The departure of Dr Pippa Grange from the Football Association in July certainly attracted much less attention than that lavished on the organisation’s most celebrated sports psychologist in the white heat of the 2018 World Cup finals, when a nation was spellbound by the side’s transformation.
Then, the England team’s ride to the semi-finals was accompanied by stories of Grange advising the players to speak more openly about their lives, about shedding inhibitions and, in doing so, curing themselves of the mental brittleness that has plagued previous generations. The penalty shoot-out victory against Colombia was viewed through those lessons and much credit was given to the FA’s head of people and team development from Yorkshire, who had spent most of her professional life in Australia.
The Daily Mail called her – on its front page – “The woman who won that penalty shoot-out for England”. Yet when her departure was announced by the FA, there were no tributes from key figures. There was a statement from Grange, who said that “culture coaching is now firmly embedded in the England experience” and reassuring all concerned that she had established a strong team in the notably brief 18 months she spent at the FA.
Her departure date was unspecified, although it is understood that she is not with the senior team in their current camp at St George’s Park and, last week, there was another announcement. Grange’s first book Fear Less: how to win at life, without losing yourself will be out in May next year, just in time for Euro 2020, and it would be fair to say that Ebury, the publisher, is not underplaying her connection with the England team.
“The psychologist who helped transform the England team,” is the big sell on the press release. A self-help book, one assumes, to find your inner Jordan Pickford.
Those quoted by the publisher in praise of the author include the Duke of Cambridge – “England were a better team with her on board” – and Dele Alli who, along with Ashley Young, was fulsome in his praise of Grange before the semi-final against Croatia. There is even a line from The Daily Telegraph, although lamentably misquoted from the original article.
The question remains: just how important was Grange to England in Russia 2018? She has given no interviews since taking the job, and her role has never been discussed in detail by Gareth Southgate, the England manager. Are the England teams, men’s and women’s, losing a key asset? If so, why did the FA not fight harder to keep her? Or did we get a bit carried away last summer? Now that the battle for the legacy of Russia 2018 has finally begun, we are starting to see those behind the scenes stake out their claims.
When Grange arrived at the FA in November 2017, the notion of improving culture and making people better at their jobs was not new. Before then it had been run by an external consultancy, Lane4, which had worked closely with the England women’s team who finished third at the 2015 World Cup.
It had also worked with the Under-17s, who were World Cup winners in 2017, and also Southgate and the seniors, who were assigned the consultant Jonny Zneimer from the agency. Grange was tasked with setting up the in-house department of “people and teams”.
She was appointed by Dave Reddin, then the head of team strategy and performance, who was responsible for a range of services, from medical to talent identification, to scouting and “people and teams”. He also departed the FA this year and, in an interview in July, spoke in detail about his role organising the England squad’s trip to a Royal Marines training centre before the World Cup. Curiously, he did not once mention Grange herself. Reddin had originally commissioned Lane4, founded by former Olympic gold-medallist swimmer Adrian Moorhouse.
The replacement for Grange could well be Dr Ian Mitchell, the FA’s sports psychologist, who was appointed by her and has worked more closely with the senior team since March. He previously worked with the Wales team at Euro 2016 and Reddin said in that July interview that it would be Mitchell who would undertake “more of the culture work I was doing”.
What, then, of the penalties in the Spartak Stadium last summer? The pressure of the tournament shoot-out was the great barrier at which other England teams had failed, and when they beat Colombia, the first success on foreign soil in seven attempts, it spoke to the idea that something had at last been fixed in the psychology of the players. Who takes the credit for that?
It is a complex question with the modern football team presided over by so many specialist coaches, analysts, and the occasional psychologist, as well as the manager himself.
From those with knowledge of the situation, it began with a report compiled over months before the tournament by Steve O’Brien, the men’s team lead performance analyst. His department looked at every aspect of the shoot-out, from the preferred strike-side of every player England could face, to analysis of when best to tell a player they are a designated taker, right down to how you prepare in the minutes between. It was O’Brien and his colleagues Mike Baker and Rhys Long, the head of the department, who noticed that England players in past tournaments took the least time between placing the ball on the spot and striking it. They advised them to slow down.
Martyn Margetson, the goalkeepers’ coach, famously taped a guide to Pickford’s water bottle so he could discreetly check the preferred side of each Colombia penalty taker as they walked up to take their kick. Southgate himself has talked about the planning in conferences for staff at St George’s Park. Forever the diplomat, he is unlikely to deny anyone credit.
Russia 2018 was unquestionably a time of time of innovation for the national team, although it is curious how much change there has been since at the FA.
That summer of success for England has, nevertheless, been of benefit to all concerned – whether that was with a new job, a new contract, a transfer, an enhanced reputation or even, one suspects, a book to sell.
WAGs golden age is over even if the public are still interested
It is just a shame that Jamie Vardy and Wayne Rooney are not currently making their way to Prague on international duty and in a position to debate the row between their respective wives that consumed the nation on Wednesday. At the very least one assumes it would add some spice to Euro 2020 qualification.
The allegation and counter-allegation between Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy was a reminder that the golden generation of England team WAGs is – whether you like it or not – passing into history. Neither spouse is an active England player any longer and the average fan might be able to name more of the Czech Republic team who face Gareth Southgate’s side on Friday than the current crop of WAGs. They were once a national obsession but no longer seek the limelight which everyone seemed to agree was a good thing. Although judging by the response to the Rooney-Vardy collision the public appetite still seems to be there.