A nation awakes this morning in disbelief. So long the nearly men, the plucky challengers, the unfortunates, the golden generation delivering every time except when it mattered. This time it’s different. This time there’s skill matched with a steely determination, a backbone if you like, games and the rub of the green are falling their way. Whilst lovely lines to write, it’s the wrong sport for a sailing blog.
Oh how we long to write them about British yachting in the America’s Cup. A lifetime waited…for me it’s been almost fifty years of hurt. Lionheart, Victory, White Crusader, Blue Arrow, GBR Challenge, BAR, Team Ineos – they’ve all come in like lions and out like lambs. In fact you have to go back to 1964 when the Royal Thames Yacht Club fielded Sovereign against an imperious Constellation to see the Brits in a final and that was a 3-1 drubbing in Newport, Rhode Island to keep the New York Yacht Club’s fine Cup run on track. Ouch. It hurts.
But sport feels like it’s changing…northern hemisphere sport especially. We saw it in the Olympics and now it’s coming through the national sport and many others. Football is coming home bang on cue with a showdown at Wembley on Sunday that will unite 40 million people tuning in and bring a nation to an absolute standstill. In Italy it will be the same as social distancing rules and diktats get ignored for 90 minutes of pure joy and celebration of the beautiful game. It’s been a tough 16 months for many, who can begrudge such elation? Last night I was up to my guts in backstay and mainsheet replacement, sitting at the dock at the Cowes Corinthian Yacht Club with the radio on and a delay of about 30 seconds. As England scored, the club and the nearby packed-to-capacity pubs in Cowes emanated cheers of unbridled celebration – it was fun to hear, magical almost. Imagine what it would be like in Cowes if Team Ineos won a semi-final and progressed to The Match? Pandemonium. The town would be rocking.
And all the signs are there that sporting excellence on the field is about to be replayed on to the water. In Jim Ratcliffe’s billions, the usual British excuse of being out-gunned due to a make-do-and-mend mentality have been removed. In Ben Ainslie we have the Harry Kane of world sailing – at his peak on his day, nearing the end of the glory run but more than capable of steering a winning team. And in Giles Scott we have a dead-eyed tactical killer unfazed by the glitz of the Cup and the media nonsense, with a focus on doing the job unparalleled. And some grinders.
But where Team Ineos struggle, and where the England soccer team has struggled in the past, is in the management department. The England Football Association, the FA, solved that and look at the results. Team Ineos must do the same. Grant Simmer signalled in the Team Ineos approved wash-up video that it was “probably my last time” in Auckland so who does the team install to galvanise the designers and stop them wandering down insane rabbit holes whilst having the respect of the sailors and stopping the self-defeating cliques that dog British challenges? It’s a tough call. Russell Coutts is the obvious choice but in the media he’s ruled himself out – not that that means much in Russell-speak – Jim Ratcliffe and his team are well used to difficult negotiations and blank-cheque purchases so that deal is there to be done. But if not Russell, who else?
It’s almost the impossible appointment of a figurehead – it’s a tricky, high-pressured job – so perhaps a management ‘team’ is the only answer. But does that work? Near-term history would suggest that it does so long as the figurehead is the money-man (think Ernesto Bertarelli) but in reality it’s a recipe for confusion that Team Ineos can well do without. Getting the manager appointment right, and taking the media heat off Ben, is now the key decision and the net will have to be cast wide. Top quality names that know the Cup inside out and understand the ‘Great Game’ as I call it, are rare beasts indeed and the really good ones are already tied into syndicates or on rich men’s payrolls elsewhere. Hard call. But crucial.
The Italian AC team meanwhile is getting increasingly frustrated, like us all, with the delay in any announcements scheduled for September 17th which seems and feels like a lifetime away. Francesco Bruni was bemoaning the delay in a recent interview and highlighting that keeping a team together on the never-never was a tough job. Uncertainty is a killer. People have lives to lead, moths to feed and mortgages to pay and almost everyone in the Cup world is at that stage in life where other considerations come into play. Mothballing means holes appear and talent seeps away to steady work and a pay cheque. It’s tough for the pro-sailors at the moment but what a shot in the arm an early announcement would make. The hares would be running and it would be game on. But that’s unlikely and I feel for the professionals and the syndicate heads scratching around in the dark at the moment.
As the Cup sleeps, other sports occupy the vacuum. England’s bars will be standing-room only on Sunday and good luck with getting any barbecue sausages or burger patties at the supermarket this weekend. Even Cowes has gone football mad despite the best efforts of the fabulous Royal London Yacht Club who are hosting Cowes Classics Week as a useful distraction to the football madness.
Football’s come home, I just wish that the America’s Cup would too…it’s been far too long.