Team spirit counts for a lot. Many people talk about it, some are lucky enough to experience it, only a few know how to create it. Having just watched the English cricket team complete an unexpected and surprisingly comfortable Ashes win, it seems appropriate to cast the mind back and remember the previous Ashes humiliation just 18 months ago. A slightly creaky and aging side, under the captaincy of a young but experienced Alastair Cook were blown away by the ferocity of the Australian attack. Having started the series as favourites, English left the field humiliated, the 5 – Nil series loss an accurate reflection of the gap between the sides. They were an unhappy camp and stories soon emerged of dressing room strife: the England players might have all been wearing the three lions, but it seemed apparent that they were hardly even playing for themselves, let alone each other or the nation they were so dismally representing.
Only a few will know the absolute truth of the situation, but the most high-profile casualty was Kevin Petersen. England’s most talented and talismanic batsman was deemed surplus to requirements, accused of fostering resentment and disloyalty, and summarily axed from the team. Battle lines were quickly drawn: on the one hand the vox populi, aghast and enraged that the one player with skill, courage and box-office appeal had been cast aside; on the other the establishment figures, anxious to start again with a new set of young players, and unashamedly placing their trust in Cook. It wasn’t an easy time, with every subsequent English reverse (and there were plenty) greeted with calls for Cook’s head and Pietersen’s reinstatement. The easiest way for any media figure to ensure popular support was to publically back Pietersen, and there was no shortage of pundits, both amateur and professional, eager to do just that. On the face of things it was absurd that Pietersen remained out of favour, and the easy and simple logicians of the talk-show hosts and listeners couldn’t get their heads round it. On what possible grounds could he remain excluded?
And yet, watching the happy faces of the young England players enjoying the freedom of Nottingham and all Englahd this morning, it is tempting to think that out of the ashes of that terrible recent series has emerged a new team that is genuinely pulling together, and that the sum of their parts is very much greater than any individual brilliance they may possess. They have stuck together when it was difficult, supported each other in victory and defeat, and gained collective strength from their various abilities. The result has been stunning, but has not come easily: it would have been all too simple for captain and coach to bow to the wright of public opinion, and it perhaps took the iron will of Andrew Strauss, arguably England’s most successful ever captain, to ensure that there was no wavering when the finishing line was in sight.
But what relevance does this have to an Arsenal site on the dawn of a new season? Plenty I would suggest, as it seems to me that the most impressive aspect of the pre-season programme has been the genuine pleasure the players seem to be taking in their collective spirit. They appear happy in each other’s company, trusting in each other’s ability, and confident that their own individual contributions will be valued and cherished. It has been exciting to watch them and I sense they are on the cusp of real success. And who is responsible for all of this? The players themselves, of course, but also captain and coach. It only takes one powerful figure in the dressing room to cause disruption, to place individual need before collective responsibility for team spirit to be threatened. Only dressing room insiders can know, and sometimes a talented player sold can be just as important as a new one bought in the transfer market. And sometimes selling a player (or not buying one who is known to those in the know to be awkward) can be hard, especially as the court of public opinion will soon be in full swing if results take a momentary downturn. It is probably not a total coincidence that many of Petersen’s most staunch supporters have also been among Arsene Wenger’s most vociferous critics. Sometimes what is most seemingly obvious is not necessarily the right answer: less can be more, and as this season unfolds I feel certain that it will be those clubs who have the best spirit who will do the best. I like to think that the current Arsenal side is particularly well–served in that respect.