In the past few days, football and economics have dominated the front and back pages of our newspapers. On the economic front, the talk has been about just how bad things might become in terms of the housing market, credit crunch and outsourcing.
In contrast, the football talk after last night’s game and ahead of the Man U versus Barcelona clash tonight is just how good the football is becoming in terms of skill, players and tempo.
In a highly competitive world, economies and football teams can display quite a few similarities. In the past, economies had what might have been described as competitive advantages, which were quasi-permanent. In an age of hard power where coal and steel mattered, countries lucky enough to have coal deposits under the ground had a natural competitive advantage.
These days, the world is lighter. Economic advantages exist where brain power and creativity are rewarded and in countries which can attract not just the best capital but the best labour. Therefore, although resources matter, the main competitive advantages are fluid and, for a successful economy, can be lost as other countries figure out a country’s economic model and replicate it.
When we hear of “Irish” jobs going to India for lower wages, we are seeing the fruits of global competition. Rather than having a permanent advantage, successful countries have something quite different — they have temporary monopolies.
Think about companies: the same “rule of transience” applies. There is nothing going on at Bank of Ireland that is not going on in Allied Irish Banks nor is there anything happening at Ryanair that can’t be replicated by Aer Lingus.
If Bank of Ireland comes up with a great product, it will be customised and copied by its major competitor. Ryanair led the low-fares game; now Aer Lingus is trying the same thing. The same holds for talented staff. If a company fosters talent, the next company that wants such talent will try to buy the people by offering better terms.
Nothing is permanent; ideas, systems, people and capital can be bought, copied, poached or accessed. The mistake for any company or country is to consider a few good years to be a permanent change in the commercial landscape.
In football, you are only as good as your last game and the successful teams who sit on their laurels get beaten. As we in Ireland now face a series of significant economic challenges, it might be instructive to look at the history of football clubs that shone brightly, punched way above their weight and then came crashing back to earth due to a combination of complacency, flat-footedness, bad management and bad luck.
As you look forward to the next Champions League drama, consider the history of a club that won back-to-back European Cups — Nottingham Forest. In 1979, the year the Pope came to Ireland, an unfashionable side, led by the charismatic and surly Brian Clough, came from nowhere to win the most coveted prize in club football. The idiosyncratic Clough and his team destroyed opponents with Scots Archie Gemmill and John Robertson and the unlikely up-front partnership of Gary Birtles and Tony Woodcock.
The following year, the club did it again. Belfast’s Martin O’Neill drove the team this time. For the second season, John McGovern lifted the cup for Forest. The press believed Clough had found a permanent system that was unbeatable. The era of Forest was upon us. They had after all won the League in 1978, as well as the Charity Shield and the League Cup. In 1979, they won the European Cup, finished second in the League and also recorded the longest ever unbeaten run of 42 league matches.
But what happened? After 1980, Forest went into decline. They never consolidated their position at the top of Premiership football. Clough seemed to lose it a bit. Although he was still mercurial and had a brilliant eye for players — for example, he signed Roy Keane as a teenager from Cobh and put him straight into the side — other managers and tacticians eclipsed Clough. The team lost its best players and went into reverse.
Today, while three English teams they dismissed in their pomp, Chelsea, Man U and Liverpool, are still in contention for the Champions League, Forest are fourth in the third division, sandwiched between the might of Southend and Doncaster. (Two places above my own team Leeds Utd — ach sin sceal eile!)
Is Ireland Inc in danger of becoming the Nottingham Forest of global economics? Did we not shine brightly, get the plaudits, and bask in the accolades of being the fastest-growing economy in the western world?
Yet like Forest we didn’t change with the times. Rather than investing in new players and coaching techniques, we put all our eggs into the property basket, allowed ourselves to get slovenly and instead of using the good times to invest in productivity, we imported people from the rest of the world to do the “jobs we wouldn’t”.
Out of every â‚¬1 we borrowed in 2007, 86 cent went into property. Speculative property, unlike other investments, creates no value added, no products, no exports, no patents, no skills and no basis for future national wealth.
Now we are faced with a period of hyper-competition without the soothing balm of easy credit, which served to mask our deteriorating competitiveness. The housing slump is just making a difficult global situation a bit more tricky. The current account — the most straightforward barometer of competitiveness — has gone badly into deficit. This implies that we are spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need, and it signals a fall in national productivity.
While we were asleep, the rest of the world has woken up and we are now faced with competitive challenges from the likes of India. Like Nottingham Forest, we have realised that we are only as good as our last performance and our recent performances have not been impressive.
So what are we to do? The key now is to change our game plan. In football terms this would mean signing up new players with new ideas without losing the spin of our old team. There is not much time left. We need to adopt new ideas, look around the world at other countries, see what they are doing better and improve on them.
The lesson of Nottingham Forest is clear: success is a fleeting concept. No team or country has a permanent advantage and when faced with the challenges of competition, radicalism and risk are rewarded.
We’ve been down in the third division before. We know how hard it is to get out of it. No one wants to be down there again.