F A Youth Cup: Manchester United 3 Burnley 4 – hail a victory for the underdogs

Burnley boys won in grand surroundings on Friday evening to stun Manchester United at Old Trafford and reach the FA Youth Cup fourth round. Jason Gilchrist’s hat-trick proved decisive in a thrilling tie that saw Burnley lead through Cameron Howieson’s first half header, then twice fall behind before finally grab a stunning extra time winner to end 4-3 victors. Oh how we owned the bragging rights at the final whistle!

Burnley’s Youth were the underdogs, and entered the cavernous ‘Theatre of Dreams’ to face the 10-time winners of the competition. No one expected us to win, despite having a proud youth tradition ourselves. However, after twenty minutes Luke Conlan’s persistence in chasing a lost cause earned a free kick near the left corner flag and when Nathan Lowe drilled the resulting free kick to the near post, Howieson lost his marker to bullet a header past a startled keeper. The underdogs were winning!

The task then was to get to half time with the lead intact, but within seconds of the extra one-minute being signaled at the end of the half, United were level, a classy move seeing the equaliser scored with virtually the last kick of the half. United buoyed by that goal, started the second half on the front foot and went ahead despite the Clarets valiant attempts to hold back the red tide. Had the underdogs had their moment? No! The pendulum immediately swung back Burnley’s way as their never-say-die attitude restored parity, Gilchrist bundled the ball home to make it 2-2.

Having been pegged back, it took just five minutes for United to again grab the initiative. That might have been it for lesser teams, but dramatically Burnley were level once more with 10 minutes remaining the ever-alert Gilchrist gleefully slotted the ball into the gaping goal from the right hand corner of the box.

United threw bodies forward in search of a late winner, but keeper Jakovlevs’ safe hands ensured the tie went to extra time. Tired legs were now opening up the game at both ends, with players on both sides clearly struggling. With six minutes gone in the second period of extra time, it was the fresh legs of 15-year-old Burnley substitute Bradley Jackson that paid dividends, with a magnificent driving right-wing run and cross picking out Gilchrist for the simplest of headers. 4-3! The underdogs simply refused to lie down!

United were now desperate, but as they threw everything at Burnley they found keeper Jakovlevs unbeatable. First the young keeper made a magnificent double save to protect the precious lead, and from the last throw of the dice, Jakovlevs palmed another goalbound drive wide of the post to spark wild celebrations. The underdogs had done it!

BURNLEY: Jakovlevs, Dummigan, Conlan, Lowe, Whitmore, Holt, Daly (Galvin 110), Ly (Jackson 63), Gilchrist, Howieson, Frost (Hill 70). Subs; Mitchell, Bianga

Manager: Terry Pashley; Assistant Manager: Andy Farrell

The whole experience gave you goose pimples, the audacity and resolve of the underdog to keep fighting against the odds. It reminded me of the passion shown by many startup businesses as they seemingly face a no-win situation. How on earth can a startup win against established, large companies?

Startups have little choice but to stand and flight using their limited resources, they don’t just tuck tail and run when they they’re up against a large competitor, the passion and focus of a bootstrapped startup is difficult to replicate within a big company and it’s this spirit which sees them through. We see the potential, the creative spirit in younger companies, this little v big scenario is played out time and time again in business – recall Apple v IBM in the 1980s, Virgin Atlantic v British Airways and Dyson v Hoover.

In any market the little guys can quickly dominate by using their opponent’s size to their advantage. That’s because giant-killers can afford to shake things up and take bold steps. In his thought provoking and insightful book Killing Giants, Stephen Denny describes how a small, new player in any industry can topple the industry leader through a combination of brains, and underdog street-fighting agility. Giant killers can launch surprise attacks, pick unfair fights and hijack the conversation, stealing the customers out from under the giant’s nose. Denny outlines some interesting thoughts on how the underdog can compete and win:

