Is Winning Everything?


A couple of weeks ago, the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers sacked their larger-than-life head coach Jim Harbaugh. There had been rumblings all season that the flamboyant and outspoken coach had a difficult relationship with the franchise’s front office, so a parting of ways looked inevitable. To the outside world, however, the decision to fire Harbaugh looked absurd.

Jim had been coach of the 49ers since 2011. During this time he broke the record for the most wins achieved by a head coach in his first four years at any team.

In the seven years before Harbaugh arrived, the 49ers had a woeful record of won 39 lost 73. They had failed to make the playoffs every single one of those years – a disaster for such a famous franchise.

Harbaugh turned the team’s fortunes around immediately and took them to within a whisker of the Superbowl in his first season. He ultimately won more games during his four years in charge than the 49ers’ three previous head coaches combined.

On the day he was fired, Jim’s record was an outstanding won 44 lost 19 and tied 1. This winning percentage of 69.4% is this fifth highest in NFL history. He also led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game (the Super Bowl semi-final) in his first three seasons – another record.

So why did Harbaugh and the 49ers part ways? His final year produced a somewhat disappointing 8-8 record, but there were several mitigating factors: the team suffered a ridiculous number of injuries and several players were involved in off-field incidents that were huge distractions. Given another year and better luck, Harbaugh surely would have taken the 49ers back to the play offs.

Well not according to the franchise’s owner Jed York – a mere 34 four year old with no direct NFL experience who had inherited the team from his uncle a few years beforehand. According to Jed, Harbaugh had to go because he no longer shared the front office’s vision.

York and his general manager Trent Baalke, who is in charge of player recruitment (let’s just call him a selector for the sake of argument), gave a press conference last Monday to announce Harbaugh’s exit. When the media questioned them they claimed the decision to part ways was ‘mutual’. The assembled journalists sighed knowingly. When Harbaugh was asked why he was leaving the day before, he’d said “I work at the pleasure of the organisation”.

If it looks like sacking, walks like a sacking and quacks like a sacking, it’s probably a sacking.

Many suspect York had been leaking against Harbaugh all year: claims that his personality was grating, and that several senior players no longer wanted him around, had become ubiquitous in the media for some time. It was clear that York, for whatever reason, simply wanted his magnetic and charismatic head coach out of the door. And it had absolutely nothing to do with winning games.

To say that 49ers fans are displeased at Harbaugh’s departure is an understatement. It would be like saying Mike Gatting once had a mild contretemps with Shakoor Rana regarding the finer details of cheating.

What really irritates the fans is that nobody has explained the decision properly. It just happened – and the fans were expected to lump it.

Neither side has given any specific reasons for the split: Harbaugh has stayed almost entirely silent (whilst landing another job that’s significantly better paid) and York keeps spouting his ‘mutual decision’ baloney.

When grilled by an irate local DJ, who liked the decision to sack Harbaugh about as much as Ravindra Jadeja likes Jimmy Anderson, York simply said “if you don’t believe it was mutual I don’t know what else to tell you”. The conversation therefore went no further: the interviewer, who was desperate to dig deeper, eventually had to move on; he was getting nowhere. Stony silences don’t make great radio.

Due to the complete lack of information, numerous bloggers and beat writers have speculated there’s a confidentiality clause in play. Inevitably an avalanche of unsubstantiated gossip and innuendo has filled the vacuum.

During other interviews with the media, York has made vague references to team culture. Meanwhile Trent Baalke talked about how important it is for the front office and the head coach to share the same philosophy. Read into that what you will.

Meanwhile, journalists sympathetic to the owner have argued that Harbaugh is very much a ‘four year coach’. In other words he has an abrasive, arrogant personality that inevitably rubs people up the wrong way; therefore he only ever stays in any job for approximately four years before everyone gets fed up with him.

Unnamed sources at the Stanford University (Harbaugh’s previous employer) suddenly claimed that he wasn’t missed when he left for the 49ers – even though he was wildly successful there, won the university Orange Bowl and was named coach of the year.

All of the above might sound extremely familiar to England cricket fans. I won’t labour the parallels between Harbaugh’s dismissal and the sacking of you know who because they’re painfully obvious.

