John McGovern first played for Brian Clough at Hartlepool.
John McGovern liked to dribble the ball past opponents.
He kept it under close control.
One day, in training, Brian Clough called the youngster over to the touchline.
He dropped a ball at his feet.
He said “Run with that ball son, over to the corner flag, round the flag, and back here as fast as you can.”
McGovern did as he was told.
Keeping the ball ahead of him but always in control.
He kept it tight, all the way across the field and back to Clough.
Clough picked up the ball.
He said “Right now do it again without the ball.
Run over to the corner flag, round it and back here as fast as you can.”
McGovern didn’t see the point, but he knew enough not to argue.
He ran as fast as he could.
Arms pumping, legs pounding, feet flying.
He was round the flag and back in no time.
He waited, puffing.
Clough said “Now which was faster, you running with the ball or without the ball?”
McGovern said “Without the ball of course.”
Clough said “Right, now I want you to remember that because that’s how I want you to play.
Pass the fucking ball and run, don’t dribble it.
Pass the fucking ball and run. Have you got that?”
McGovern said it was the best lesson he learned in his career.
Embarrassingly simple, maybe.
Sure, Clough could just have said it.
But it stuck because it hadn’t just been said, it had been demonstrated with all the subtlety of an air raid.
And that’s why it stuck with McGovern for the rest of his career.
And what about the rest of his career?
McGovern said he owed his career to Clough
He followed Clough when he went on to manage a little Second Division club called Derby.
Under Clough, Derby were promoted and won the First Division, the equivalent of today’s Premiership.
Making Derby the best team in England.
McGovern followed Clough when he went to Nottingham Forest.
Like Derby, Nottingham Forest were in the second division.
Like Derby, under Clough, they won promotion.
Like Derby, under Clough, they won the First Division.
Which made Nottingham Forest the best team in England.
Then little Nottingham Forest went on to win the European Cup.
Making them the best team in the whole of Europe.
And the next year Nottingham Forest won the European Cup again.
Making them the best team in all of Europe, two years running.
As McGovern said, Clough liked to keep it simple.
Because everyone understands simple.
Simple sticks in the memory
That’s why simple works.
Stupid people think complicated is clever.
Smart people know better than that.
They know you have to go beyond complicated to get to simple.