Brian Clough, the real “Coach”

When I lived in Alabama I got into a discussion one day with a customer who was amazed to meet an Englishman. He asked me a lot of questions about the land of my birth and just when I was starting to think he was some kind of anglophile stalker he blurted out “Do you play soccer ?” Silly question. Everyone from England plays soccer except for hooray henrys and the last time I checked I wasn’t wearing a red coat or chasing a a fox down a hole. I explained to him I hadn’t played much since I left college to which he replied “You played at college ?” I nodded. I played soccer every day at college sometimes on a field sometimes on the Hulme Hall Wardens croquet lawn in a thunder storm (He went nuts but that is another story) and sometimes in my bedroom with a coke can as the ball and a trash can as the goal. Soccer or football as it was known back in my English days was a major part of my life. What I didn’t realise was that the words “college” and “soccer” or any other sport in the same sentence have a very different connotation in the US than they do in England. Firstly the chap assumed that when I say I “played at college” that I meant I “played for my college” and he also had no idea that college sport in England is not what it is in the US. At home any kid worth his salt is playing for a professionals clubs junior team by the age of twelve and if he stays in school until 16 he is doing well. In the USA people who want to be professional sports stars get scholarships and play sport at Uni in stadiums as big as Wembley and on live TV.

The next thing I knew I was being asked to take over as coach of the local Under 14 soccer team by this nice but rather eccentric fellow who looked a little like the “Doc” from “Back to the Future.” Unbeknown to him I wasn’t of the Gary Lineker and unbeknown to me Mr Anglophile was going to embellish my presumed resume and tell all the kids parents that I used to be a professional player in England ! It was a little awkward when I showed up for the first day of training and heard a few parents whispering about how I was the “former premier league player.” None of them seemed to have the brains to realise that since I was only 23 at the time that even if I had been a pro I must have had a pretty miserable little career ! Anyway I didn’t really feel it would be appropriate to admit I had over heard them talking and explain that I was about as near to be a professional football player as Anne Widdicombe was to being a stripper !

It soon transpired that there were to be two teams in the town. My team and the team of Coach Kimble. He was the Brian Clough of the city. He had coached the team for 17 years and never lost a championship. He was a hero. He was a good old boy. He was … a complete moron. I first discovered this on the day we had a draft and Kimble gave me a whole speech about how he wanted to have some decent competition and tipped me off to the kids who supposedly were the best ones. I initially took his advice with my first picks but as time went on it became obvious that he was up to no good as every kid who was half decent was “having a lucky day” whereas all of the no hopers were “not showing their best form.” All in all it was a stitch up and I ended up with about 2 kids who could kick a ball in a squad of 15 and not only that but the teams were mixed but somehow I had 7 girls and he had one. No offence to girls who are good at soccer but 6 of my 7 girls were only there because their parents forced them to be.

I had always been an avid armchair critic of the premier league and had won championships with every team from west Ham to Torquay United on “Championship Manager 2” but I had never actually “coached before so I decided to invest in a book about “Dutch soccer drills.” I figured that the Dutch were usually pretty good and it would be easier to teach the kids to play the beautiful game then to teach them the long ball game given that none of them were above 5 feet tall. The book had some great ideas and fancy formations but said very little about fitness training. The author explained that ball control was key and not mindless exercise. In contrast coach Kimble on the neighbouring field was having his team run marathons and the slowest two kids would have to perform 50 push ups before being allowed to take part in the sprints. One or two parents voiced concern at our different managerial styles but I stuck to my guns believing that it might actually be useful to teach the kids how to play soccer !

I felt fully vindicated when in our first game we met the invincible coach Kimbles team and despite his complete ignorance of offside laws causing him to constantly berate the referee nothing could prevent quality shining through and my team won the game 8-2. I would go on to explain how we were unbeaten for the remainder of the season and even beat a team that had been in the State final the previous year but that would be rubbing salt into the wounds. Beyond boosting my ego what I learnt from my season coaching in Alabama is that many Americans have absolutely no bloody clue about the sport.

There is a belief in the USA that if you are a coach then you are a coach of every sport. One of the many teams we beat had a coach who doubled as the towns baseball coach and whose soccer knowledge was based upon fusbbal to the point that he got annoyed that my players “moved from their designated starting positions during the game.” More recently though in the usually more worldly Florida I met a woman who was boasting about how good her sons soccer team were likely to become. I asked her why she was so optimistic that they would be a good side given that she had just told me they lost their last game 7-1. She explained that “The coach” not Kimble but a rather better known coach of a certian college sport here in town has a kid in her team. After a recent loss “Coach” pushed aside their actual trainer and sent the 7 year olds on a 30 minute run followed by dozens of push ups ans sit ups. He explained that this was the only way to make the soccer team improve. He should know I guess because he is a “Coach” after all. The fact he coaches an entirely different sport means nothing here and that is why America is sadly crap at soccer.