Brian Ashton: A different kind of coach
Written by Ben Dirs — April 6, 2017
FOR YEARS, the barmaid at The Borough thought the small, grey-haired chap wearing an old England rugby shirt was just another regular. She was right, up to a point.
Then one day her dad popped in for a pint and informed her that the small, grey-haired chap was wearing an old England rugby shirt because he used to coach them. It is a simple story but it says a lot about Brian Ashton.
Ashton seems to be mates with everyone in his Lancaster local, which might explain why he always felt like an outsider with the bigwigs at the RFU. Ashton, who describes himself as a maverick, was never going to change for anyone. And mavericks have never really been in vogue at Twickenham.
It was Ashton’s holistic coaching philosophy that landed him the job as England head coach in 2006. And it was the same coaching philosophy that contributed to him losing his job in 2008. In between, he led an unspectacular England squad to within a whisker of winning a World Cup final and finished second in the Six Nations, their best finish for five years.
Nine years on, Ashton says the manner of his sacking hurts no longer. He’s not entirely convincing. But when you’ve been courted by the Premier League and Manchester United (Ashton works as a coaches' mentor for both) you’re likely to be insulated by a glow of vindication.
“I don’t know why I got sacked, no-one’s ever told me,” says Ashton, while his dog Wurgo, a great slab of black Labrador, dozes at his feet. “I always sensed that, for whatever reason, I just didn’t fit in. I never felt totally at ease or totally in place among the hierarchy. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how it felt.”
Ashton’s dad was a miner, who rose every day at 4 and walked three miles to the bus stop, before being ferried to the pit. From his parents, Ashton learned the value of hard graft, integrity and how to trump adversity with dignity.
The story of how he came to be expelled from grammar school is particularly instructive: when his cricket captain informed him he wouldn’t be picked for a game because he didn’t have his whites with him, Ashton simply walked out.
“I thought ‘bollocks to this’, packed a rucksack and ended up in the Regal cinema back in Leigh, watching Summer Holiday three times in a row. I was scared to go home and tell my parents, who had sacrificed everything. When I went back to school to apologise, the headmaster wouldn’t let me back in.”
After playing for various northern clubs and touring Australia with England in 1975, Ashton discovered his true love, which you may or may not be surprised to learn is teaching rather than coaching. At Stonyhurst College, Ashton learned from Jesuit priests, or ‘Soldiers of God’, the value of thinking differently. And when he joined Bath as backs coach in 1989, he linked up with another group of free thinkers who wanted to bend the way things were done.
“Coaching that Bath team was about coming up with ideas and concepts and letting them play around with them. I’d often say: ‘Have you thought about doing this?’ It was almost experimental. And it was the players who pushed me into it, people like Jerry Guscott, Stuart Barnes, Jon Callard, Phil de Glanville.
“I remember Jerry saying to me during a training session: ‘Why are we doing this again? I can already do it.’ And I said: ‘Yes, I know you can Jerry…’ Jerry walked off. But he was right, I was wasting his time. None of them liked not being challenged and doing things they could already do.”
Ashton’s philosophy of player empowerment fitted the amateur era, when coaches were dealing with policemen, lawyers and surgeons. He helped Bath win five league titles, but when the game went professional in 1996, Ashton believes the training ground became a less collaborative environment.
And at the 2007 World Cup in France, it became apparent that what Ashton saw as player empowerment, some of his players saw as the head coach abdicating responsibility.
Following England’s 36-0 humbling at the hands of South Africa in the group stages, players and coaches came together for a now legendary team meeting.
“England didn’t have a great side but South Africa would have smashed anybody in the bloody world that day. So that meeting was no big deal for me.
- PLAYER: Scrum-half for Fylde, Orrell, Montferrand, Rome & Milan
- TEACHER: History & rugby master at Stonyhurst College
- COACH: Bath, Ireland, England A, England
- HONOURS: MBE, 2008
"There was a lot of disagreement and at the end of it I said: ‘Leave it with me.’ The next day I called in the nines and 10s and we decided how we wanted to play. But it was them who passed the plan to the rest of the team on the Monday morning. I don’t have an ego. They were responsible for making the plan work on the field, so nobody needed to know I was any part of it.”
After that Monday morning meeting, Ashton received a text: “I know where you’re coming from. If you want to go forward in that way, pick me and I can lead it for you.” Ashton smiles wryly at the memory, before adding: “I picked him and he did. At least I had one of the 32 players on my side.”
There followed a remarkable reversal of fortunes, although one particular episode was emblematic of England’s never entirely convincing, sometimes bumbling, almost surreal progress through the tournament.
“Before the quarter-final against Australia, Mark Regan was sat next to Andrew Sheridan in the dressing room and started nudging me and saying: ‘He’s listening to the fuckin’ Spice Girls on his headphones!’ I said: ‘Spice Girls?! Spice Girls?! We’re playing bloody Australia in a minute!’ I felt like punching him.