Let’s just say that many fans regard the owner as aloof, out of his depth and believe its wrong to let off-field politics interfere in team affairs. A large proportion of them also believe York talks too much corporate mumbo jumbo.

Meanwhile all the players (many of whom are incredibly candid on Twitter) have denied the alleged rifts with Harbaugh, praised his influence on their careers, and expressed nothing but sadness at his departure. Where have we heard all this before?

What’s interesting to us as cricket fans, of course, is that sackings of popular players and coaches happen in other sports all the time. For every Jim Harbaugh and Kevin Pietersen there’s a Jose Mourinho – although it looks like Roman Abramovich, the canny operator that he is, eventually realised that pride and business don’t mix; there’s nothing quite like winning.

Rather than starting another ‘rebellious winner gets ditched by stuffy suits’ discussion, what interests me (and I hope it interests you too) is a quote made by Jed York in the aforementioned grilling by the local DJ. It concerns the concept of winning at any cost.

When asked whether winning was all that mattered – the implication being that York was insane to jettison a proven winner – the 49ers owner bluntly disagreed. He claimed there was indeed one precious thing even more important than winning: ‘winning with class’.

Most journalists have interpreted this as a subtle dig at Harbaugh, who was known to have unsightly tantrums on the side-line; imagine a love-child of Alex Ferguson and Paulo Di Canio. Actually scrap that, imagine Ricky Ponting arguing with Aleem Dar at the MCG but much, much worse.

I’d be interested to know everyone’s views on this. How important it is for a team to win with style and grace: for champions to conduct themselves the right way, play fair at all times and generally act like good eggs? It strikes me this is a rather quaint, old-fashioned idea.

Do Chelsea fans care if they win the FA’s Fair Play Award (which honours the team that picks up the fewest red and yellow cards every season)? Surely they only care about winning the actual league?

West Bromwich Albion are currently the most virtuous team in England according to the FA’s league table for disciplinary points. In the table that actually matters, they’re just one point off the relegation zone. Maybe West Broms fans wish their side had a bit more devil?

To what extent do you think arrogance, abrasiveness, stubbornness, bloody-mindedness (call it what you will) is a central part of winners’ DNA? Would Matthew Hayden have been as good without his brash gum-chewing persona? Would Viv Richards have been so intimidating had he walked to the wicket with shoulders slumped rather than strutting purposefully?

Confidence, or at the least the projection of confidence, is an essential part of a top level sportsman’s or sportswoman’s armoury. If a significant proportion of top-level sport is all about mental resilience, surely inner-belief is all important. This is true for both captains and coaches: how can they rally the troops and instil confidence if they themselves fail to exude the utmost faith in their own (and the team’s) ability.

What’s more, is it even possible to triumph in professional sports with a whiter-than-white approach these days? Just look at Richie McCaw, the captain of the All Blacks and probably the best player on the planet over the last few years. McCaw notoriously plays on the edge of the rules. I know a lot of Aussies who simply refer to him as “that effing Kiwi cheat”.

It’s a similar tale in cricket. If you look back on the great teams of the past, Clive Lloyd’s Windies team and Steve Waugh’s Australians both played with a hardnosed edge that offended sensibilities at the time: the Windies intimidated the opposition with excessive short pitched bowling (which eventually led to bouncers being limited), while Waugh’s Aussies took sledging and ‘mental disintegration’ to an unprecedented level.

While many people couldn’t condone the way Waugh’s Aussies played the game – even some Aussie journalists believed it was beyond the pale – none of them seemed to mind when Alan Border’s tough-guy approach turned the Baggy Greens’ fortunes around. It was only when the Aussies were used to success, and beating the Poms was routine, did they start complaining about the actual manner of victory.

As an Englishman brought up in an era of continuous Ashes humiliation, I just wanted England to win full stop. I couldn’t care less about how we won; I wanted the embarrassment to stop. Us England fans couldn’t afford to be greedy. Winning was all that mattered.

The final question is how much chairmen and administrators should tolerate ultra-competitive behaviour. Should they make allowances, and appreciate that professional sport (with all the money involved) is now a win-at-all-costs environment? Or should they remind protagonists that they’re role models, and that indiscretions, arrogance and rule bending are not acceptable in the quest for trophies? Perhaps it’s ok to do what you want as long as (a) you don’t get caught, and / or (b) it doesn’t reflect badly on the organisation you represent.

