What Clough and Stein knew from long experience was that given half a chance many footballers will take liberties

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Central to Brian Clough's success in management was the wise understanding that footballers cannot always be trusted to put in a maximum effort. Play all the angles before they start playing you, was the root of Clough's philosophy.

This meant keeping his men in a state of nervousness, clamping down hard on their egos and delivering chilly reminders that they would be nothing without him.

A good story about Clough concerns the conversation he once had with an unsettled international when in charge at Nottingham Forest. Pointing out a clause in the player's contract, Clough said sarcastically, ''If you were taught to read, it should be clear that you're here for another two years. Now sod off.''

Something similar occurred when the great Celtic manager, Jock Stein, was required to deal with a transfer request from the Scottish international full-back, Tommy Gemmill, that was clearly an attempt to secure better terms of employment. On the telephone to his chairman, Stein said, ''Player Gemmill wants a move. I recommend it.'' Replacing the receiver, Stein spoke curtly to Gemmill. ''Transfer granted,'' he said.

What Clough and Stein knew from long experience and always guarded against, was that given half a chance many footballers will take liberties.

Nobody should run away with the idea that a sure way of getting professionals in team games to act at or near their peak is to surround them with skill and good coaches and a good organisation that will pay them well for their trouble. If so, why do coaches feel it necessary to try every device imaginable, and some unimaginable, to stoke hotter and hotter fires in their players, believing that the only means of getting a proper intensity of performance is to bang a drum loudly and constantly.

A truth about professional team sport, football especially, is that managers, in the main, are dealing with people who are naturally unreliable. What the public fail consistently to observe, commentators and correspondents too, is that disappointments can result as much from shortcomings in the attitude of players as errors in selection and strategy.

Last Sunday's Coca-Cola Cup final between Aston Villa and Leeds United at Wembley provided a good example. Whatever mistakes the Leeds manager, Howard Wilkinson, may have made in preparation, it was pretty obvious that a number of his players did not commit themselves fully. Wilkinson took the abuse from disgruntled Leeds supporters but as Carlton Palmer said about some of his team-mates, ''Their lack of effort in a game as big as that was nothing short of disgraceful. I did not play well. But at least I competed. If you can come off and say that, fine. But I do not think there were many who could.''

Sir Alf Ramsey's famous assertion that managers get too much credit and too much of the blame is lost on today's audience and is all too seldom considered by newspapers, radio and television. Thus, when Kevin Keegan questioned publicly the attitude shown by some of his players during last week's loss at Arsenal, it was seen as evidence of stress rather than valid criticism.

The irritating fashion of holding managers entirely accountable springs, I think, from the fawning attention now given to players of even moderate ability and gaps in the education of today's audience.

Cricket comes into it too. Before Raymond Illingworth resigned this week as manager of England it was clear that he felt let down by certain members of the team.

Character, courage and similar qualities are shorthand for relentless determination, for being a tough competitor. Few character awards could be bestowed on England's cricketers in the recent World Cup or on the footballers who represented Leeds at Wembley.

Many team players today are so occupied by their small piece of the action, and so preoccupied with themselves and their futures, that they really have no conception of personal responsibility. How many feel the need to ask questions of themselves in a mirror?