Inspiration comes in many forms.
A book, a film, a quote, a conversation, a press conference, even a meme on social media.
Mostly, whatever the source, we don’t see it coming, that’s often what provides the inspiration in the first place. It’s what surprises us, which then inspires us.
But real, genuine inspiration, well that’s quite rare. We all pay lip service to inspiration really. “I saw that Denzel Washington film the other night, you know, the true story film, the one about the boxer, it really inspired me”, and maybe it did. For a short while. “Did you see that clip on Facebook, the one about the guy in Barbados, collecting all the plastic on the beach to save the turtles? Inspirational.” And of course it is. Until we click on the next video about a puppy jumping on a sleeping pig’s back, making him grunt until he wakes up, and the puppy runs off. Humour in, inspiration out, forgotten.
So, inspiration can be transient. It can light you up for a minute, an hour, a day, but then we get on with our lives, and the inspiration is, often, quickly forgotten.
I witnessed inspiration twice this week, in completely different settings and both seem like they will be long lasting. One was the result of something that happened on a football field, the other was from something that happened in a classroom.
Six weeks ago, I watched my football team, Swansea City play a football match. It was against Everton and they lost 3-1. Things didn’t go well from the start, with star striker Wilfried Bony going off injured after two minutes. From that point on, things went downhill. Some poor refereeing decisions compounded by some poor play, left the whole team drifting toward an all too predictable defeat. Two days later, the manager Paul Clement was sacked. Confidence at the club was shot to bits, and the players – like the fans – just didn’t believe. There was no inspiration. When things went bad, they just got worse quickly. No fight, no belief, no inspiration. Surely, sitting at the bottom of the table, the Swans seven year flirtation with the Premier League was done. All over.
But then, an eccentric 52 year old from Portugal came along, Carlos Carvalhal. Carlos who? people asked. A Championship manager for a Championship team they opined. And I for one, didn’t disagree. But then he spoke. And people listened. He was different. He amused. He intrigued. He inspired. I have it on good authority that the previous manager, Paul Clement, is an outstanding coach. So much so, that when he arrived at the club, his initial training sessions were at a level that many of the players had never experienced before. It seemed that Swansea had finally arrived at the coach who would mould the team for many years to come into what the fans have always wanted, an organised, competitive, attractive team of footballers to watch. Sadly, that didn’t happen and quickly, the chinks appeared. Clement’s team quickly reflected his public personality, overly cautious, very defensive, lacking in ambition, short on confidence. In a word, uninspirational. In fact, I don’t even know if that is a word…but you get my point.
Toward the end, Clement cut a sombre figure. Lost on the touchline, dour in his press conferences, uncertain in his team selection and by the end, his players seemed to reflect his state of mind. Sadly for him, a change was needed. That change came on 28 December.
When Carvalhal came in, I simply couldn’t see any way that he could improve the team without adding significantly to the squad. Low on confidence, the squad was also low on players. Only one left back at the club, only one fit right back. No obvious attacking players out wide, and strikers who had forgotten to score. A midfield lacking the guile and expertise of Leon Britton who had led the club in its seven years at the top level. Surely, not even a Guardiola or a Mourinho could turn it around if they had been miraculously appointed instead. But incredibly, the man from Braga – by way of Sheffield – has.
Six weeks ago, I saw Sam Clucas give a midfield display so bad, I honestly thought I’d never see him in a Premier League game again. The crowd were on his back, he was getting pelters on social media, to all intents and purposes, I thought he was gone. On Tuesday night, I saw Sam Clucas deliver a performance in an attacking midfield role as good as any I’ve seen in the last 10 years at the Liberty.
But it doesn’t end with Clucas. A club stalwart and past favourite, Nathan Dyer who had looked lost and listless just a couple of months ago, on Tuesday evening played with an urgency, speed and thrust that we haven’t seen from him in three seasons.
On it goes.
Federico Fernandez, an Argentinian centre back, who sometimes this season has seemed as indecisive as Theresa May, delivered a towering performance that matched any delivered by many of the legendary Swans centre backs of years gone by. I could almost continue through the whole team – van der Hoorn, Fer, Ki, they all displayed a verve and confidence not witnessed in months. And let’s not forget, this was all achieved against one of the big boys, who all the pundits predicted would halt Carlos’ revival in its tracks, the mighty Arsenal. The turnaround – with no new players added at that point – has been nothing short of phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my time watching the club. Clearly, Carvalhal knows how to inspire, and it’s easy to see why.
His press conferences have got the whole Premier League talking. “I will look to the lobsters and sea bass, but if not we must buy sardines. But sometimes the sardines can win games” he said when explaining that the holders of the Swansea purse strings were hardly going to allow him to bid for a Sanchez or a Mahrez.
“It’s in our hands and we can manage things. We don’t need divine help” when asked if a miracle was need to save his new club.
“We are not in intensive care, but we are not far away from the doctor saying we can go home”, when asked if his club were moving away from a relegation battle.
It takes a lot to get a cynical group of sports writers and reporters to warm to you, but in his press conferences, Carvalhal, literally, has had them laughing in the aisles thanks to the quotes above. He is clearly having the same impact on the players, who, apparently, already love him and his eccentric methods. Training is sharp, tactics are well considered and understood, opposition are researched diligently and formations are set out accordingly, but above all everyone is having fun. Everyone believes. Everyone is inspired. That’s all it takes sometimes. Same players, different team, wildly different results. That’s inspiration.
I was in a school yesterday, delivering a creative writing course based on the themes of my book, Champion of Champions. It went well, a genuinely enjoyable session. I see my job as quite simple. In the short time I’m in the school, maybe just three hours sometimes with a single group, I want to use every minute to try to inspire. I want to light a fire under these young people, many of whom are disengaged. I want them to embrace reading, writing and education. I want them to understand resilience, I want them to understand there are no short cuts. I want them to understand there are big rewards to be gained if you are committed and willing to work hard. It’s a message I deliver day in and day out, and whilst completely rewarding to me, it can sometimes be challenging. Young people are not always brilliantly behaved, no matter how inspirational you may feel your message is, sometimes, it won’t get through. But, you keep going, you stay positive, and you do your best. I would never think of doing anything less than that.
When I finished yesterday, a young man came up to me and incredibly politely, thanked me for my session. It was my pleasure I told him, and said I was so glad he had enjoyed. He told me that he was going to buy some of my books, because despite never having heard of me, he liked the sound of them and was going to commit himself to reading and writing. He was eleven years old. It was music to my ears, it’s the reason I love my job so much, that instant impact that can be achieved.
After school, I went to give blood…yes, I proved again they can get it out of a stone! Anyway, when I finished, I went back to the car, reached into my pocket for my phone and put it on. It showed that I’d had an alert from Twitter and that somebody had copied me in to a post. It was the young pupil who had spoken to me in school earlier in the day. It said simply: “Just bought one of your books like I promised you. Never stop what you are doing.”
I was knocked out. Six words. “Never stop what you are doing”. Talk about inspirational. As readers of this blog will know, I love what I do anyway, but for a young person to say that, well, it inspires me beyond anything I could ever imagine. I certainly won’t stop what I’m doing and will continue to do it as best I can. Inspiration as thoughtful as that from a person so young will not be transient, that will stay with me for a long, long time.
I don’t think Carlos Carvalhal is on Twitter, but if he was, I’d simply forward him that tweet – “Never stop what you are doing”. If he’s the type of man I think he is and his press conferences suggest, then I’m certain he’d be quite inspired by those six words.
I know I was.
Don’t stop, Carlos, don’t stop.