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When free speech met three lions

Michael Barber had a hand in the England team's tactics. He bonded with Gareth Southgate over detail and bravery. Alas - as David Kernohan found out - when it counted Michael Barber was no Gareth Southgate

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

In 2016, a low point in our national footballing history, the English Football Association established a Technical Advisory Board.

The group brought together two years ahead of the World Cup was a cross-disciplinary one. British Cycling’s Dave Brailsford rubbed shoulders with former England Rugby coach Stuart Lancaster. Venture capitalist Manoj Badale shared a table with Graeme Le Saux (because of course Graeme Le Saux was involved). Lucy Giles from Sandhurst Military Academy worked with Olympic rower Kath Grainger. Matthew Syed was there.

And so was Michael Barber, latterly Chair of the Office for Students.

An avalanche is coming home

As Syed and Barber both tell it, the very cognitive diversity of the board was the point. For decades English football had talked to English football about why it was so underwhelming, and very little had changed. The idea was to bring in fresh perspectives from across sport and from outside. It’s very much one of those innovative management tools – the roots of the idea in the CIA monoculture suggest that Dominic Cummings would have been very keen.

Reportedly Gareth Southgate was a big fan – he told Syed: “I like listening to people who know things that I don’t. That’s how you learn”. Clearly Michael Barber knew a lot of things he didn’t, as the two spoke in depth as reported in Barber’s most recent book, Accomplishment. Tactfully, the conversation was about penalties.

Before 2016, the English national team didn’t really practice penalties. The received idea was that you couldn’t, the pressure of the moment was what made it difficult, not the mechanics involved. Even so, England had never won a penalty shoot-out at the World Cup. Barber felt this was, in Bentham’s words, “nonsense on stilts”. Even if the sheer terror of a stadium full of 80,000 hushed, expectant, fans could never be recreated – surely practice would help. As he says in the book:

I had always believed that at the very least you can prepare as thoroughly as possible so that, if and when you face that intensity, you are more likely to do the right thing.

And Southgate, thinking about 1996, agreed:

Having lived through it myself, I was very conscious you can relieve some of the pressure if you’ve practiced and prepared thoroughly

The Football Excellence Framework

Barber waxes lyrical about the “meticulous” Southgate. The whole team practiced penalties so often the turf near the penalty spots needed to be replaced. Players were encouraged to make a decision about where to place the penalty and not change their mind. Goalkeepers learned the penalty-taking habits of potential opponents – Jordan Pickford had notes to remind him on his water bottle. Even supporting staff knew exactly what their roles would be if scores were level after extra time.

The lessons drawn are the need to have the very best intelligence, full attention to detail, and to be ready to perform under pressure. The overall promise of the book is to allow you to take the healing power of deliverology into your own life in order to achieve your own personal goals – so Barber illustrates these lessons with a vignette into his own attempts to spot badgers in Devon. As Owen Patterson could have told him – “the badgers aren’t stupid”.

Last time I saw Michael Barber speak he was very much under pressure. He delivered the Commemoration Oration at King’s College, London (my colleague Jim wrote it up for Wonkhe). The topic was, as it so often is in higher education policy these days, free speech. But what we initially learned was that Barber was not on top of the detail.

Three lines on a whip

The Office for Students collects information on the number of speaker requests rejected by universities each year, as a part of the Prevent monitoring returns. The latest available data is from 2017-18, showing that 53 speakers were rejected as compared to 59,574 that were not. This 0.08% of instances (and not all of these will be down to ideological differences or a chilling effect) are seemingly enough to warrant endless broadsheet column inches and an entire Bill.

We don’t know what the comparable figures are for 2018-19 or 2019-20. Michael Barber did, but he wasn’t telling.

Gareth Southgate, in sharp contrast, is very willing to stand outside of prevailing political orthodoxies. The teams’ collective decision to publicly express support for Black Lives Matter and LGBT+ rights could easily have been refused by a different kind of manager. Marcus Rashford could have been told to pipe down if he valued his place. However you feel about England, or indeed football, you have to respect his bravery and honesty.

As he says in his superb article from the Player’s Tribune:

I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players. It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.

That’s what, to him, the role entails. It’s not just about football – it’s far more important than that.

A poor performance on the day

Barber had the opportunity to put the whole running sore that is the free speech debate to rest several times, the King’s College Speech was not his only chance – just his last one. In Accomplishment, he concludes that we should seek out “commitment to doing the right thing”. He calls on us to “create the circumstances in which the music inside every human being is unlocked”.

By those metrics, against that trajectory, he failed. He could have released the data, he chose – either actively or by omission – not to, preferring a relationship with the current government that has led him (as it did in Blair’s day) to the heart of number 10. He could have followed the advice of his expert – and multi-disciplinary – board. That didn’t happen either.

In that moment of pressure, when he had the opportunity to make a decisive and evidence-backed intervention for the benefit of the sector he professed to speak for, he hit the ball into the arms of the goalkeeper.

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