Tthe most successful head coach in world sport now lives in Pontefract and isn’t afraid to be different. “I do a lot of things that a lot of other trainers don’t,” says Simon Middleton, openly admitting that he’s not one to study self-improvement manuals closely. “I was sitting at breakfast with some young players the other day and we were talking about the latest book we read. I said, “I think mine was Winnie the Pooh.’
Perhaps that helps explain why his team, England’s all-conquering Red Roses, went on a record 25 consecutive Test victories. Simplicity alone won’t win world championships, but overcomplication can be fatal. Middleton smiled sheepishly when asked if he had any advice for Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola, but any manager would love to bottle what he’s currently brewing.
The checklist of positives is impressive as the Women’s Rugby World Cup kicks off in New Zealand next Saturday. A world-class team full of inspirational leaders? Check mark. A good mix of youth, experience, power and pace? Check mark. Virtually the only thing tournament favorites Middleton still lack is a World Cup, It was last climbed by England in 2014.
So what is his – and their – secret? Cynics will point to the decision of the Rugby Football Union offer full-time professional contracts ahead of any of its rivals. Even New Zealand were taken over on their UK tour last year. They claim that any trainer will look good with this armchair ride.
But hold on. No side wins 25 consecutive trials with the Muppets. While Middleton’s resume contains disappointment Defeat in the final of the 2017 World Cup to the Black Fernshe was named 2021 Rugby Coach of the Year. Unassuming and approachable, he is quick to delegate and his fingerprints remain on all the shrewd behind-the-scenes meetings that have helped improve the Red Roses.
“One of the things that I would say is a strength – and I have a lot of weaknesses – is that I think I’m pretty good at character,” he says. “People ask about my coaching philosophy. My coaching philosophy is: “Get the right people around you.” People who know how to do the job. And then align them.’ I know a lot of coaches who really want to control everything. I’m not like that.”
However, a man coaching a women’s team creates some logistical challenges. For obvious reasons, he and his assistants, Louis Deacon and Scott Bemond, can’t hang out in the women’s locker room before and after most games. “The dressing room belongs to the players,” says Middleton. “Once we get to the stadium, we can go in to check out the layout and feel the atmosphere because we have a match day as well. But then everything. We come in at halftime, but we don’t come in at the end. Except at the end of the tournament, when we drink beer together.”
For some, this raises the obvious question: wouldn’t it be easier if the Red Roses were coached by a woman? Sarina Wigman has done an excellent job in charge of the Lionesses at Euro 2022 and Middleton is among those who would like to see her – “How cool would that be?” – as the head coach of the Premier League.
So do his own players want a woman to replace him? “I’m sure they would love to see a female coach and what Sarina has done clearly demonstrates that having the right person in that position – whether it’s a man or a woman – can get results. He’s the best man for the job, that’s what the players want.”
Ultimately, it’s probably less about sex and much more about empathy. Middleton, 56, may not be an avid reader, but he knows what makes his players tick. “Players no longer react to being pointed at and yelled at. I was such a coach,” he admits. “When I first came into the England sevens program I was very demanding. But society has changed. People want and deserve to be treated very differently than they were 10 years ago.”
Middleton must also be adaptable in life. Raised in Knottingley, Wakefield, he began his working life in the local bottle factory. “I literally finished my school exams in the morning and went straight there in the afternoon,” he says. “I repaired the pallets they used to keep the bottles on. My dad worked there, my mom worked there, my one brother worked there. That was what you did.
But slowly but surely he worked his way up, getting an engineering qualification and becoming a designer and project manager. Along the way, the lanky red-haired kid also became a late-blooming rugby league winger, quick enough to score 83 tries in 170 games for Castleford and feature in the famous Regal Trophy final win over Wigan – Sean Edwards, Andy Farrell, Jason Robinson et al – in 1994 year.
“I played against Jason Robinson and he scored a try just before half-time. They put it in offside, but it wasn’t there. It changed the color of the game. We were just on it, everything came off.”
One of his best mates at Cass was Mike Ford, and Middleton also learned a lot from Australian coach Daryl van de Velde. Those years also taught him what ultimately wins rugby matches. “Most people who play rugby have nothing else to hope for. The desperation with which these players play is born from that.”
When his friend Gary Street first invited him to the England women’s team as a part-time defense coach in 2010, he felt a laissez-faire atmosphere: “It wasn’t a bad attitude, but it was a bit of a ‘let’s see how it goes.’ . It’s not me. If you can play really well and win, that’s fantastic, but winning is the key part. It’s the be-all and end-all of international rugby.”
His outlook was also shaped by the day he was unexpectedly passed over for promotion to head coach at Leeds Tykes in 2011. “It was a pretty devastating moment,” he says. “Suddenly, after having two jobs most of my life, I didn’t have one. You think, “Yeah, you’ve got two kids and a mortgage, you need to get your finger out of your ass and get a job.”
Fortunately, fate intervened in the form of Jeanette Dawson, principal of Bishop Burton College, whose director of rugby had just quit when Middleton’s CV landed on her desk. Having not previously worked in education, he was able to develop interpersonal skills that have since proved invaluable.
“I’m not superstitious, but I believe that everything happens for a reason,” says Middleton. “If you keep an open mind and keep a positive attitude, you will do something. These real difficult moments give you incredible confidence in the rest of your life. Whatever happens, you can handle it.”
As the pressure mounts on New Zealand, he genuinely believes England can soar to a rarefied peak. “We have a lot of things that motivate us,” he says. “But I would love to be called the best team in the world in any sport. I want them to say that about us, but we will only get it if we win the World Cup.”
Huge opportunities also exist for the wider women’s game as the Red Roses aim to emulate England’s men’s 2003 World Cup triumph in the southern hemisphere. Clive Woodward was later knighted, but what about Sir Simon Middleton? “Believe me, I would be 100% satisfied with the World Cup.” OK, but should there be a reward he desires? “We have a castle in Pontefract. Maybe they’ll let me live there.”
To borrow from my friend Pooh: “The things that make me different are the things that make me me.”