I’m sat there thinking it could actually work.”

The FA’s long-term plan for Woodward was ultimately scuppered by Palios getting sacked before the time arrived to unveil the Woodward/Houllier partnership. “Trevor Brooking said, ‘This idea with Palios is gone. I don’t think football’s ready for you’,” recalled Woodward about how the idea didn’t work out as envisaged.

One thing the 2003 World Cup-winning rugby coach did pick up on, though, was a stark difference in how footballers and rugby players communicated in certain surroundings. “What I found in football was that during meetings, players wouldn’t say a word. They didn’t want to be seen putting their head above the parapet. In the modern language, that’s called ‘psychological safety’,” he explained in the interview.

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“If you want to be a top coach or manager, you have to create an environment in the dressing room that allows players to feel confident enough to speak up and disagree with the manager. That is totally healthy. I was able to deliver that in rugby, but I never saw it in a football team. The players didn’t want to say a word.

“I remember Theo Walcott and his parents came to my house for dinner and you couldn’t shut them up. Stick them in a dressing room with other people and they go quiet. A few years ago (then-Bournemouth manager) Eddie Howe invited me down to speak to his team, which was fantastic, and I was hoping for loads of questions. But I hardly got any. Nothing has changed.”

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The cartoon joke that Woodward tried to make real in football

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