It’s a sporting life!

Football analogies tend to leave me a little cold but there are times when sports can prompt us to reflect a good deal upon our own lives. The cricketer Ed Smith was a contemporary of mine at college and he managed to combine outstanding sportsmanship with a  razor sharp intellect. Scoring nearly 13,000 first-class runs for Middlesex and Kent, Ed retired some years ago to become a commentator on BBC’s Test Match Special and a columnist for The New Statesman. He has written several highly successful sporting books including ‘What Sports Tells Us about Life’  and ‘On and Off the Field’. Ed asks whether talent can be a curse and ponders the role of luck both on the pitch and off. He also asks why some sporting stars such as Ryan Giggs and Roger Federer sustain excellence over a number of decades whilst others crash and burn remarkably quickly.  How do we account for the epic meltdowns that stars such as Eric Cantona and Zinedine Zidane experience in front of the world’s media? There was a time when Tiger Woods’ name was synonymous with squandered talent and excess and yet now his story is one of perseverance and redemption. 

Football fans who grew up in my part of the world are hardened to setbacks, disappointment, relegation and defeat. We might be good at lots of things in East Anglia but football is not one of them.  The ‘Tractor Boys’ of Ipswich Town are going through a particularly rough phase at the moment and Norwich City is some way adrift at the bottom of the Premiership. Both Ipswich Town and Norwich City are natural Championship Sides with occasional flirtations with the Premiership or, in the case of Ipswich Town, the higher echelons of League One. 

It was not always this way and Ipswich achieved its finest hour when the club beat Arsenal 1-0 in the 1978 FA Cup. Local lad, Roger Osborne swung his left boot and the ball curled towards the back of Arsenal’s net. Roger feinted immediately after scoring the winning goal and had to be substituted for the last ten minutes of the match. He was such a modest and unassuming man that some years later he found himself on a tour of Wembley Stadium and decided not to let on to anyone that he played the decisive role in a cup final. Bizarrely, he went on loan to Detroit to avoid a transfer to Cardiff because he had no desire to live as far away as Wales. 

Given the week that is in it, I cannot resist but post the following. You can never watch it enough times!

Ipswich were serious underdogs in this match but manager Bobby Robson inspired something very special out of his men on that day at Wembley. Local journalist Mike Bacon recalled:

‘Back in 1978, Ipswich Town manager Bobby Robson and his staff and players, the fans, including me and my friends, dreamt big, even though the Super Blues were never favourites to win the FA Cup.  Most of the Town team played every round and almost every league game.

And our dreams came true. Dreams that are now joyful memories. No money in the world can buy the memories of when Ipswich Town won the FA Cup.’

Since then, there has been little silverware for the club to worry about insuring.  By contrast, Lancashire has plenty of successful clubs and our own Fleetwood Town is a sensational success story. 

Fleetwood Town’s meteoric rise is the stuff of footballing dreams. For a town that has suffered economic hardship, the club has demonstrated that pretty much anything is possible. I am a semi-regular attendee at the Highbury Stadium and I love the atmosphere and excitement of match days. Scalding hot tea at half time, driving rain, chocolate bars, familiar faces and the roar of the crowd when Fleetwood scores. The drama of the moment removes all extraneous anxieties and one can become totally immersed in the match itself. On one level sports allows us to escape from reality but on another level it allows us to understand the reality of our own lives more fully. 

The absence of sports from our lives is hard to bear. Yesterday it was announced that the Tokyo Olympics will be delayed by a year. Whilst this is a sensible decision, just imagine how devastating it is for those athletes who have been training for this moment. There will be many athletes who through injury or advancing years will be past their peak in eighteen months time. That is a bitter pill for them to swallow even though it is for the collective good. All that training and for what?  

As a Fleetwood supporter I feel immense frustration that the season will not play out as it should. The promise of recent months has hit a brick wall – at least for this year. What will happen next? Will the season be declared void? WIll the playoffs still occur? That would play out well for Fleetwood given that they are currently lying in Fifth place after their draw against Portsmouth on 10th March. The future is uncertain but it is incredibly frustrating to have come so far only to be stopped dead in our tracks. The natural trajectory of the season has been interrupted and whatever mechanism is put in place to determine the outcome, it will inevitably engender controversy and disappointment. There will be those who will feel that they have been cheated. Since starting to write this blog just thirty minutes ago, I notice that my brother-in-law has tweeted that all national league results for this year are to be expunged. How disheartening for players who have toiled week in week out to push for promotion to simply be told that their efforts are to be expunged. 

Spare a thought for our Year 11 and Year 13 pupils. Education is not simply a series of transactional encounters and nor should exams be considered the be all and end all. Examination certificates serve to facilitate access and recognise progress. They legitimise and validate the claims that we make about and on behalf of our students. Most importantly, they serve as the summation of months and sometimes years of hard work and focused study. The removal of such opportunities seems crushingly unfair and it is not surprising that so many of our pupils are feeling bewildered and frustrated. Whatever formula the IBO and OFQUAL adopt, there will be those who feel that they could have and would have proved themselves if only they had been offered the chance. 

This is why it is so important that we do not deny our own boys and girls the opportunity to complete summative assessments. The Rossall Diploma will go some way to addressing this issue and ensuring that our pupils do have a sense of closure. I am pleased to say that a growing number of independent schools are following suit and publishing similar plans. 

I am delighted that the vast majority of our pupils recognise the intrinsic value in completing this phase of their educational careers properly. That says a lot about their sense of pride and sense of self worth. It means that they will not spend the rest of their lives looking back and asking what if? The diploma does not replace public examinations but it does provide:

  1. Closure and an accurate measure of progress achieved
  2. Celebrates the accomplishments of all of our boys and girls
  3. Provides compelling evidence to universities and future employers of academic and co-curricular achievements
  4. Provides the sort of additional affirmation that the class of 2020 both deserve and need.

Above all else, it provides certainty and structure at a time when many young people will be feeling frustrated and unsure.  Hopefully, English football will find a mechanism for completing the season safely and in a way that provides both completion and closure! 

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