The most successful head coach in world sport right now lives in Pontefract and is not afraid to be different. “I do a lot of things that a lot of other coaches don’t do,” says Simon Middleton, freely admitting he is not the type to pore over self-improvement manuals. “I was sitting with some of the younger players at breakfast the other day talking about the last book we’d read. I said: ‘I think mine was winnie the pooh.’
Maybe that helps explain why his team, England’s all-conquering Red Roses, have racked up a record-breaking 25 consecutive Test victories. Simplicity alone does not win World Cups but overcomplication can be fatal. Middleton gives an embarrassed chuckle when asked if he has any tips for Jürgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola but any coach would love to bottle what he is currently brewing.
The checklist of positives is impressive with the Women’s Rugby World Cup about to kick off in New Zealand next Saturday. A world-class squad full of inspiring leaders? Tick. A nice blend of youth, experience, power and pace? Tick. Pretty much the only thing Middleton’s tournament favorites don’t yet have is the actual World Cup, last hosted by England in 2014.
So what is his – and their – secret? Cynics will point to the Rugby Football Union’s decision to offer full-time professional contracts in advance of any of their rivals. Even New Zealand were steamrolled on tour in the UK last year. Any coach, they argue, would look good with that kind of armchair ride.
But hang on. No side wins 25 Tests in a row with muppets in charge. While Middleton’s CV does include the disappointing 2017 World Cup final loss to the Black Ferns, he was named World Rugby’s coach of the year in 2021. Unassuming and approachable, he is quick to delegate and his fingerprints are all over the shrewd backroom appointments that have underpinned the Red Roses’ improvement.
“One of the things I would say is a strength – and I’ve got plenty of weaknesses – is that I think I’m a pretty good judge of 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 get them aligned.’ I know a lot of coaches who very much want to be in control of everything. I’m not like that.”
A man coaching a women’s team, however, does create some logistical issues. For obvious reasons he and his assistants, Louis Deacon and Scott Bemand, cannot loiter in an all-female dressing room before and after most games. “The changing room belongs to the players,” Middleton says. “Once we get to the stadium we might go in to check the layout and feel the atmosphere, because it’s match day for us as well. But then that’s it. We’ll go in at half-time but we don’t go in at the end. Unless it’s the end of a tournament, when we’ll have a beer together.”
For some that raises an obvious question: would it not be easier if the Red Roses’ coach were female? Sarina Wiegman did a fabulous job in charge of the Lionesses at Euro 2022 and Middleton is among those who would like to see her de ella – “How good would that be?” – as a Premier League manager.
So do his own players want a woman to succeed him? “I’m sure they’d like to see a female coach and what Sarina has done clearly demonstrates that having the right person in the job – whether that’s male or female – can get results. He it’s the best person for the job, that’s what the players want.”
Ultimately it is 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 don’t respond to having a finger pointed at them and people shouting any more. I’ve been that coach,” he admits. “When I first came into the England sevens program I was very demanding. But society’s changed. People want and deserve to be treated in a very different way to how they were even 10 years ago.”
Middleton has also had to be adaptable in life. Growing up in Knottingley, Wakefield, he started 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 mended the pallets they stuck the bottles on. My dad worked there, my mum worked there, one of my brothers worked there. It was just what you did.”
Slowly but surely, though, he worked his way up, gaining engineering qualifications and becoming a designer and project manager. Along the way the skinny, ginger-haired kid also became a late-blooming rugby league winger, swift enough to score 83 tries in 170 games for Castleford and share in a famous Regal Trophy final win over Wigan – Shaun Edwards, Andy Farrell, Jason Robinson et al – in 1994.
“I was playing opposite Jason Robinson and he scored a try just before half-time. They gave it off but it wasn’t. That changed the complexion of the game. We were just on it, everything came off.”
One of his best mates at Cas was Mike Ford and Middleton also learned plenty from the Australian coach Darryl van de Velde. Those years also taught him what ultimately wins rugby matches. “Most of the people who play rugby league don’t have a lot else to fall back on. The desperation those players play with is born out of that.”
When he was first invited into the England women’s setup as a part-time defense coach by his friend Gary Street in 2010, he encountered a more laissez-faire vibe: “It wasn’t a bad attitude but it was a bit: ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ That’s not me. If you can play really well and win that’s fantastic, but winning is the key bit. That’s the be-all and end-all of international rugby.”
His outlook was also shaped by the day he was unexpectedly overlooked for a promotion to the head coach’s seat at Leeds Tykes in 2011. “That was a pretty devastating moment,” he says. “Suddenly, having had two jobs most of my life, I didn’t have one. You think: ‘Right, you’ve got two kids and a mortgage, you’ve got to get your finger out of your ass and find a job.’”
Luckily, fate intervened in the form of Jeanette Dawson, the principal of Bishop Burton College, whose director of rugby had just left when Middleton’s CV landed on her desk. Having not previously worked in education, he was able to develop the people skills that have since proven invaluable.
“I’m not superstitious but I do believe things happen for a reason,” Middleton says. “If you keep an open mind and stay positive you’ll make something happen. Those real hardship moments give you unbelievable confidence going through later life. Whatever happens, you can cope.”
When the pressure cranks up in New Zealand, he genuinely believes England can soar to a rarefied peak. “We have lots of things that motivate us,” he says. “But I would love for us to be referred to as the best team in the world, across any sport. I want people to talk about us like that – but we’ll only get that if we win the World Cup.”
A huge opportunity also exists for the wider women’s game as the Red Roses seek to emulate the England men of 2003 by winning a World Cup in the southern hemisphere. Clive Woodward was subsequently knighted, so how about Sir Simon Middleton? “Believe me, I’d 100% settle for a World Cup.” OK, but there must be an accolade he covets? “We’ve got a castle in Pontefract. They might let me live in there.”
To borrow from Pooh’s friend Piglet: “The things that make me different are the things that make me me.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism