Sport Comment: Strachan’s right – put in the hours to reap the rewards

John Inverdale
I HAVE often wondered what Ashley Cole does with his afternoons, but he clearly hasn’t spent the past decade or so using them to practise kicking the ball with his right foot.

Yes, he is an outstanding player, but imagine how much greater he would have been if he’d had two insteps at his disposal.

His mono-footedness, if there is such a word, came to mind as a result of Gordon Strachan’s outburst about Scottish footballers at the weekend. They would improve, he said, if they stopped moaning and practised longer and harder, instead of spending their afternoons “going to snooker halls or watching the telly... or going for a drink or golfing”. It was, he said, a simple equation. If they lack certain skills, then put the hours in and become better players.

There are many tales of David Beckham in his heyday repeatedly returning to training on his own to practise free kicks. Jonny Wilkinson has spent an eternity practising kicking with both feet. Golfers spend hours on the range improving and perfecting technique.

I watched Chris Evert do a training drill at 6am one morning in searing heat in Seoul prior to the 1988 Olympics where, for two hours, she did nothing but hit backhands from one tramline to another. The relentlessness and the accuracy of her ball-striking was bewildering. It may be a coincidence that she won 18 grand slam singles titles and more than 90 per cent of all her matches in her career, but you suspect it probably isn’t.

Practice will never make perfect but what practice does is make permanent. It makes it automatic that in certain situations you will perform in a certain way because you’ve done it over and over and over again. Strachan is simply reminding a group of talented but complacent young players that the essence of sport is being the best that you can be. Being “just good enough” to be in the team until some foreign player is signed and usurps your position because he’s got better ball skills, isn’t actually good enough.

The Scotland manager’s homily is just the latest take on one of sport’s oldest adages ­– “the more I practise, the luckier I get”. The lazy footballers he’s castigating need look no further than compatriots Chris Hoy and Andy Murray for inspiration. Meanwhile in England, injury is forcing Ashley to sit out England’s World Cup qualifier victory over Poland tomorrow. (Think positive.) They’ll miss him. But only his left side.