What I’m leading to is this: what kind of England cricket team you want to see? After we won the Ashes at home in 2013, some of players urinated on the Oval outfield. Did this bother you, or did the post Ashes euphoria render this slightly unpleasant snippet of news irrelevant?

Obviously we’re in no position to be fussy at the moment – agonising over the manner of victories seems a tad irrelevant when we can’t buy a win of any kind – but what kind of team would you like to see: a bullish, brash and aggressive unit that bullies the opposition into submission, or maybe a more intelligent, stylish and altogether more ‘classy’ outfit that lets its actions on the field speak louder than bravado?

Furthermore, what kind of side do you think England have now? What kind of side do you think the ECB want, and will this model improve or hinder our chances of becoming the best team in the world?

And why is it that, in times gone by, we’ve always tried to replicate the Aussies in order to beat them? Do Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad really need to imitate Merv Hughes’ mouthiness to win the Ashes next year? Is winning everything or is it ingrained in our culture to admire good losers more than bad winners?

James Morgan


  • Personally, I like winning, I play to win, winning makes things feel good. However, if you won by cheating or generally being a idiot ( sledging etc), then for me I feel like I’ve not beaten them.. I’ve had to resort to using something other than skill.

    You want the most skillful to win, not the best at sledging, scaring, cheating etc. Not many agree though, most seem to want to win at all costs and not care how.

  • I must immediately confess to being rather quaint. Very quaint in fact, but I will pass on the old fashioned. No matter what you do, do it with grace. It’s perfectly fine to be ambitious, purposeful or even aggressive but all of that can be done with grace. Winning at all costs, bar corrupt cheating, is why we play. In any event it is possible to win, or lose, with grace and style. I would like that to be the epithet of any team or player that I support. Btw peeing on the pitch was of no consequence to me. They were high on victory, drunk and probably unaware that they were being observed. An excusable minor indiscretion.

    • I am with @jennyah46 on this. I was taught to conduct myself with grace in all circumstances and I have tried my very best to do so all my life. When people have tried to make me behave otherwise, for the sake of winning or impressing others, I have either stood my ground or withdrawn altogether from such people.

      My conduct has cost me much in opportunities. It is frowned upon by many and I have been called worse than quaint or old-fashioned. But I don’t care. Despite many difficulties, I remain principled and rooted in life’s fundamentals.

      It is perfectly possible to win, lose or draw with grace and style, as Jenny says, and I urge everyone to adopt and champion principled behaviour not only in cricket but in all other areas of life also.

    • You say “no matter what you do, do it with grace” but go on to say you have no problem with the players pissing on the pitch. Thank-you for making my brain hurt (and for the image of the players “gracefully” pirouetting in a choreographed team-bonding pissing exercise that has popped into my head)

      I would argue that real grace or class is what you do when you don’t think you are being observed. Being drunk and stupid is not an excuse for any behaviour.

      For the record, I think Mike’s comment below is spot on.

      • Being drunk and stupid is never very edifying, I do agree. Put it down to a youthful indiscreet aberration performed in the heat of the moment. I guess I was not supposed to smile at your head hurting descriptive imagery? You have a real talent there. :)

  • James, excellent as ever.

    Your article makes me think of the hype around the recent rematch of the Crazy Gang and the Culture Club.

    Everyone (well apart from Liverpool fans) treat this as David beating Goliath. Yet Wimbledon can hardly be classed as a small man with archane weapons against a brute

    Wimbledon were, perhaps, dirtier than Leeds at the time. Hardly a case of winning with style.

    When your winning you want style (sack Jose). When your loading you’ll want to win anyway you can (hire Jose).

  • Of course winning isn’t everything – but neither is ‘class’, ‘style’ or ‘grace’.
    Indeed, if every tennis player behaved like Roger Federer, or every cricketer like the sainted Mr Cook, sport would be pretty damn boring.

    One of the joys of cricket, rugby … and indeed the NFL, is that all accommodate a wide variety of different physical characteristics and a wide variety of characters – all of which can be effective in different roles.

  • The conduct of the players in the recent series in UAE and currently in NZ have shown that it is possible to play aggressive cricket with some grace and without boorishness.

