Warning: I am about to bang on about football. Reassurance: it’s not really about football.
Players and ex-players are forever finding new ways of disappointing me and impressing me. Last week, it was the latter. I got to speak at length with a couple of key figures in the famous European Championships of 25 years ago, during which England were surprisingly brilliant until, unsurprisingly, going out to the Germans on penalties. I went to get their memories of Euro 96 but came away with something extra. From Tony Adams, who by then was in absolute crisis with his drinking, I heard how for that tournament he managed to get on the wagon, white-knuckled, one last time to be the team captain they all revered. From Teddy Sheringham, I got what I can only describe as four lessons in life.
Lesson one: success is down to grinding through the tricky bits, and the odd bit of luck, as much as the moments of inspiration and triumph. The trouble is the tricky bits tend to get forgotten. Through the rose-tinted lenses of England fans’ hindsight spectacles, their team were imperiously brilliant before the Germans beat them, which is what the Germans always did. Yes, there was plenty of the sublime on show, but Teddy was at pains to remind me that it wasn’t all like that. England’s first game was a laboured draw against Switzerland. Then came a poor first half against Scotland followed by a second in which the Scots were awarded a penalty. Mysteriously – Uri Geller went on to claim it was down to him – the ball moved off the spot just as poor Gary McAllister was running up to strike it. The penalty was saved and moments later, Paul Gascoigne scored one of the greatest-ever England goals.
Job done, but, as Teddy points out: “It wasn’t all such plain sailing. Things weren’t as swimmingly great as we remember. Sometimes you just have got to dig in.”
Lesson two: the need for clarity. Tactically, the England manager Terry Venables was ahead of his time, but his real gift was explaining his ideas clearly; you can have the best tactics in the world but if you can’t get players to understand them they’ll not be worth much.
“He simplified everything,” says Tony. “He was just so articulate; you could understand it.” Teddy recalls countless occasions, under other managers, of players coming out of team meetings plainly baffled about what they’d just been told. Crucially, says Teddy, this manager understood that if everyone in the room didn’t get his ideas, they simply wouldn’t work. “I always remember him saying to me personally that when he spoke to a group, it was no good only the best two players understanding what he wanted; he’d make sure all 20 of the players got it, and he’d go around the room until he was sure that was the case.”
Lesson three: empowerment is vital, and how you listen is as important as what you say. “I’ll give you an example,” says Teddy. “One half time I suggested something to him when he was my manager at Tottenham.” Teddy proposed he try moving out wide from his central attacking position, as he felt the central defender marking him closely would thus be dragged out with him, making it easier for his teammate Darren Anderton to attack through the middle. “Terry said: ‘OK, if you want to do that, try it, son.’ And it was, like, wow. A lot of managers would have gone: ‘No, you are my centre forward; you stay there, that is where I want you to play.’ But his attitude was: if that is what you think on the pitch, try it, do it, and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, then do something else. That is what football is there for: to try and outwit the opposition.”
Lesson four: focus not on making it easier for yourself, but on making it easier for those around you. England’s third goal against Holland in Euro 96 was a thing of inspired beauty. At the heart of it was Sheringham. If you’re not into football you may well not have read this far but, if you have, then please search for footage of these few seconds of magic on the internet.
In short, Teddy received the ball from Paul Gascoigne in a position from which 99.9% of strikers would have been quite unable to resist shooting at goal. But he had a better idea. He was aware, apparently by using eyes in the back of his head, that Alan Shearer was free to his right. Wrong-footing just about everyone in Wembley, not least the Dutch defence, he feigned to shoot but instead rolled the ball into the path of Shearer, who scored. To this day, Alan Shearer is incredulous and grateful in equal measure. “I’ve said a million times,” he texted me yesterday. “I can’t believe he passed it. Teddy was amazing, the best.”
For a quarter of a century now, I have wanted to meet Teddy and ask him about that goal. I wasn’t disappointed; his framing of it is fascinating. “First of all, the play was fantastic. Gazza’s pass to me was class because he rolled it in front of me for me to do exactly what I wanted with it. That gave me the time to maybe just have that little bit of peripheral vision to see what else was going on around me. Maybe I could have scored, but if you roll a ball to your top scorer, your main man scoring goals for fun, it seemed the right thing to do and it worked out well.”
And this, I think, is the key bit: “Gazza made it easy for me; I made it even easier for Shearer, and he scored the goal.”
It’s possible I am just a bit giddy at the prospect of a month’s football or perhaps just starstruck at breathing the same air as Teddy Sheringham for an hour. But this thought seems profound to me: if we all focus on making life easier for those around us, only good things will follow.