Like lots of people who I move in similar circles too (in an online sense), I’ve been watching The Last Dance on Netflix. If you have missed it so far, it focusses on Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls – but uses this as a scaffold to look back at his career.
If you really don’t understand what I’m talking about – this is basketball – the one where you can bounce the ball with your hand and throw it in a hoop and all the games have ludicrously high scores. Yes, it looks a bit frenetic, doesn’t it?
What many people seem to have taken from the documentary series is Michael Jordan’s remarkable drive to win. One episode focusses on his former teammates, saying he wasn’t a pleasant guy a lot of the time, and would push them and cajole them to do better. This flows nicely into the question of whether it’s okay to bully, or come close to bullying, someone if it helps them to achieve remarkable things. But I’m not going to write about that here – if you’d like some thoughts on that I recommend the excellent film Whiplash.
No, the part that stood out for me was the episode discussing the relationship between Jordan and his teammates – and Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman in particular. Jordan needed great support from people around him. He formed excellent on court relationships and understandings with key players on his team. They relied on him, and he relied on them.
Is it possible Jordan really could have been as successful with a bunch of average players around him? Examples from team sports of individuals carrying whole teams is very rare. Probably the most famous example is Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup – which I mention mainly to point you to another excellent film – Diego Maradona by Asif Kapadia. If you enjoyed The Last Dance – you’ll enjoy that too.
But team sports are in the mainly won by great teams. Even an iconic player like Messi had most of his success when surrounded by players like Iniesta and Xavi. So, what makes a great team? Well, this is where I get a bit niche.
As you can tell by my use of examples above, I am foremost a football fan. And football fate has lead me to support 2 clubs, neither of which have, so far, done anything to bring them worldwide attention – Reading and Exeter City. The one I want to focus on for this analogy is the mighty Reading.
You see, Reading have done nothing to bring them worldwide attention, but they did manage to be quite brilliant for 2 seasons back in the mid-noughties. In the 2005/6 season, they won the Championship (the second-tier of English football) with 106 points – a record that still stands. They won 31 games, drew 13 and lost just twice, scoring 99 goals and conceding 32. They were promoted, and followed that season up with an 8th placed finish in the Premier League, despite most pundits tipping them for instant relegation.
So who were these super talented players? Well, there was definitely no Michael Jordans. Instead, Reading assembled a team of players with no dramatic standouts – but the right combination of talents to make a successful team. Allow me to introduce the main men from the Reading squad of 2005/6:
Goalkeeper – Marcus Hahnemann
A, frankly, terrifying looking bear of an American. Kept the ball out of the net by mainly staring it down.
Right back – Graeme Murty
An absolute club legend and the Captain. Converted from winger to full back – liked to bomb forward and shout at people. Scored a penalty in the last game of the 05/06 season to make sure of the record points tally and everyone went nuts.
Left back – Nicky Shorey
Played for England twice. A dimunitive player with a peach of a left foot.
Central defender – Ibrahim Sonko
Very athletic Senegalese defender. Seemed to repel the ball like an unfriendly magnet. Left the club a bit acrimoniously, which is a shame.
Central defender – Ivar Ingimarsson
With Sonko formed an inpregnable barrier at the back. Dependable, and an Icelandic international.
Right wing – Glen Little
Set up 14 goals and scored 5 in 05/06 – including at absolute beauty against Plymouth. A majestic player who probably would have played for England if he was a bit quicker.
Left wing – Bobby Convey
The sides second American and winner of 46 caps for the US of A. Pacy and with a good work rate. Floppy hair.
Central midfield – Steve Sidwell
Probably the most talented of the whole squad – signed for Chelsea after leaving. Like to get forward and score while pivoting perfectly with…
Central midfield – James Harper
Skilful and a hard worker. Wherever Sidwell wasn’t, Harper was.
Striker – Kevin Doyle
Famous for being a bargain buy from Cork City. Hard working and pacy. I saw him eating in a restaurant once and was shocked at the size of his watch.
Striker – Dave Kitson
A man who often seemed a bit too sensitive to be a footballer. But nonetheless was the big man in the big and small partnership who also weighed in with a decent number of goals.
Honourable mention – Leroy Lita
The third striker in the pairing. Had that arrogance that a lot of the best strikers have. Also owned a hummer.
And in control of this team was Manager, Steve Coppell – a man who liked keeping a low profile, so an unfashionable club was perfect for him.
The thing that strikes me looking back at that side, is how rare it is to get that perfect storm. The right club, with the right manager, and the right squad of players at the same time. Reading have never put together another side to rival 05/06. There’s been good sides and bad sides – but nothing like that.
So, what can we learn from this? That real success comes from working together, and trying to put together the best team you can. But also being aware that you won’t know when the perfect storm is going to happen, so be striving for it – always. That’s your best chance of developing your own 05/06 Reading FC.