    Captains like Misbah and McCullum very much set the tone for their teams. For example, a quick handshake for an opposition player reaching a century has been the norm. Teammates join in at the nearest available interval – I counted five Sri Lankans congratulating Williamson as the players walked off for lunch in Wellington yesterday. I can’t recall seeing any England players doing this sort of thing in recent years.

  • To be crude and cliched, play hard, aggressively, on the edge of the rules but not crossing them to win on the field. But win. Don’t be a dick off of it. Don’t break any laws. Be gracious in defeat after the fact. Learn from your mistakes. That’s what I want from my sports teams.

    Much like the KP decision, the 49ers/Harbaugh schism is one of the more boneheaded recent examples of overmighty administrators making stupid decisions not based on on field performance

    • Well said!

      To use James’ Richie McCaw example (since I’m (a) a Kiwi, and (b) McCaw also plays for my home province), McCaw is known for playing to the edge of what the referee will allow in terms of rule technicalities (to use a cricket analogy, as a bowler he’s be skirting both the front-foot no ball line, and the 15 degree chucking line). McCaw has been yellow carded just 3 times in over 130 internationals, such is his skill at gauging the right degree. However he’s also a thorough gentleman off the pitch, and the only punch he’s ever thrown on it was at a spectator who’d run onto the field & assaulted the referee.

      There’s a distinction between playing up to the line, and playing dirty – the fact that Calum Clarke is in the England rugby elite squad disappoints me, given that he broke an opponent’s arm on the field a couple of years back (and I was pleased when the All Blacks got rid of Richard Loe, for similar reasons).

      Simon H references the Sri Lankans congratulating Williamson in Wellington, which was good to see, and similarly McCullum raced to shake Sangakkara’s hand when Sanga posted his double ton, good to see such good relations between the sides.

  • Winning with class is definitely more important winning. HOw would you feel if England won a world cup ( football) because of an outrageous dive or piece of play acting which got a player sent off. It would feel hollow.

    England’s Ashes win last year was incredibly boring ( Fri at the Oval 220 in 98 overs) and the antics on the pitch suggest that the players thought they were far more important than they actually are,

    It nots just class but playing with flair. For me, sport is ultimately an entertainment. That’s why Mccullum’s innings the other day was so wonderful to watch and will be remembered for a long time.

  • The current England team seem to have managed to master the incredible knack of being boorish, loutish, and arrogant while at the same time being completely crap.

    That takes a particular kind genius. Or alternatively a mentally of delusion.

  • Given the choice, I would want teams I play in/support to win with style & grace everytime. I’ll settle for just winning, though. Winning is mostly fun, and if you have had to really fight for it, incredibly satisfying.

    I think “winning right” is probably not the best way of looking at it. The vast majority of the time, the winner is the better team on the day, the team that desired it more (andoccasionally lucky – luck will always have a part in this tale, it must be acknowledged) Bad sportsmanship abounds in all walks, and clearly no-one respects a cheat, but the graceless winner or sour loser is still the exception (in my book). Most wins are “regulation”, if you get my drift? As in the win is merited as I outlined above. But yes, given the choice, win (or lose) well if you can. Losing gracefully is possibly the more important. Mostly winning is enough though. Its sport after all, only amounts to a medium-sized hill of beans.

  • Winning might not quite be everything, but it near as dammit is. British sports fans and journos have frequently had a problem with winners – constantly sniping at the likes of Mourinho and Ferguson who win loads and defend their team against all comers, while lauding the “plucky British loser” like Tim Henman and Eddie Edwards. In cricket, when West Indies were at their peak all the British media could talk about was bouncers (appreciation of how good they were is far more recent). Our inclination to root for the underdog is laudable in many ways, but it too often crosses over into knocking down winners instead of praising their excellence.

  • Another excellent piece of writing.

    I have strong feelings about this. I think the first duty of a sportsman is to be sporting. I don’t believe in playing to win, I believe in trying to play as well as you can. If your best is good enough to win, great, if it’s not then you can congratulate your opponent and be satisfied you did your best. If the simple fact of winning becomes the most important thing, then you’ll do anything you can to achieve that goal.

