My Sunday Sermon today comes from an Army base in middle England, where I’ve taken a group of men to give them an insight into military life, ethics and principles.
Team-building, team-bonding can be done in many different ways – in the old days it was a round of golf followed by as many beers as possible, where all the players were supposed to get to know each other well with the alcohol obviously playing its part in loosening up people’s tongues!
These nights out often led to fights, women problems, police problems and serious hangovers.
I remember Gordon Strachan’s famous quote: “Team spirit is about going away from home, winning 1-0, sitting on the back of the bus exhausted, proud, knowing that you’ve done your job together.”
On arrival they were handed jackets, shirts and trousers, all matching. Jewelry was removed and the men were taken to their dorms. Each dorm has eight single beds. The mattress is shiny, plastic and filled with sponge. They all have to make their own bed, which includes those horrible grey, itchy, scratchy blankets and a poxy pillow that crushes as soon as you put your head on it.
They were taught to make their beds by the manager of their particular dorm and team.
Of course, these things are mentally testing.
Do you turn your nose up at it?
Do you have an attitude towards it?
Or do you accept it, respect it and make the most of it?
Next they were taken, dorm-by-dorm, with their Army managers to the fitness centre – and the players jaws dropped with fear.
These PTI’s in too-tight white vests, Mr Universe bodies, skinheads, welcomed the groups in with serious attitude and a look that told the players they meant business. But immediately the players were informed they were to do command tasks which involved communication, leadership, problem solving, teamwork, respecting others, respecting the person’s decision, skillfully challenging the person in charge with respect – all attributes these young men will need to be successful.
The players loved it and I loved it, as I sat, watched and listened with an inner grin.
Dinner was served in the cafeteria where they had to pay for their own food just like being at school, with the brown wooden tray. Each player was given a brown envelope of cash to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner through to Wednesday. If the Inland Revenue would like to contest this payment, I can assure them it is not a benefit in kind. It is food to survive.
Our Saturday night was spent in a room 20 yards x 30 yards painted magnolia, with magnolia curtains, dark green carpet, brown tables and chairs with a dartboard, table football, pool table and poker set. The small bar in the corner was more like a shelf and a fridge and the 26 players and five staff had a famous time.
I sat quietly in the corner like an MI5 spy, my eyes wandering around the room hoping our seven new signings would integrate, seeing how our young players, away with the First Team for the first time would conduct themselves in this environment.
All of them had a few beers and all the bad publicity footballers get, and I stand by my words, across the game they are 99% working-class decent people.
At 11.30pm a taxi arrived outside, and it wasn’t to take a tricky few out into town to a nightclub. It was my surprise – a late-night Chinese takeaway. Their faces lit up like kids on Christmas Day. Our Sports Scientist and Nutritionist, both fresh out of university, were having heart attacks but I know that happy players are good players and the occasional treat goes a long, long way.
The highlight of the night was on the midnight curfew when the whole squadron cleared the 20×30 room of cans, bottles, cups, glasses, forks, spoons, boxes, bags and bones, and left the room spotless. This was a good sign. And the MI5 man in the room was chuffed to bits.
They were all up at 6.30am, beds specially made and they were all ready in their Army outfits for their marching drills.
Why is it important for footballers to do this?
“It’s just another mad thing he’s doing…”
As the guy with the too-tight white vest firmly showed them how to walk, stand, talk, where to put your eyes, to respect their team-mates, work alongside each other, follow instructions, it was awesome to watch. The players laughed, mistakes were punished with ten press-ups. People with hands in their pockets – ten press-ups. People with hands on their hips – ten press-ups.
The players marched around, turning left, moving right, upping the speed but working in units within their team, within their squadron. I loved it.
As I’m writing this, they’ve all gone paintballing where they will have to plan their strategy, seek leadership within their group, make decisions and go all out to win.
All this stuff is certainly not mad.
After lunch today it’s sleep and rest for the afternoon followed by football training this evening.
One day, when I’m Prime Minister, the first thing I will introduce is a one-year programme of National Service for everyone at the age of 18. Re-introduce decent behavior, respect of your elders, basic life skills – it would set these people up for life to just have been involved with the British Army for just one year.
I hope and pray that what we all learn here for these few days will be with us all, not just for the coming season, but for the rest of our lives too.