Is Martin Johnson Suffering From ‘Tony Adams Syndrome’?

by Alex Dimond


MJ — Still much to learn about coaching?

MJ — All part of the masterplan?


Another Six Nations encounter, another batch of yellow cards, another defeat for England. The defeat to Ireland at Croke Park may not have been entirely unexpected — indeed, the 14-13 was both a flattering and misrepresentative scoreline — but England’s failure to really perform for much of the match will still be a source of great disappointment.

The real annoyance for many fans is that the team does appear to have some genuine quality in the squad, quality that should be capable of challenging for the Six Nations trophy. The likes of Delon Armitage, Joe Worsley, Lewis Moody, Phil Vickery and Andy Sheridan — to mention a few — will likely be expecting a place in the British Lions squad when it forms later this year. For England, however, these players are simply not reaching their peak.

In such cases, it is almost inevitable that the media will immediately look to the team’s coach for explanations. In one or another — whether it is immediately obvious or not—they will usually find a way to blame the management for the team’s failings. With Martin Johnson, however, it is pretty easy to find a possible cause. He is clearly suffering a particularly bad case of “Tony Adams Syndrome”.

There is one overt symptom of Tony Adams Syndrome — an uncomfortable tetchiness when in front of the media. Sufferers seem to fail to realise the obvious truth — it is in their best interest to be open and engaging when interacting with the press. In Tony Adams’ case, he was evidently always suspicious and uncomfortable when talking with journalists. He gave curt responses, and acted as if such encounters were more hassle than they were worth.

The reality, of course, is that media interaction is an essential element of a manager’s work. It is a chance to put across your personality, ambitions and plans in an atmosphere that is usually convivial — after all, all the media often want is a few solid soundbites to seamlessly weave into their articles. Adams, however, seemed to forget this. His unwillingness to offer even general responses to vaguely taxing questions left journalists with little material to work with—and consequently he became the story.

If he will not say anything, then the question becomes: What can we say about him?

As a result, his poor run of results were examined and analysed far sooner and with more venom than would have been the case with most other managers. His evasive interview style was taken as a sign that he was failing to cope, that he was folding under the pressure.

Eventually — and perhaps inevitably — he was sacked.

If Adams had been more friendly with the media — like, for example, his former colleague Harry Redknapp, whose willingness to provide good copy almost single-handedly ensures that he gets far more positive coverage than befits a manager with just one top-flight trophy in almost 25 years of management — then who is to say whether the former England captain might have survived longer?

This does not mean that the media were to blame for his sacking, however. The reality is that Adams’ syndrome simply points to a basic lack of interpersonal skills — skills that are vital to the success of any manager. If Adams talked to his squad in the same way he approached the media — which is likely — then it is hardly surprising that performances and results plummeted.

As a player, or on the touchline alongside Redknapp, Adams evidently had little problem relaying the clear instructions given to him by his manager. But conveying your own ideas and instructions is an entirely different skill. Unfortunately, it seems to be one that he is a lacking.

Equally unfortunately, it also appears that Johnson shares the problem.

As a player, Johnson was an imposing figure who led by example. Off the pitch, however, his statements are often confused and vague. He is far better at talking about what he doesn’t want to talk about — usually, referees — than he is at verbalising what he does. Like Adams, he is incredibly uncomfortable in front of the media — but arguably even more bullish. One can only guess whether he is like that when talking in private to his players — in the dressing room and during training — but England’s recent performances seem to suggest he is.

The example of Danny Care is a case in point. Last week, Care was sin-binned shortly after arriving as a substitute, for a terrible charge on Ireland’s Marcus Horan (who had his back turned). Many have put all the blame on Care for his indiscretion, but the fact the Harlequins scrum-half went back to his club and put in a stellar performance this weeks indicates that there is a problem with the direction he gets when he joins the national side.

If Johnson is as irascible when talking to players as he is the media, then in that light it is possible to suggest that Care’s tackle was the result of a confused young professional’s misguided attempt to carry out the poorly-distinguished instructions of his coach. After all, even established professionals like Phil Vickery are suddenly making extremely basic errors that are costing the team dear. Vickery has little excuse for such mistakes, but it is possible that he too has been affected by the poorly-defined leadership and personal skills of the coach.

If Vickery is taken on the Lions tour and performs admirably, then what will that say for Johnson’s management?

Ultimately, teams often become a reflection of their manager. At the moment England are violent, ill-tempered, incoherent, and singularly failing to suggest they have the ability to win consistently — just like their head coach. Being bullish and ruling by force is not an undesirable trait in managers — that is the way the best have often worked (football is littered with such examples). Even in modern rugby, the Wales combination of Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards are perfect examples of such a style—you would not want to cross either of them.

The difference, however, is that the pair have both shown an ability to put an arm around the shoulder at the right times, and be nuanced and aware in their statements to the press. Consequently, they appear to have a team that is well rounded and capable of winning every time they take the pitch — confident in their abilities and those of their teammates.

Johnson has yet to show a similar ability.

Some of his tactical moves — such as moving Joe Worsley infield to counter the brute forcer of Jamie Roberts when England played Wales — have worked very well, but the problems outweigh such positives. The players still seem to lack the sort of self-belief that great sides need — and Johnson has yet to show how he is going to tackle that.

Undeniably, Johnson’s World Cup winning status and enviable leadership skills as a player helped him get England’s top coaching job so soon after the end of his playing career. But unless he can prove he also has the deft managerial skills that few ex-players seem to possess, then he might well find out that a Webb Ellis trophy on the CV does not prevent you from receiving your P45.


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March 2009
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