The Cup Final, the Uplifting Video and the iPod

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Hang on, let me check my iPod first

Technology, however small, can be the difference between winning a cup final and losing it.

Manchester United faced Tottenham Hotspur in the Carling Cup Final on Sunday, and it’s instructive how video technology was, in a way, the difference between the two sides.

After no goals in 120 minutes, there was nothing between the sides, and it came down to a penalty shoot-out. (Each take five.)

Now I’m a Tottenham fan, if that means anything to you, so this is painful to relate, but it’s striking.

The Spurs manager, old school Harry Rednapp, had got his staff to put together a six-minute video of Spurs’ previous cup final victories. “It involves some of the Spurs teams over the years winning cups and how great it was,” he told the BBC. “We will show that with a bit of music to it and show how this particular team has scored some of the goals on the way to the final.”

Nice, and uplifting, I’m sure.

The Manchester United backroom fellas had spent their time differently: collecting recordings of the Spurs players taking penalties. What they do, which side they put the ball, whether they hit it hard or place it. This in itself isn’t that unusual, but here’s the key bit:

No one knows in advance who is going to be taking those five penalties. It depends on a lot of factors—who has been substituted, and by whom, who is tired, injured, or just doesn’t want to take the responsibility. So it would be tricky for a goalkeeper to store in his head for 120 minutes or more all the vagaries of the other team’s players.

So the backroom boys stored the videos on an iPod (video or Touch, I don’t know) and showed it to the goalkeeper just before the shoot-out. Ben Foster is quoted as telling The Guardian:

“I did a bit of research for the penalties,” said the 25-year-old. “We tried to find out everything we could about Spurs beforehand and, just before the shoot-out, I was looking at a video on an iPod with Eric Steele, our goalkeeping coach, and Edwin [Van der Sar].

It’s not an amazing use of technology—there’s lot of it used in soccer, as with any sport, these days—but it proved to be Spurs’ undoing. Foster emerged the hero of the shoot-out, diving to his left to parry away the first Tottenham penalty by Jamie O’Hara. Foster relates:

It’s a new innovation he’s brought in since coming to the club and on it were some of Tottenham’s penalties, including one from O’Hara. I was told that, if he was taking one, to stay as big as I can.

The lesson to me is a simple one that every organisation seems to miss: Technology is not always the big stuff. It’s the Hinge Factor.

In this case it was the difference between one guy using it in a very non-specific way—splicing together a few clips of past glories to lift the lads—and another very specific way: anticipating the possibility of the game going to penalties, gathering videos of all possible penalty takers and then—most important—making sure they’re in a format that can be accessed on the pitch at the crucial moment.

But this in a company or organisational environment, and it’s the standard vs the unconventional. The corporate promotional video commissioned for millions of dollars vs a personalised twitter feed put together by one sparky individual in their lunch break. It’s the glitzy press launch with silly goody bags vs a blog. It’s the expensive software development project vs an open source content management system put together for peanuts and endlessly adaptable.

In organisations I’ve worked with or in, I notice that technology is always pushed into the background, usually literally: The tech guys have a cubby hole at the back, with cables and spare parts, being summoned to fix things but never to innovate. I’ve never heard their opinions being sought, and I’ve rarely seen non-technical people try to build bridges with them to try to marry technology with innovative ideas.

The result is that these moments of competitive advantage wrought by small but crucial deployments of technology are rare.

In this case it’s just one guy with an iPod that made the difference. Go figure.

Photo credit: Guardian/Matthew Peters/Manchester United/Getty Images

02. March 2009 by jeremy
Categories: Innovation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 comments

Comments (5)

  1. your right, getting technology in the right place at the right time can be the hinge factor in lots of situations. i wonder if down sizing and the credit crunch could in the long term be a good thing for humanity as we seek simpilar cheaper solutions to the tried and tested expensive ones

  2. There was, in fact, big controversy whether it was ethical for Foster to use the iPod before the penalties. Some think it was cheating.
    For me, as a spectator, it is not a problem. Even more, I think that such innovations will force the players to vary their penalty shootings and make them better at penalties in longer term.

  3. Penalties come down to luck, United it got it (as usual) and Spurs didn’t. The Ipod stuff didn’t really make that much of a difference.

  4. “Penalties come down to luck”–I never understand this argument. So much attention is given to every aspect, however tiny, of the game, and yet when it comes down to penalties somehow the thinking stops. A goalkeeper who doesn’t practice saving penalties, or who doesn’t closely study the habits and quirks of those likely to take them, is neglecting a key part of his game. It would be like not practicing corners or free kicks. Very odd.

  5. Cristiano Ronaldo is my all time favorite football player.”Penalties come down to luck”–I never understand this argument.