Dare to be Different

Its hardly surprising with Christmas just around the corner that its been a busy week.  It started last Saturday with the #EveryoneDeservesaChristmas concert at Swansea Market.  We had managed to gather star vocalists Bronwen Lewis and Steve Balsamo together with the Valley Rock Voices Choir to assemble at the Market Garden at around 11.30.  The market was already packed and full of Christmas cheer and you could tell by the faces of the happy market shoppers just how much they were enjoying the Valley Rock Voices and band.  At 12 o’clock Carolyn Harris made a speech before Bronwen, Steve, the choir and me led the carol singing.

It was a great event right in the heart of the city. We had lots of cameras and journalists covering the event and a comment from one journalist really stuck in my mind.  He said they found it hard to believe such a massive event, with so many top professionals, could be organised in any place other than Swansea.   I tried to explain being based here you need to think outside the box, you need to work together, you need to do things differently.

Mal & Gary Smith from the Message -Streets Pastors Christmas Dinner Hilton Cardiff

On Tuesday I went to Cardiff Hilton to sing at the Street Pastors Christmas Fundraising Dinner.  The street pastors go into the night-time economy and look after people.  They carry bottles of water for those who maybe feel a little unwell after possibly drinking too much, they carry sets of flip-flops for those who feet ache from wearing shoes that looked like a really good idea at the start of the night. They also work alongside door staff and the police to make sure everyone gets home safely.

My opening line to the Ballroom was this. ‘You have the same view on everyone in the room that God has.’  Without the High Viz jackets and Street Pastor Logos it was hard for anyone to tell who the supposed saints were and who were the sinners.  In days gone past, with the possible exception of the Salvation Army, good church people wouldn’t been seen dead on Swansea Wind Street.  Now that’s always struck me as slightly odd as the baby born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago was often criticised later in life because he spent too much time in the company of people who liked to party. 

I’m sure when Les Issac took 18 volunteers to the streets of Brixton in 2003 lots of people thought it wasn’t a great idea. Now, nearly 20 years later more than 240 towns and cities have their own Street Pastors teams.  You can’t help thinking how many lives have been rescued by Mr Issac daring to be different.

Mal wearing the same Red Scarf at all of his Christmas Events!!!

Which leads me on to the Swansea City Business Network Christmas Dinner.  Kev Johns who normally hosts these events couldn’t be there because he was being presented with the Freedom of the City, an honour that man so richly deserves. 

After the welcoming notices my job was to introduce the Gaffer, Russell Martin, to give a presentation on how he, his team and his players work together to strive for success on and off the pitch.

Russell is different.  He dresses differently, preferring chinos to tracksuits. He eats differently to many in football.  Due to an illness he became a vegan nearly 10 years ago. That ‘conversion’ led him to becoming part owner in one of the most successful Vegan restaurants in Britain.

But where the difference is easiest to see is on the pitch.  Russell’s teams play a different brand of football.  There are a few teams in the world that have a similar philosophy. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City immediately spring to mind.  Like Pep, Russell wants his team to dominate the ball, to pass and keep possession. Now that’s all very well if you have a virtually unlimited budget and can handpick the exact player you want anywhere in the world to fit your plans, but Russell decided he would do that right from the start of his managerial career at MK Dons, and he would stick with it through thick and thin.

This wasn’t a snap decision for Russell.  Whilst many footballers spend their spare time playing video games Russell always had a view to the future starting to study for his coaching badges when only 22.

They say luck is what happens when preparedness meets opportunity.  Russell was on a short term player contract with League 2 team MK Dons when the manager got sacked and he was asked to take over.  If you haven’t seen any League 2 football for a while it is very different to the football you see week in week out on Match of the Day.  Its hard, tough and the desire to ‘smash it’ whether that be the ball, or the opposition is close to the surface on and off the pitch.

First job as manager what do you do?  I’m sure he knew the league well and he knew the players he had at his disposal so to try to implement a style of football usually reserved for the likes of Barcelona and Brazil would be crazy…but Russell decided to dare to be different.  

Russell explained that changing a culture on and off the pitch takes time.  Coming from the dressing room he knew which characters would be open to the change.  It meant saying goodbye to those who couldn’t adapt.  Even with that he decided to be different.  I’ve heard of one manager who upon taking over at a new club called a top pro into his office at the start of the season saying, ‘I have plans for the team, you’re not in them’ and 2 minutes later the legend was gone. 

Russell explained the situation to his player and between them they found the player a new club and that player even helped bring in 2 different players who they knew would work in the new system.

The new system took time but 2 years in MK Dons set a new British record for a 56 pass move ending in a goal and possession figures only beaten in Europe by Manchester City and Barcelona.

Russell’s presentation took in lots of graphs and stats which showed a progression from last season, but I think the thing that struck me most was the philosophy. He stressed the need for players to be shown they were cared for and were allowed to make mistakes.  This type of football takes bravery to keep playing the same way even when things are going against you.  Russell explained so many young players carry the scars of bad coaching that they are terrified of losing the ball or making a bad pass. Russell told of managers who he had met who had started with good intentions but caved to the long ball when results went against them and bitterly regretted the change. Russell wants no regrets.  No matter what anyone says this is the Swansea Way. 

Not everyone in football appreciates this philosophy.  Russell explained the comments he and his players get. Managers complain he is arrogant, opposition players shout at his team in the tunnel and they are delighted when old school ‘blood and guts’ football beats the Swansea pass masters. 

This style of football is great when the sun is shining but what happens when we lose games and the ball won’t run for us.  What do we do then, start smashing the ball and opposition again in a bid to turn things around?

It takes a brave manager to stick to his principles.  It also takes a team that believe in what he wants, and it also takes an ownership and supporters who also believe in the project.

Today the season starts again, and Swansea play one of Russell’s old teams Norwich.  I wondered if there was any split loyalties and it soon became obvious; Russell has a footballing philosophy but the driving force behind that is that he wants to win.  I can’t help thinking if we all stick together daring to be different we will reap the rewards.


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