    I’m reminded of the media reaction to Australia’s defeat of India in the 2008 Sydney test (the one with the dodgy umpiring and the ‘Monkeygate’ incident). It was a record equalling 16th consecutive Test victory for Australia but the next day, the Sydney Morning Herald led with this piece from the late Peter Roebuck – Arrogant Ponting must be fired. There were other similarly critical voices in other Australian media. For once, it wasn’t enough that Australia had won, they didn’t conduct themselves in an way that was appropriate for a sporting team or that made the public proud to support them.

    I am not a particularly partisan viewer of sport, I just like to see the best team win. There are teams that I favour and therefore wish for them to be the best, but if they’re not, I don’t get too upset about it.
    I fell out of love with our England cricket team in the last couple of years, not because they lost to Pakistan in U.A.E. or because they lost to South Africa at home or because they lost to Australia 5-0. I stopped liking them because of the way they played the game and the way they behaved. The extremely negative tactics and aggressive behaviour in the field were the hallmarks of a team who were more interested in winning, than in being the best cricketers they could be.
    For me, the England team of 2003-2005 were easy to love, not because they were winning, but because they scored at a good rate with the bat and they looked to take wickets in the field. I got no pleasure from watching England win the Ashes 3-0 at home in 2013 because they were obviously more bothered about achieving a victory, whatever the cost, than challenging themselves to attack and slug it out toe-to-toe with Australia.
    I think the current ECB team have come to believe that ‘playing an aggressive brand of cricket’ means being a bunch of mouthy gits.

    My own club captain is of that winning mindset. The rest of us are happy to show up every Saturday afternoon and have a go and try to play well and if we lose, so what? let’s go to the pub. He’s more interested in winning. It ruins his weekend if we lose. He, like certain current and recent England players, glares and chunters if somebody misfields. I really don’t see the point in being like that. Where’s the fun?

    Sorry that was so long-winded, I find writing prose quite difficult.

    To summarise, no, it’s not just about winning, it’s about how you play the game.

    • “For me, the England team of 2003-2005 were easy to love, not because they were winning, but because they scored at a good rate with the bat and they looked to take wickets in the field.”

      The England team of 2003-2005 was perfect, on whatever criteria you choose. I very much doubt we will see their like again in English cricket for many, many years. They were an absolute joy to follow in that era, and comfortably my favourite team of the 34 years I’ve been watching sport.

      • Harmison, Hoggard, Giles, Geraint & Simon Jones, Trescothick and in my opinion Flintoff too, all seemed like good blokes playing the game hard but also having fun. A much more likeable bunch than we have now, even if Duncan Fletcher seemed as miserable as Blakey from On The Buses! Perhaps it was the skipper’s influence?

        • Yes, that was the other thing about that team, they looked like they enjoyed themselves. I think that’s part of the reason why the wider English public could relate to them. Seven million were watching on that great last day at the Oval! Unbelievable really.

        • It’s questionable whether Trescothick was having fun, and there were cracks that appeared in the 2005 side when things weren’t going so well in 2006 and beyond – the Flintoff-led ashes tour and 2007 World Cup were in their own way as disastrous as last year as that team started to unravel.

          The England side of 2009-2011 seemed to be a happy enough place as well, scoring runs at a good rate, and bowling sides out regularly. Again cracks appeared when the play started to go south.

          Do teams, like coaches, just have a life cycle that needs refreshing every 3 – 4 years?

          • Trescothick used to love his cricket before his illness. There’s a memorable bit in Thorpe’s book when Tresco said to him ‘how come you’re feeling down Graham, you’re playing for your country and this is brilliant’ (not exact words but you get the idea). I think most coaches have a shelf life and can be good in certain circumstances but then unsuitable as the things evolve. England’s run rates in the last year or so of Flower’s spell were awful, often 2 per over or even less during sessions in NZ.

            • Tresco always seemed to be fairly uncomplicated character, which made his illness all the more surprising. His schedule as an England player surely had a lot to do with it though….

              The main point I wanted to make is that the sides between 2003-2008 and 2009-2014 followed fairly similar patterns – a couple of years of success followed by a decline in form, loss of the captain and cracks in team morale.

