Cloughie, the great teacher

1st October 2004 at 01:00
The tragically early death of football manager Brian Clough was accompanied by reminiscences of his zest for life and massive achievements. He was always given far too little credit, however, for being an outstanding teacher.

He did what the finest teachers do brilliantly: drew the most out of his pupils, some achieving way outside others' suffocating expectations of them, and indeed far beyond their own wildest dreams. He offered inspiration to teachers - if you know how to teach, and expect the best, you may actually get it.

He will be remembered for winning two European cups in successive years with a club that was not regarded as "glamorous". It is also hard to forget his eccentric behaviour and hilarious remarks, such as "I may not be the best manager in the business, but I'm definitely in the top one".

I shall remember him as a naturally gifted teacher. He often behaved like a strict schoolmaster who was also a character. The team arrived later than scheduled for a European Cup final because he sent one player back to shave.

Trevor Francis, the first pound;1 million transfer, was admonished for punching the ball into the goal, no cheating was tolerated - and - also made to take his hands out of his pockets when Clough presented him with the trophy for young player of the year. England international Tony Woodcock was told to make a cup of tea for a visiting cub journalist. You can just see Clough taking Year 9 for football on a wet Wednesday afternoon.

More fascinating are the stories about how he taught people to be better players. You don't acquire his reputation for turning journeymen into international stars without being a brilliant teacher.

John McGovern was a modest lad of apparently limited talent, who looked likely to spend his career in lower leagues. Instead he became an international and captained Clough's championship and European cup-winning teams.

Contrary to his reputation as a thug with his players, Clough always defended McGovern when he was criticised, saying he was a model professional. He knew which players to boost and which to take down a peg.

McGovern himself recalls graphically an event which changed his career.

In an early match under Clough's management, McGovern spent the whole game running up and down, never once beating a defender. Back at the training ground Clough knew what to do.

"I want you to dribble this ball out to the corner flag, round it, and come back again."

McGovern dutifully obeyed.

"Now run to the corner flag, round it, and back again without the ball."

"What for?"

"Just do it."

McGovern did as he was bid.

"So which was easier, running with the ball, or without it?"

"Running without it, obviously."

"Then why don't you pass the ball to somebody?"

This is one of many similar events that former players recall vividly. Its salient features can be deconstructed: expert subject knowledge, identifying a problem and finding a solution, experiential learning that involves the pupil, using an appropriate language register, showing personal interest, adapting teaching to the individual, offering constructive feedback.

Clough would have vomited at such terms. As Goethe described in a poem about a dragonfly, dissect life to find the secret of its beauty and you are left with a crumpled handful of dead bits.

I have met many people in other jobs who are fine teachers from whom we can learn. Jimmy Young was a brilliant adult educator. I did many programmes with him and he had always mastered his brief. You can smell those who haven't bothered. They ask omni-purpose vague questions: "What's it all about then?"

"So what do you think needs to be done next?"

The topic could be global warming, Ofsted, or bingo.

Jimmy Young knew his stuff, used the right language for his interviewee and audience and was a natural enthusiast. I have sometimes used music in lessons, but never had the courage to teach subject matter punctuated from time to time with pieces of music the class will enjoy. I will one day, if only as a tribute to him.

One last story about Clough the teacher. Minutes before the kick-off of the European Cup final a nervous Nottingham Forest team waited in the dressing room. Clough entered and put a ball down on the floor. "That's your best friend," he said. "Don't give it away."

The message was clear and simple: you don't have to panic, you're a skilful team. They won, of course.

Teaching is about much more than individual incidents, and Brian Clough might well have been too unorthodox and impatient to teach in a school day by day.

But I will always remember him as an ace teacher. He was a master in a field where many have failed.

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