Leaders we deserve: Stevie Mac brings Beckham back


First, Steve McClaren dumps superstar David Beckham out of the England soccer set-up. Then, following a run of disastrous results McClaren brings back Beckham. Weak or strong leadership?

The story so far. New English coach Steve McClaren steps up from the number two job, and is seen to put down a marker of his intention to make a fresh start. David Beckham had offered his resignation as team captain after an unconvincing display in England’s disappointing World Cup performances . McClaren drops him from the entire squad.

The new-look squad perform poorly. Beckham signs the largest contract of all time for a footballer, and agrees to leave Real Madrid and play in America for the Los Angeles Galaxy club later in the year. In the interim, Beckham suffers injuries and loss of form, and is dropped from the Real Madrid team, with clear indications that his career is finished.

A long time in football politics

As the season progressed, England without Beckham are far from revitalized. There is every chance that the team will not make the finals of the European championships. By coincidence, (?) Real Madrid also continues on a poor run of form.

And so it comes about that David Beckham returns to the Real Madrid team, and performs with distinction. Real makes a late challenge for the championship. Pressure mounts on Steve McClaren to bring Beckham back to the England squad.

An opportunity arises in a friendly match scheduled as the first international for the new Wembley stadium. The occasion is to be graced by an international team from Brazil, still widely regarded as the most gifted of all soccer-playing nations. The friendly is to be followed by a must-win European match the following week against minnows Estonia (No pushover, says wife, kibbutzing on this post, no such thing as an easy match …).

McClaren brings back Beckham. Much heated debate. Is it a desperate attempt by the coach to salvage something from the failing European campaign? Is this the action of a weak leader, or one strong enough to admit he had made a mistake dropping David Beckham in the first place?

What happened next?

I’m not a serious commentator on football. The indisputable facts are that England took the lead after a courageous header from new captain John Terry. The cross was provided by David Beckham – one skill in which he is widely regarded as being exceptionally talented. The other precious talent is that of taking lengthy dead-ball free kicks from what had became known in a favorite phrase of commentators as David Beckham territory.

Wha’ever. DB is widely considered to have had an outstanding game. Terry won the man of the match award. Beckham marginally eclipsed Terry in one of those dubious polls on a BBC website. Oh, yes, and Brazil in second gear nonchalantly scored an equalizer late into the game.

So England set off for the crucial game with Estonia, with Beckham undoubtedly in the line-up.

McClaren, tall poppies and leadership actions

Whatever happens in Estonia, the debate continues.

A popular saying in Australia is that the culture operates on the tall poppy syndrome. The original story is a tyrant myth, suggesting that a powerful leader will rather destroy potential rivals rather than risk them weakening his power. Today, the story is taken to illustrate our old friend the notion of leaders we deserve. It is typically taken to illustrate the fate of celebrities, indicating that adulation and fame arise because of popular acclaim. That acclaim can be withdrawn as rapidly as it arose.

Did McClaren act according to old tally poppy principle in ending Beckham’s international footballing career? Did he then bow to another swing in public opinion in reversing his decision? Or was he strong enough to admit a mistake?

The debate continues. I can see no conclusive evidence for arguing one way or the other. In other words, we have a nice example of the ambiguities surrounding a social science narrative. I’m inclined to the view that at the time of McClaren’s appointment the king-makers at the English Football Association initially wanted a tall poppy (the charismatic Brazilian super-coach Scolari). Failing in this, they settled for the not-at-all tall poppy Steve. He may be an average-height poppy, but this will not protect him from the grim reaper at harvest-time, in the fullness of the footballing year.

4 Responses to Leaders we deserve: Stevie Mac brings Beckham back

  1. Ian Mahor Brewster says:

    The Beckham situation was a shambles from day one and reflects poorly on the leadership offered by McClaren. I watched the match against Brazil and thought Beckham had a great game, but was disgusted to see McClaren make two idiotic late substitutions to effectively throw away the chance of a much-needed, morale-boosting win against Brazil (yes Brazil!), even if it was a friendly. As soon as Joe Cole and Beckham were taken off we had no creativity and were hanging on until, predictably, Brazil equalised.

    Now I see that the master bungler, McClaren, is thinking on employing a second rate midfielder as right back in the shape of Kieron Dyer!


    Anyway, the real lessons on leadership to be learned from all this is that McClaren’s initial decision to drop Beckham was clearly motivated out of a sense to make it known that he was his own man, assert himself and stamp some authority on the new regime.

    There are two reasons for this. Firstly because it was widely known that he was not the FA’s first choice manager. It was only after Scolari turned down the job that McClaren’s name was considered. Secondly, because as Sven Goran Erikkson’s right hand man he was unmistakably associated with a failed regime. These circumstances subsequently made it very difficult for him to command the respect and authority that should be afforded someone entering this job, so drastic action was needed to make it known that he meant business, i.e. slaying the sacred cow in disgarding Beckham.

    There are obvious lessons to be learned here: namely that the appointment of leaders must be handled in a professional and focused manner. There is no room for error in getting the right person because mistakes will reflect on the performance of the whole organisation. Badly handled appointments can start a domino effect of declining productivity. If a manger is not able to assert authority, for whatever reason, there is grave danger of enormous potential going to waste.

  2. I read this following the description you gave in Dilemmas about Sven’s management style. My sense is that SM sees the ‘how to be a succesful football team’ problem as a predominantly ‘technical’ problem of systems and ensuring players ‘deploy his plan’, with a smattering of simplistic locker room ‘defeat is not an option’ gung ho rhetoric thrown in as evidence of man management capability. Nobody in this version of success could be bigger than the ‘plan’ consequently DB was exiled to prove this theory. This decision appears to have ignored the less tangible impacts DB has on team effectiveness not withstanding ‘lethal free kicks’ & ‘devasting passing’. I am reminded of the realisation we came to in the gaming industry when recruiting and managing software engineers. Whilst all could ‘program’ only a few could blend socio-technical skills and become influential games designers. DB is more than just a talented football kicker.

  3. Tudor says:

    Thanks Paul. A related point is to consider whether SM and Sven really discussed and shared ideas on team work, and whether McClaren really learned from it. In what we can take to be his ‘espoused theory’ Sven has written that he believed in social architects, and a distributed leadership sort of set-up in which about four key players were an inner core to a team’s performance. Beckham was one of the key players.

    We know SM rejected Beckham. It could have been for the reasons you suggest. If so, he either did not consider the idea of DB as a social architect, or thought that DB was passing his sell-by date by the time Sven stepped down and it was a good time for a change.

    I haven’t read anything about ‘my system’ from SM, but sooner or later his espoused ‘philosophy of leadership’ will become clearer ‘in his own write’. Then we’ll know a bit more about what he’s been up to as a coach. But even that’s a simplification. I gather there has been considerable debate about ‘Tel’s way’ and the worth of contributions from his assistant, that other highly gifted Terry (Venables).

  4. Tudor says:

    In case I don’t get round to exploring it: England won fairly easily against Estonia last night. Beckham was once again influential. Chatter turns to ‘can he go on playing, when he is based in California?’. Some fans have been prepared to credit SM with good leadership behaviour in admitting a mistake and rectifying it. Don’t know if the coach’s line is that the decision was right at the time to drop DB, and right at the time to bring him back. That also, will become clearer, and will indicate something about the leader he is presenting himself as.

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