              I put the drop in scoring rates in the last year or so of Flower’s tenure can be traced back to the loss of Strauss and the decline in form of both Cook and Trott (don’t think they ever really replaced Collingwood either after 2011). England’s attacking batsmen like Pietersen and Prior ended up salvaging bad situations as opposed to pressing home strong starts.

              It’s kind of similar to 2006-2008 where England lost Trescothick and both Vaughan and Strauss’s form was in the toilet, and Cook was up and down.

      • They were an absolute joy to follow in that era, and comfortably my favourite team of the 34 years I’ve been watching sport.


        Perhaps it was the skipper’s influence?

        I think that’s probably right.
        There were individuals in the team (not just one) whom in other contexts and at other times have behave like utter ****s – even Vaughan himself on occasion – but during that period, not at all.

  • I like this… ‘I think the first duty of a sportsman is to be sporting’… that is something that is lost in modern sport. People forget that being sporting actually makes it fun, you can enjoy a darn good game whether you win or lose. In amateur stuff especially it’s irrelevant anyway, whether you are in premier division of x league or div 282.. it’s all meaningless!!!

  • Not particularly apropos to this thread, but, in terms of “winning” it’s right up there. The County chairmen meet on Monday, more or less to rubber stamp Colin Graves as ECB chairman for the next five years! Hope begins to burgeon in my heart that we will begin to see the end of this current terminally incompetent group of buffoons and charlatans, and proper and decent governance put in place to not only save our wonderful game from decline, but hopefully enhance and embellish it with some free to air coverage!

  • After being dropped from the England squad, Ben Stokes (predictably ?) finds form at the Big Bash, with a debut innings of 77 off 37 balls…

    • I would have Stokes as an opener in my England ODI team – think he’s got a better technique and range of shots than Hales. You’d also have the advantage of having Stokes, Ali, Root and Bopara in your top order who can bowl.

      What’s clear is he has to bat in the top 6.

  • Mark Boucher said there is no such thing as an acceptable loss. The closest he felt South Africa came to that was the final Test in the 2008/09 series in Australia. That was the one where Graeme Smith batted with a broken hand.

    As a fan, I want to see England win but if we don’t we must show heart and a willingness to battle until it is lost.

    My uni team was bowled out for 92 in both my first and last games for them. We showed the required heart and desire and won by three runs. My last game – others had given up and we lost handsomely. Had we lost by three wickets and given it a real go I’d have accepted it. We once lost by five wickets after being bowled out for 45 but showed heart and desire. I hated and accepted it at the same time.

    There are ways to win. You can win with grace and you can win without class. Admittedly after winning by three runs I did celebrate wildly for a few seconds (was also captain) but made sure we acted respectfully after.

    I didn’t like the way we won the 2013 Ashes. It seemed joyless with some bland cricket. Ultimately we should learn from the Aussies in a way. They were respectful after we beat them in 2005. We make a big deal of sledging yet we abuse our own team. Personally I like a good sledge. I sledge myself when I’m batting – I bat 11 normally because the order doesn’t go down to 12. I have feigned throwing the ball back at the batsman in a follow through but followed it with a smile. I’ll always shake hands with opponents after the game, win lose or draw.

    Winning, as long as you stay within the laws and spirit of the game, is everything.

  • I remember the Waugh/Ponting period of Australian cricket, when it seemed like we won every game (we didn’t, but it felt like it). It should have been a great time to be an Australian cricket fan. But it wasn’t, because every game was surrounded by journalists complaining about the “sledging” and “arrogance.”

    Neither aspect particularly bothered me, though I would have been happier if Australia could have won the games without the verbal assaults. The only part that really bothered me was the way the journalists kept niggling at the same old issue with almost no attention paid to the fact that we were watching what is probably one of the greatest cricket teams of all time.

    I think that any discussion of on-field behaviour should be left to the players. If the losing team doesn’t see fit to comment on how the other side were acting, then the press (and fans) should not bring it up. It should only ever be an issue when the “aggressive attitude” reaches the point where those on the receiving end feel aggrieved enough that they voice their complaints (incidentally, coaches should encourage their players to speak up earlier).

    I think my summary is: journalists, shut up about “sledging” until the players want to start a discussion. Until then you should concentrate on more important things like the skill (or lack thereof) of the players and teams.


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