Ol’ Big ‘Ead
When I started getting obsessed with football in the late ’70s there were two great sides in England: Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. I was too young to appreciate the simple fact that unlike Liverpool, Forest were not supposed to be up there with the very best. I just grew up watching them win two back-to-back European Cups as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Their manager, Brian Clough, was very opinionated and often acerbic in tone whenever I saw him on the TV. I was probably a little scared of him.
Many years later the magnitude of what Clough, and his faithful assistant Peter Taylor, had achieved suddenly dawned upon me: they had taken a small provincial club to the top of Europe – a truly astonishing achievement that one doesn’t have to be a football fan to appreciate.
But how was it done? That Clough was a disciplinarian is well known, but it was when I remembered that I had seen him affectionately kissing his own players a penny dropped. Clough was a ‘benevolent’ dictator, an alchemist capable of turning average players into world-beaters, or ‘Pig iron into Rolls Royces’ (as one of his biographers put it), and the love was a two-way street. The secret was that Clough’s man-management was based upon an intuitive understanding of human nature and motivation, underpinned by the fact that he was a self-proclaimed Labour Party socialist. This was combined with a genuine awareness of his own limitations (his reliance upon Peter Taylor was not something he denied) and the limitations of his players, including a psychological appreciation of their motivations and personal proclivities. From here he forged a team. Rather than making players fit into a preconceived abstract plan, the players were ‘the plan’ – an honest assessment of their varying abilities made it possible to mould them into a winning force. However, this wasn’t Clough’s first time, and like most people blessed with a touch of genius, his strongest attribute – man management – had blown up in his face with his ignominious failure at Leeds United when he was sacked after only 44 days…
Thirty years ago my dad returned from a visit to the new local dentist assuring us that he was a ‘madcap’. Apparently, he had been ‘singing and shouting’ whilst examining my dad’s teeth. From that moment on it was almost a pleasure to visit the dentist. Over the years Dr Bill invited patients to ‘bring their own music’, or they would have to listen to his – with him singing over the top of it! Even when I lived in northern England for many years, I did not change my dentist. As soon as one walked into the waiting room, one could hear Dr Bill’s dulcet tones competing with the noise from the intermittent drilling punctuated by ‘Open gob’, ‘Shut gob’ and ‘Have you flossed?’ The atmosphere was more akin to that of a comedy show than a dentist’s waiting room. People ordinarily apprehensive of dentists would sit with smiles upon their faces almost champing at the bit to get in to the dentist’s chair! Dr Bill oversaw my sixth-form years, university and beyond, and we always seemed to pick up the thread of the previous conversation. He would ask me about politics and I would reciprocate with questions about dentistry (secretly hoping for some amusing anecdotes), I was always sad when he told me to ‘bugger off’ and vacate the chair for the next patient. ‘I’ve got loads of you lot to get through’, he once exclaimed in a tone not too dissimilar from John Cleese’s centurion supervising the mass crucifixions in Life of Brian.
One time I turned up for an appointment wearing my heavy metal-studded denims. In the waiting room with me was an elderly gentleman who went in first. When it was my turn, Dr Bill spoke in an excited hushed whisper. ‘You know that old boy who was just in before you? Well, he wanted to know what a punk rocker was doing here! Don’t worry, I put him straight and told him that you were not a punk – you’re METAL!’ And he did know the difference too – having been at university with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson!
But it only dawned upon me recently just how influential Dr Bill had been in my life. He was the only professional I knew who could clown around yet remain deadly serious. I came to realise that Dr Bill had subconsciously legitimised my own ‘clowning around’ teaching style when I taught in further education. We both combined amusing ourselves with putting the patient/student at ease and giving the best service we possibly could. For me, comedy was the only serious approach to education worth taking. I daresay the same was the case for Dr Bill. I once asked him if dentistry ever bored him. ‘Nah, I was born to drill!’ was his response.
However, I never fooled around in his company so he probably had no idea what I was really like. I was just the serious politico who predicted the economic crisis at every appointment in the five years leading up to 2008. It didn’t go unnoticed. ‘You said something like this would happen. You were right!’ It was difficult to verbally agree because he was scraping my teeth at the time. It then occurred to me that both of us may have been a little bit like Brian Clough: honest, outspoken, with a general disdain for the professional hierarchies; yet with a genuine passion for our careers (football, dentistry, teaching) and all those involved (players, fans, patients and students).
It was with these thoughts crystallising in my mind that I entered his practice for the last time exactly 30 years after having first entered it – Dr Bill is hanging up his drill and taking early retirement. As I lay on the chair, my eyes were stinging with tears, hoping he wouldn’t noticed. I started to sketch this article in my head.
‘Are you done with teaching then?’ he asked through his green face mask. ‘Yes,’ I replied, aware of the fact that next to his relatively smooth and successful career-path mine had been a comparative failure. ‘Far too stressful,’ I squeezed out from my enforced open mouth. ‘You backing Corbyn?’ he whispered, bringing his masked face slightly closer to mine. ‘Yes.’ ‘Good lad,’ he said.
It was then I attempted to articulate my Brian Clough ‘theory’ – that we or he was worthy of such a comparison. Brian Clough believed in relaxing players in the same way Dr Bill believed in relaxing patients, in the same way I believed in trying to put students at their ease. A famous example was when Clough took his Nottingham Forest team on holiday as part of his preparation for the European Cup Final. For Clough, if you relaxed people you got the best out of them – inducing stress and fear were counter-productive.
We were also bowing out in Clough’s style. My teaching career had ended, and although I didn’t miss it, I considered myself to be good at it. I had an original style which served me well before I outstayed my welcome in much the same way as Clough outstayed his. He had fallen out with Peter Taylor and they were not on speaking terms when Taylor died in 1990. (Some argue that this situation exacerbated Clough’s already existing drink problem. His career petered out as Forest were relegated back to the second division. Within a few years he was also dead.)
Turns out Dr Bill’s career was ending on a similar note. ‘Brian Clough? That’s interesting darling,’ he said as I explained my theory. I let go and told him what I had wanted to say all these years: how he had been a massive influence on me and I had only just realised. ‘They don’t like it,’ he said, as he jabbed his finger skyward: ’The hierarchy.’ I told him that things would never be the same now he was retiring – his patients would be distraught.
He pulled his face mask down and planted a tender kiss upon my forehead.
‘Thank you darling,’ he said.