"Anyway, after a couple of minutes, Sheridan gets tackled, the whistle goes and Regan kicks him in the back of the head. Sheridan said: ‘Who did that?’ And Regan pointed at Matt Dunning, the Australian prop.”
Whether Regan’s story is apocryphal or not, Sheridan went on the rampage, Australia’s scrum melted under the autumnal Marseille sun and Jonny Wilkinson did the rest. England beat hosts France in the last four before losing to the Springboks in the final, a game they could very well have won.
And what thanks did Ashton get? A very public rinsing. I read Ashton some of the things England’s players apparently said about him, as reported by the Daily Telegraph.
“He did nothing in the first few weeks”; “a complete shambles”; “we told him to pull his finger out of his arse and put some work in”. I am momentarily embarrassed. I half expect Wurgo to clamp his paws over his ears. Ashton, hitherto relaxed, bristles quietly at that last comment.
“Not putting the work in? I was in charge of the backs, in charge of attack, head coach. The team manager had to go home in the first week of the tournament because her father was taken ill, so I was effectively doing that as well. Doesn’t sound like I was work-shy. I never have been. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t prescribing them what they needed to do. I was pretty chilled.
“I’ve never been a believer in game-plans. I believe in providing a framework and a vision of how the team should play. And I’ve always been a fan of that old army maxim, ‘no battle plan survives contact with the enemy’. You can’t predict all the circumstances, but you can cultivate a mindset that says: ‘We’ve got a problem, but if we put our minds to it, we can come up with a solution.’
“There’s another army saying I like, ‘we live in a VUCA world’ – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. To operate in that world, you can’t use the old-fashioned command control style. You have to set an objective, provide the tools and resources and let your soldiers sort things out on the ground. Like Graham Henry said after winning the 2011 World Cup, he was just a resource, there to offer guidance, advice, ideas. Empowering his players to take charge of their own environment was the achievement of which he was most proud.”
Ashton started to suspect he would be ousted after the defeat by Scotland in the 2008 Six Nations. “At the dinner after the game, I was sat next to one of the Scottish coaches and had a real good night with him. One or two of the committee members weren’t happy with that – ‘why are you having so much fun when you’ve just lost to Scotland?’ They were looking for reasons to get rid of me, my face just never fitted. I’m pretty sure some of them were thinking that me getting England to the final of the World Cup was the worst thing that could have happened.” And then the rumours started appearing in the media.
“I first knew they were getting rid of me when I read it in the papers. Peter Jackson of the Daily Mail had an inside line to the RFU and everybody knows who it was to. He was the leader of the gang who wanted me out, but he used Rob Andrew as a messenger, like Pontius Pilate. I haven’t seen that person since. I wouldn’t speak to them if I did. I don’t have time for people who treat other people like that. But it took more of a toll on my family than it did me.”
It was indeed a cowardly way to treat a man of integrity who had dug so deep for the cause. At least the Queen appreciated him, she gave him the MBE. But Ashton had long since learned to trump adversity with dignity.
A year later he was running a coaching seminar at a chateau in Normandy, teaching kids how to think differently by day, no doubt drinking the finest of wines by night. As Ashton puts it: “I live a different life to most people. Life would bore me to tears if I was doing the same thing as everybody else.”
Despite describing himself as semi-retired, Ashton appears to juggle about a dozen jobs. He runs a consultancy business and dabbles in business and leadership, but his focus nowadays is football. He mentors coaches, a few of them from Manchester United’s academy, and enjoys “stretching minds”, both his own and his pupils'. ‘The Mind Stretcher’ - now that’s not a bad nickname.
“One young football coach said to me recently: ‘I need to coach the reality of the game more.’ I thought that was a fantastic phrase. Any team game played with a ball is VUCA. It’s 22 or 30 players and a bloke with a whistle trying to disrupt everybody’s bloody enjoyment, and all sorts of shit can go wrong. But I don’t think most coaches think like that, they’re more than happy to drift along with their flatlining approach, doing the same stuff, week in, week out.”
But Ashton hasn’t neglected the twin pillars of his success. He mentors teachers and continues to travel the world with the International Rugby Academy of New Zealand, who are to the All Blacks what the Jesuits are to the Catholic Church, going forth to propagate the word of forward-thinking rugby. It is telling that the All Blacks would want Ashton as one of their soldiers.
Ashton polishes off another cup of tea and ponders what his legacy might be. “Somebody who enjoyed life and helped others to enjoy it, too. People look at me and think: ‘Blimey, wasn’t he the head coach of England? He doesn’t behave like the head coach of England.’ But how is a head coach supposed to be? I’ve always enjoyed being a maverick. I just like being different.”
Interview over, Ashton gets the great slab of black Labrador to his feet and bids me farewell, before falling into conversation with some locals. Suddenly the man who likes being different is just another regular. Up to a point.