At the end of this series of weekly battles, there will only be one winner, one team will be crowned as League champions. A football league can be compared to a war, however it is not quite as black and white as one winner. Each club will have their own goals and objectives so it is not just about who wins the league, it may be about avoiding relegation, securing mid-table safety or a lung busting cup run!
It is not only about winning the war, but about winning the battles that matter to you and your club.
In Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’, he states; “without harmony in the state, no military expedition can be undertaken; without harmony in the army, no battle array can be formed”. Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ is a small book, one that can be read quickly. When I first purchased a copy, over 15 years ago, I did just that.
Over time, as I encountered problems or was looking for inspiration for a team talk or a tactical solution, I re-read the book. On each re-visit to The Art of War, I took more time and attempted to absorb or even extract the wisdom within. Now I realise , it is not such a quick book to read. It can be laborious to engage with and make sense off, but with perseverance, nuggets of wisdom are within, waiting to be applied to the very situation you are looking to address.
As time has passed, and I have gained more experience and encountered more problems, I have found wisdom and solace within The Art of War. While it is in fact a book on the tactics and scenarios encountered in war, or how to win at war, all of the lessons and strategies can be, with the right amount of reflection and thinking, applied to sport and life.
The book written over 3,500 years ago, really does make sense to me as a coach. As with all good quotes, they encourage one to extract a personal meaning that you can apply to your own situation and predicament. They encourage reflection and critical analysis. To me this alone is justification for my tattered copy of The Art of War to sit on my bookcase.
So what is the harmony, that Sun Tzu talks about and how can it relate to the start of a new football season? For me it is about, group cohesion and the relationships created both internally and externally, within a whole club. Internal is all the inter-personal relationships within the club, whilst external is the relationships with the fans, sponsors and media and the greater football family.
Harmony creates a unity of propose and allows for the development of culture that is process focused, and an intrinsically motivated environment.
If you look hard enough, anywhere in the world, the teams that win leagues and achieve their group goals and objectives have this harmony.
It is not easy to spot, all clubs, or should I say most clubs believe they have a harmonious environment as they approach the start of a new campaign. Like the freshness of a spring morning, we all feel we have a united group of people, with noses pointing in the same direction and endless possibilities.
Well, that is until the season begins, results and performances are not what we anticipated or wanted. This is when you will see the clubs where there is harmony and those that begin to split into fragments, as a tree hit by lightning.
For me last year Glentoran showed they had harmony, after a difficult start to the campaign, they got their heads down, finishing the season strongly and showing their quality. The club as one stayed strong and united, Mick McDermott never lost his positivity or looked to make knee jerk reactions to his side’s early season form. You can only do this when you know there is full support for your vision and values from those above you. For this very reason, I see the Glens, pushing Linfield and Larne all the way, in a three-horse race for the title.
Linfield year upon year have displayed a harmony that is the envy of all in the league, with a ruthless edge in their play. A level of professionalism, which now they have gone full-time, is up with the very best in football north or south of the border. It is Larne that I really want to highlight here. From all that I see, as an outsider looking in, but one with an insight, they have a real unity of purpose and a harmony that will make them a dangerous opponent to all the teams they play this year.
Larne have been building the ‘project’, as manger Tiernan Lynch so often talks about. With his owner Kenny Bruce, Chairman Gareth Clements, Tiernan has the backing and support both financial, and more importantly, the moral support and mentoring seen at the very best clubs in the world.
Kenny’s vision for the club is a long-term one, he is investing in the infrastructure at the club, the team and the support staff around Tiernan. For me what really shows this harmony however, is how they are all going about their jobs, in building the Larne brand. Their most recent European success, will not only enhance the brand, but also increase the confidence in all at the club, and encourage them that they are all heading in the right direction and towards their objectives and goals.
So, back to my old friend and inspiration, Sun Tzu; “victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”. Kenny Bruce with his vison, investment and passion has ensured that Larne as a club is already winning off the field.
They are winning the hearts and minds of the Larne public and the admiration and respect of the football community and professionals within the game. They certainly have my full respect and admiration, as has Tiernan, it is not as easy as you think to build the type of winning environment that he has at Larne. A big budget alone is not sufficient, yes it helps, but on its own it is just not enough.
You only have to look at Dundalk, in the League of Ireland, to see a club where money is no issue, yet there is an obvious lack of harmony at the club from top to bottom. Internally and externally, there are fractions opening on a daily basis.
The harmony I am talking about is not easy to achieve or develop, many a club has imploded very quickly when they hit a few bumps, as Johan Cruyff stated; “playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is”. Likewise, creating a harmonious environment at a football club with a true unity of purpose is no easy job.
Kenny and all those at Larne are making it look easy, and because of this I predict they will win the league this year. If they do not, it will not disrupt the harmony within the club, it will simply have been another season closer to their long-term objective of being the best club in the Irish League.
As Sun Tzu put it; “the greatest victory is that which requires no battle”. At Larne there are no battles or disfunction within the club, as a result they are already victorious.