  • Compete on the Thin Ice The Thin Ice strategy is about making the giant compete on ground where its size and relative strength no longer matter. It’s where giants fear to tread. Thin ice is dangerous to companies which are too big to venture far from the relative safety of familiar ground. When the giant shifts, the ice groans and cracks under its feet. But you know the ice can support your weight. You made the patch of thin ice in the first place. So taunt the giant all you want. By creating your own thin ice, you change the environment to suit your needs. You move the customer dialogue to a place where the giant is unprepared to go and rather than risk losing the fight, it may well choose not to fight at all.
  • Winning in the last yard Winning in the last three feet is a reminder never to assume that a customer has made up their mind. It’s not over until it’s over and the last three feet is where giant killers find success. There’s a gap between when the giant thinks it’s got the sale and when the customer hands over the cash. Giants are giants because they get the attention of lots and lots of people, but here’s the flip side – win with a strike just when the giant thinks it’s done its job and has moved onto the next item, you’ll catch them off guard and its all too late.
  • Eat the Bug – is exactly what it sounds like, doing what is taboo and unthinkable to the giants in your industry. Much of what giants do is given, they do things this way and never like that. What they consider taboo, is where opportunity resides for the underdog. Be willing to do what they aren’t and you can build a business out if it. Senior managers in large companies are paid to say no to risky ideas – they fear change and resist it at all costs. Think of things that only the underdog can do.
  • Inconvenient Truths Make customers think for a moment, get them to realise that your offering makes more sense than the giant’s. Denny calls this ‘making the inconvenient argument’, it comes down to your ability to move customers off their established anchor point and allows your argument to be heard. You have to flip the emotional polarity of your customers. Some have to move from the emotional to the rational, others from the rational to the emotional.
  • Seize the Microphone Being nimble gives you the advantage of being the only one talking to customers and anticipating their next need while the giants rest on their marketing laurels. Take up all the oxygen in the room. Your competitors may be big, but that does not mean they have to lead the conversation. Size, revenue and market share do not equal personality and emotional connection, so don’t be afraid of grabbing the microphone. Being polite and standing back will not get you anywhere. The right ideas will set your audience on fire, put forward ideas that make you become the conversation. This takes meaningful interaction over a long period of time, but the results can be remarkable.

Just like the competition at Old Trafford, the mouse fears the elephant, but the elephant fears the mouse – each look at the battlefield from their own, different perspective, and that can make all the difference. Underdogs who win refuse to compete by the same standards as their opponents, instead they use an entirely different strategy that exploits their stronger opponent’s weaknesses.

This is the ‘judo strategy’, a way of disruptive innovation, enabling smaller competitors to fight the more powerful industry players. The idea is to use skill to defeat size. Here are ten techniques of judo strategy, as defined by David Yoffie and Mary Kwak of Harvard Business School that may help your underdog business:

1. Keep it under wraps Over-aggressiveness can kill you early on, but by staying out of view you aren’t seen as a threat to bigger rivals that could easily crush you if they devoted the resources to taking you head on.

2. Define the competitive space Don’t try to match what the bigger company does. If you try to compete at the same thing they already excel at, you’ll always lose. Invest in your own core strengths to develop uniqueness.

3. Follow through fast Small businesses have to execute quickly while they have a window open, but not to the point where they become obsessed with speed ahead of quality.

4. Grip your opponent Build positive relationships with your larger rivals. This will create less incentive for them to fight back. Forming strategic partnerships and joint ventures may seem like a win-win situation for everybody, when it’s really a way to defend your position.

5. Avoid tit-for-tat When the bigger company makes a move against you, don’t try to match it. Instead, respond with a counter that plays on the strength that you’ve developed. Do something different.

6. Push when pulled Giant companies have momentum, and it’s harder for them to halt and change a strategy once committed to it without it taking time. So if they get caught in a strategy that is hurting them, use their inability to change and be agile yourself.

7.  Practice ukemi You’re going to lose some battles, so accept this and practice ukemi – fall safely with minimal loss. It takes a level of discipline to be able to retreat, reload, and head back into the fray from another angle. Emotional responses can be devastating if you let a loss take hold of you – instead, just try to minimize the loss and continue.

8. Leverage your opponents assets Big companies have invested into building up their assets and processes, but they’re also limitations. Sometimes they can’t shift their culture enough to respond adequately to an agile, small company.

9. Exploit differences between your opponent and its customers Even a company’s most loyal customers will always look out for themselves, so create situations that makes these customers curious, it weakens the relationships. It’s the old tactic of divide and conquer.

10. Let other competitors wear them down It’s not all down to you, a small company can actively use its other small competitors to take on a common enemy. Find a way to complement your competitor’s products with your own, and ‘gang-up’ on the larger company.

United were the giants – big, strong, quick and aggressive – and dare I say it – wise to the cynical side of professional football. Our Burnley lads were proper players but they’re slight, when one of our subs came on I thought he was a mascot.

However, just like a startup company, it was the hunger, determination, enthusiasm and passion of the Burnley youth that made them proud Claret winners. After the second United goal I saw players encouraging each other. When the third went in I feared the heads might drop and we could take a heavy defeat. Not on your life, they kept at it and were finally rewarded, underdog winners.

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