Team success is as much to do with top riders all having super-star horses at exactly the same time their rivals don’t, as it is to state-aided high performance schemes. So in dressage, Britain is coming to terms with the golden era of Valegro, Mistral Hojris and Utopia having well and truly passed, and that it’s Germany’s turn to shine again.
Nonetheless, it can’t just be coincidence that two squads who underwent high profile changes of management have quickly won Team golds.
After victory at the European eventing championships in Strzegom, Poland, Britain’s first at continental level since 2009, we then consolidated with Oli Townend’s win at Burghley on an exciting young horse. Five other Brits also featured in the Burghley top 10, the first time in eons the leaderboard wasn’t choc-a-bloc with foreign flags. All this since Chris Bartle and Dickie Waygood took over in January.
Meanwhile our Irish neighbours had a thrilling triumph in the European jumping championships in Gothenburg, Sweden – their first team gold since 2001 despite being down to three men in the second round. Rodrigo Pessoa only signed up as their chef d’equipe in March.
In both cases, long-standing and thus jaded regimes have been replaced. Yogi Breisner held the eventing post ever since the UK Sport-funded world class programmes were founded in 1997. He led the Brits to unprecedented success until 2010, after which gold could no longer be taken for granted. In Irish jumping, Robert Splaine was manager for 11 years before standing down in December after failing to qualify a team for Rio. Extra criticism was then ladled upon him for selecting the “wrong” sole individual, Greg Broderick.
Pessoa works closely with Michael Blake, who was promoted to senior team management in April after a long and successful spell with Ireland’s youth programme, and with Gerry Mullins, chair of a newly empowered high performance committee.
Bartle’s collaborator Waygood had a strong Army background. He spent 25 years as Riding Master of the world famous Household Cavalry and then seven with the British dressage team. In both jobs Waygood was expert at anticipating what soldiers/riders needed before they even realised it themselves, and quietly putting it in place.
So in both instances a charismatic Big Name with nothing to prove as a rider has formed an effective double-act with a seasoned “facilitator.” Both chefs have a favourite mantra. Bartle’s is: “Yes We Can” while Pessoa is hot on camaraderie: “We win together, we lose together.”
Perhaps it’s just the placebo effect, but riders really seem to want to please their new leaders and are happy to preserve their best horses for the nation. Is positive change really as simple as fostering trust and mutual respect? That’s certainly what you draw from Cian O’Connor’s views on the Pessoa effect and Townend’s on the new look British regime.
It’s, therefore, all the more depressing that morale in the British jumping camp is at rock bottom. There is a lot of chat on the lines of “who would have thought we’d have sunk so low after our gold at London 2012?” and that “Ronnie Massarella will be spinning in his grave.” But five years since the home Olympics is quite a long time ago to be reminiscing in the context of the fast moving 21st century sport, never mind the invidiousness of comparing it with the 1970s jumping propelled into the headlines by the Brits’ all-time favourite chef d’equipe. Not enough people are yet brave enough to articulate exactly how the British jumping system can claw itself out of its current dysfunction.
When the Irish were similarly moribund last year they didn’t just moan and groan on social media. Their jumpers asked for a meeting with the “suits” and got one – at Dublin airport – last November, where an embryo plan was thrashed out. Maybe the Brits are planning a similar lobby to the British federation, but I somehow I don’t think so.
The most widely circulated rallying cry so far by a Brit has come from Andy Austin, who isn’t even a recent, never mind current Nations Cup rider. Coach and now a respected broadcaster, Austin gave the British federation a right drubbing on TV for not sending a jumping team to the Europeans.
You may not be able to play this link in certain territories, but if you can, watch from 1 minute 30 seconds, for about five minutes. Gordon Burton, GB’s overall performance director, seemed to have either decided or been told to repeat a statement that had been mapped out in advance, inadequate as it sounds against the successive ripostes from Austin. I didn’t really like Burton’s curious defence of Brash and Maher in “following their individual campaigns” rather than making themselves available for our European team.
Riders who would have given anything to wear the Union Jack at Gothenburg were then dismayed that the need to prioritise Britain’s promotion from Division 2 of the European Nations Cup over sending any sort of squad to Gothenburg had been somewhat overblown. When you crunched the numbers it became plain that at the Division 2 final in Gijon last week, Luxembourg would have had to win and Britain finish as low as 12th to forfeit promotion back to Division 1. We then learned Luxembourg wasn’t even thinking of going.
Now, spirits are even lower with the announcement of the British team – Brash, Maher, Michael Whitaker, William Whitaker and Guy Williams – for the lucrative Longines Nations Cup Final in Barcelona. It is hardly representative of the riders who flogged round the less economically appealing (i.e. three and four-star) Division 2 Nations Cups to secure our elevation.
Didn’t there used to be a bonus for the teams topping the old Nations Cup series, shared between all riders who had jumped for their country that season? Anyway, there wasn’t one after Nations Cup re-vamp in 2012 with the Saudis’ Furusiyya sponsorship and, I recall, Saudi input into the new format. Saudi Arabia had a virtual shoe-in to the inaugural final, so did the perspective of continents for whom qualification is a more complicated and drawn-out affair simply escape everyone’s attention?
Maybe if Scott and co do well in Barca they could donate a discretionary dollop of prize-money to their rank and file colleagues. Only a small gesture of “togetherness,” perhaps, but at least it’s a start.