It seems hard to believe that only a few months ago, Nick Foles was just another forgotten NFL quarterback mooching around on the sidelines waiting for his chance. On Sunday, the newly-crowned Super Bowl MVP spearheaded the Philadelphia Eagles to victory against the more-fancied New England Patriots, having grasped the opportunity only when the team’s supposedly superior starter got sidelined through injury.
On the same weekend, across the pond in Cardiff, a Welsh rugby team decimated by injuries comfortably overcame Scotland with a crop of players who would otherwise likely have been ignored. Suddenly these relatively unknown players have become first choicers, deservedly retaining their starting places for the next match against England despite the return of more established internationals.
While such stories seem romantic and unlikely, we actually don’t need to look too hard in any sport to find a Nick Foles fairytale – a player who came to prominence only because of an unexpected opportunity. Marcus Rashford is one of ‘football’s Foles’ of course, having established himself at Manchester United and England on the back on an injury crisis at his club.
The truth is that in most sports opportunity is often born out of necessity rather than strategy. And understandably so. Just like the NFL is reluctant to give its next generation players a chance when there are so few matches in the season, football’s head coaches can also be forgiven for not risking the younger fringe players – it’s their reputation and job on the line, after all. Inevitably we’re told that “they’re not ready” or “not good enough” to step up.
Herein lies one of football’s biggest dilemmas: balancing the long-term need to increase the asset value in the squad portfolio by affording more minutes to fringe players, with the short-term need to secure results.
Not an easy paradox to reconcile. But there is hope.
For today we can learn from yesterday, by taking inspiration from these anecdotes we witness and new knowledge we can glean. The tales of Foles and Rashford should encourage us to think differently about opportunity and succession planning, while data can also reveal misconceptions about the perceived risk of giving peripheral players a chance.
Sometimes “not good enough” really means “not prepared to risk it”. Yet these real stories and data suggest that perhaps we should be more willing – often we have more strength in depth than our head coaches or indeed our own fears would have us believe. Or, as Foles himself put it on Sunday: “I think the big thing is don’t be afraid to fail”.