The Art of Winning

I am writing this in the warm glow of a gorgeous Summer’s evening, on the terrace at home looking down a lush green garden (a lot of rain in May saw to that!) with a glass of cool, golden Thatcher’s Cider to hand; interest declared….I chair the Company! The newspapers have been full over the past couple of days commemorating the life of one of (if not the) greatest sportsmen who ever graced this planet: Mohammed Ali. Coming at me through all the eulogies, all the reminiscences, hitting me like one of his upper cuts as I move from article to photograph to quote is one overiding impression. Yes he was, in his prime, supremely fit, not just to enable fulfilment of the “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” boast but to accommodate the soaking up of enormous punishment when the need arose. Yes he was amazingly imperfect, often wrong and more often than not wrong-headed, but what he had in bucket-loads, what he oozed in industrial quantities was self-belief. Unwavering, unshakeable; worth a few points per round before he ever stepped into the ring.

I am, this sunny but sad afternoon as I salute a then 22 year-old who demolished in some 18 minutes the best, the most vicious, the most powerful, the most brutal fighter in the World, Sonny Liston, mainly because Cassius Clay did indeed believe he was The Greatest, reminded of a short rhyme by God-knows-whom that I jotted down upon hearing it many moons ago:-

First prize doesn’t always go to the strongest hit or the fastest ran But so often the prize for being first …. Will go to the man …….who believes he can.

Let me move you from the world of pugilism to another sport; football. We have just witnessed in the UK one of the (if not the) greatest surprises Football and possibly Sport  has ever seen. Leicester City, 5000-1 outsiders, certs for relegation just a few months before are the Champions of the English Premiership. Over 38 games (not taking a chance in knock-out football and catching a team cold one winter’s afternoon) they beat by some distance the Petrodollars of Manchester City, the huge cheque book of Arsenal and the faded but still potent glory of Manchester United. I am reminded of watching one goal by James Vardy of the Foxes in mid-season against Liverpool (no slouches themselves) when the ball was bowled out from the Leicester goalkeeper to a defender who looked up and just smacked it some sixty yards for Vardy to run onto on the angle. He did, watched it come over his shoulder and smacked it first time on the volley. All of us (including the Liverpool goalkeeper!) gazed as his shot bulged the back of the net before it came back to earth. Such confidence (from the defender who played the ball in and also the striker) was worth a one-nil lead on its own; such preparedness to “go for it” damaged the morale of the opposition and then some; no fear of failure;  such self-belief!

So often the prize for being first…. Will go to the man ….. who believes he can.

Way back in the day, some 25 or 30 years ago, when I was a lawyer in Birmingham my firm (and those at a couple of quality rival firms as well) took the fight for important, often international, work to the soft underbelly of second-division London. Many a corporate client moved its work from London to Brum because they found good quality advice, wonderful transactional management and better value for money than they were used to receiving from their London lawyers. The sense of breaking the mould was palpable; a camaraderie developed; “Advised in Birmingham” became a moniker born in reality not hope. Why? Because we all believed in ourselves; we believed we were good;  we behaved as if we were good, not arrogantly (oh alright then…maybe a bit!) but because we knew we were; we knew that if we had the chance we would change the order of things forever. We won…..because we believed we could!

And so, as I sit here on my terrace, cider in hand,  when I am reminded that after all my travelling around the globe over many years, there is no better place on this planet than my Country on a wondrous Summer’s evening, I leave you with this exhortation:-

If you know someone (maybe a young person down the road or in the family, maybe a colleague at work or in your social life who has had a blow to her or his self-confidence) who has the talent, has the capacity for hard work and diligence but just doesn’t believe in themselves, just take a few minutes out of your busy, confident life and fill them with hope, fill them with belief, fill them with a realisation that, as that young black kid proved in Miami back in ’64, as a bunch of maybe’s and has-beens in Leicester showed last year, as a load of lawyers showed a quarter of a century ago in professional Birmingham:

First prize doesn’t always go to the strongest hit or the fastest ran But so often the prize for being first……. Will go to the man…..who (simply, clearly) believes he can.