Prejudice and Pride - A Coaches View

The last GB camp was a sobering experience. Injury, work and apathy had taken their toll on the proceedings, first shortening the event to one day, then turning it into a bare-boned affair, which posed more questions than it answered. We had struggled to find an offensive identity, and the defense had shown flashes of ability, but struggled to play together as a unit. Could we go and compete? What was it about us that had caused so many to stay away? Had names and faces on the team and staff prejudiced the turnout?

Looking back, several days have now passed since we collected the Championship, and the buzz amongst the team is still fresh. What changed so dramatically about this team that transformed us from under-dogs to champions? What was the secret to our success? I have been asked this question, as has Coach Ayub, and forgive us if our answer is simple: No secrets, we were the best-prepared TEAM there.

It was fitting that our home base was the Spartiates Academy in Amiens. This team displayed all of the qualities that made the Spartans such a force in the classical world: Discipline, attention to detail, unity, violence at the point of contact, unwavering self-belief, and an inability to concede defeat. This team was a team in every sense of the word, with a spirit that was forged under trying circumstances in hard practices and harder games.

An outside observer might have looked at the team and noted how many ‘names’ were missing, but in doing so, would fall into a dangerous trap. We knew we were playing with the cards we had been dealt, and by tournament’s end, wouldn’t have traded them with anyone. Perceptions of the team drove them on. Too small, too slow, Division Two. Every player played their part, and no egos interfered. A genuine like and trust of each other grew within the team, and this allowed everyone to play full speed and know that their team mates were doing the same.

There were bumps in the road long the way. First practice was poor, slow, fragmented, as players tried to ease into routines and get to know each other. The coaching staff exploded, leaving no one in any doubt as to the task that lay ahead of them and serving notice that time was of the essence. The team responded immediately, as if a switch had been thrown, and never looked back. The team meeting that evening brought forth a frank airing of expectations and views, reinforcing a common goal and fanning the flames burning within the new team.

Injuries took their toll on an already depleted squad, and nobody played pain free at any time. The mental and physical toughness of the team was questioned over and over again, by opponents, coaches, and each other, and never found wanting, to the eternal credit of the players themselves and the training staff.

The team was under no illusions as to the quality of the athletes they would face, and the coaches knew that in order to be successful, we had to remain one step ahead at all times. Preparation was our watchword, breaking down film over and over again, until we had solutions for almost every situation, God willing. This preparation reinforced the attitude amongst the players. We knew we would have a chance, but how much of one? Beat Spain was the expectation, but we wanted more.

Russia provided the answer. 21-10 down with 9 minutes left, we reached our first critical moment. We had to score, and score again. The kick-off return took us to the 30, and the offense moved downfield clinically, keeping the Russian defense on its heels. Adam Lane found Mark Squires for the score and the opposition looked uncomfortable. The defense knew it simply had to return the ball to the offense and we would win (a recurring theme throughout the tournament). When the coverage team smashed into the Russians on the next play, the tone was set. A swarming defense rattled the Russian offense and forced them to go 3 and out. It was only a matter of time before we went ahead and we knew it. It was inevitable. The faces of the Russian players told us exactly what we had done, beaten them against all expectations, both home and abroad. Now we had to match the intensity in the next two games. 6 minutes later, when a victorious offense took a knee to finish a great game, a monster had been created.

The monster wanted constant feeding. It wanted offensive and defensive tendencies, extended practices for walkthroughs, extra film sessions, pages of opposing offensive plays drawn up and the more it was fed, the more voracious its appetite became. As a staff, we were more than happy to feed it.

Spain provided a test of the team’s character, if not their ever-improving skills. We would not play them at their own free wheeling game. It was impressed upon the players repeatedly that no matter how good or bad, the team with the most points wins.  After a sloppy first quarter, the players remembered the script; Great teams destroy lesser opponents. The offense was controlled and explosive, and the defense boosted their own self-belief with a well-deserved and hard fought shutout. If the coaches had not deliberately and ethically capped the offense, the score would have been monumental.

The focus shifted to Team France, and the tempo began to build.

The French strutted through their first two games, laden with NFLE stars, always in control. Exhaustive study of them detailed their tendencies and temperament. The more we studied, the more confident we became. As a staff, we had to limit their weapons and sell the game plan to the team. No salesmanship was required; the team knew exactly what had to be done.

By the time we took the field Saturday night, the monster was straining at its leash. The national anthems set the tone for the evening, with the Lions’ roaring rendition drowning out the partisan crowd, and setting the scene for a special moment in British Football.

Despite the challenges laid by one of the most disgracefully cynical football teams I have ever played against, I knew we were going to win, and I would bet that if you asked the players to recall their thoughts and emotions prior to kick-off, deep down they probably knew it too. We were as well prepared schematically and physically as was possible, blessed with an unmatched espirit de corps, and an acute sense of something special in the air. When Pete Rodgers took over the offense, the French thought the job was done, and later admitted this in the French national sports paper l’Equipe. More fool them. Pete proved to be one of the fiercest competitors on a team laden with them, and deserves his place in the spotlight. When he knelt to end the game, it was no more than just desserts. France, physically and emotionally overwhelmed, skulked off after one last attempt at causing a ruckus, and left us to enjoy the moment.

To describe the feeling at the final gun would be futile, as everyone there experienced a great range of emotions. Elements of this feeling have still not left, days later. In a tournament of critical downs and moments, some will remain with me forever:

  • The offense scoring their second TD against Russia. Everyone knew they just needed one more possession, and the defense delivered.
  • The team realising what it had done when the Russia game ended, and the doubters had been silenced.
  • The team’s expectant attitude when the opening kick-off was fumbled away against France. On the very next play, Jason Brisbane picked off a pass, and the offense went right back to work.
  • Steve Coles barrelling in for two to provide the one point cushion against France. Much has and will be said about the choice to go for it, but ultimately, the reps in practice and the team’s belief in it made it work. We never had any doubt.
  • rance kicking a FG to go 15-17 up. The defense came off and sat down. I asked them if they knew we were still going to win. They all said yes, no hoopla, just matter of fact.
  • Squatting watching Pete Rodgers line up for the game winning FG. I was thinking about whether we should squib the following kick off or kick for a corner. Not once did it enter my mind he would miss.

Throughout it all, the characters and personalities of the team, Evans, Fasulo, Newey, Cohen, older and younger, kept the wheels turning and the tempo high. For each extrovert to fire up offense and defense, there was an introvert to keep heads in the game and feet on the ground. The end of tournament barbecue illustrated what the team had become, a single unit comprised of exceptional individuals, a Pride of Lions.

Tony Mulhall GB LIons Senior Defensive Coach