October 21, 2013

Do team-mates have to get along?

Dressing rooms are, after all, workplaces. Do you really need to make friends in there?

Not quite Michael Clarke's scene, if Ricky Ponting's book is to be believed © Getty Images

There is often an assumption among fans that team-mates are all great friends. After all, whenever we see them, they are forever hugging each other or high-fiving, and most of them are incapable of getting through a post-match interview without talking collectively of "the lads" or "the boys", and insisting that "the spirit" has never been better.

Our own experience of sport, whether it's a frenetic five-a-side on a Thursday night or a leisurely 35-over game on a Sunday, tells us that the people you play with, while there might be the odd niggle - "Why will Mike not stop hitting it long?", "When did Tom last buy a round?", "Will Steve ever stop banging on about that trial he had with Leicestershire in 1972?" - are essentially people you quite enjoy having a drink with afterwards.

Ricky Ponting's comments in his autobiography on Michael Clarke come as a reminder that among professionals those niggles are often far more serious. "Away from cricket, he moved in a different world to the rest of us," Ponting wrote. "It never worried me if a bloke didn't want a drink in the dressing-room, but I did wonder about blokes who didn't see the value in sticking around for a chat and a laugh and a post-mortem on the day's play. This was the time when we could revel in our success, pick up the blokes who were struggling, and acknowledge the guys who were at the peak of their powers. Pup hardly bought into this tradition for a couple of years and the team noticed."

The tone is reasonably diplomatic, and Ponting goes out of his way to stress that Clarke wasn't ever "disruptive" and that there was no suggestion he was slacking or not putting in the effort in training, but the episodes with Simon Katich and Mike Hussey suggest just how deep that frustration ran. Clarke was not, for want of a better term, one of them, and reading between the lines, the more traditional players wondered whether he felt himself better than them.

Jarrod Kimber wrote in the first issue of the Nightwatchman about how Clarke is representative of a shift in Australian masculinity from hairy-chested beer-swilling to manicured cocktail-sipping, and that probably didn't help, but the truth is that in any team there's a player or two who has to shoot off immediately after play, whether because they are too busy or because they have promised their wife or just because they don't much like sitting around having a beer. When things are going well, that's not a problem; when things are going badly, you can guarantee they are the ones who'll be slagged off in the clubhouse afterwards.

The issue then is chicken-and-egg: do they not hang around because they are self-centred in how they approach the game, or do they become self-centred because the rest of the team regards them with suspicion?

Of course, in this regard the major difference between professionals and happy weekend amateurs is the stakes. We grumble about a team-mate who never passes or scores too slowly because it might cost us the game and because we want to be involved as much as possible. A Test cricketer fumes about it because he is playing for his nation in front of an audience of millions and because defeats can cost contracts.

Yet does it really matter if team-mates get on? The great Dutch football coach Rinus Michels, architect of Total Football, pioneers what he termed the Conflict Principle: he felt if his players became too comfortable they would lose their edge. Look at most workplaces. While you will get groups of friends, most people just rub along and wouldn't dream of socialising with their workmates once they had moved on to a different job.

Dressing rooms, it's easy for fans and amateurs to forget, are just workplaces. Everybody is fighting under one banner, and yet at the same time they are fighting for preferment with each other. If you do lose the game and the pressure comes for changes, you don't want to be the one whose match figures were 0 for 185, just as when cutbacks come in an office, you don't want to be the one whose sales figures dropped by 10% over the previous year. Football club dressing rooms are probably even worse, given the frequency with which players move on: why stick up for the idiot winger who never tracks back when the chances are you'll be playing for different teams next year anyway? It comes as no great surprise when the combative Roy Keane says he made no friends in football, but it's rather more startling when the genial Niall Quinn, seemingly the epitome of the tough but easy-going, hard-drinking Irishman, admits he didn't either.

So long as players aren't wilfully undermining each other - as the crowd favourite Len Shackleton did when Sunderland broke the world transfer record to sign Trevor Ford and, fearing for his status, began delivering crosses so loaded with spin they were impossible to control, before turning to the fans and shrugging - it doesn't seem much to matter. If you don't deliberately run them out or start texting details of technical flaws to the opposition, it doesn't much matter whether you'd go to their wedding - so long as things are going well. Under stress, fault lines will always be exposed.

So what is team spirit? Does it exist and is it important? It's clearly true that certain players for certain countries - and particularly nations that are in the process of rebuilding after revolution or war: Croatia in 1996 and 1998 or Bosnia today in football - do at times seem inspired by notions of patriotic duty, but for the most part team spirit seems something of a myth, a nebulous togetherness generated when things are going well. As the former Tottenham and Barcelona striker Steve Archibald once noted in a moment of unusual eloquence, perhaps aided by a wistful translation into Spanish and out again, "Team spirit is a chimera glimpsed in the moment of victory."

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • S on October 23, 2013, 2:45 GMT

    I have had enough of these inane corporate analogies. They throw no light on the matter and only serve to confuse. Jonathan says "Dressing rooms, it's easy for fans and amateurs to forget, are just workplaces." Listen mate, if they were, no one in their right minds would be a fan of sports at all, and would surely never follow it the way we do. Its precisely because sports - despite all the commercialization and the rest of it - remains in many ways an arena in which team spirit, camaraderie, and the joy and agony of being in it together still mean something to us that we watch.

  • Dummy4 on October 22, 2013, 7:27 GMT

    Direct comparisons between 'workplace' and 'dressing room' lead to ridiculous stuff like defending Mickey Arthur over homework gate. The truth is that cricket is a profession, but not a 'job' in the way we know it.

    The shame is it goes both ways - every job you apply for emphasizes the 'team' element and the importance of 'teamwork'. You won't stop hearing about it when you get hired, but you'll note once you're working it's all about YOU, YOUR targets, YOUR meetings etc. Whereas in sport, the team is actually important. All the cogs need to spin the same way, everyone has a role and they are competing against another team to, effectively, see who is the better team.

  • kartik on October 21, 2013, 21:29 GMT

    I don't think the issue is about being self-centred. People enjoy different leisures and you can't expect all of them to enjoy drinking beer after a match. So if Clarker or anyone else doesn't hang around for that, it has nothing to do with them being self-centred. Do you think doubles partners in tennis hang out after their match?

  • Steve on October 21, 2013, 12:15 GMT

    Though team mates do not have to be great friends, they do play for the same team and it is a team effort in the end. To achieve success on a regular basis, all the team mates must pull together in the same direction. This can only happen if the team mates respect each other and have confidence in each others abilities.

  • Simon on October 21, 2013, 3:26 GMT

    Of course team mates don't have to get along, but winning is more likely if they do. I always noticed the higher in rep cricket you played, the least likely you were to find friendship; especially between batsmen or my case bowlers. It was easier to get on with players in the team you weren't in competition with for a spot in the team.

    Naturally if you had a rivalry with a batsman and then had to play rep cricket with him, then you had to find common ground. Actually it was more like opposite sides of the change rooms and a 'nice one' if they took a catch. Sometimes those animosities turned around, more often just grudging acceptance.

    Club sport on the other hand can get ugly when there are factions and I've seen open warfare in opposition teams with 'team mates' in punch ups. They can kill clubs - not going to get recruits with that atmosphere. At National & International level, this is all compounded by huge money contract jealousy and some big & delicate egos.

  • Android on October 21, 2013, 2:54 GMT

    Nice article...and definitely good fodder for a healthy debate... My take-Dressing rooms may be like workplaces...but unlike the corporate world modern sport thrives on a mix of both- professional and personal/emotional elements... the relative proportions may vary from team to team but there is a need for both...