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Sir Alex Ferguson remembers his best teacher

feature | Published in TES magazine on 28 February, 2014 | By: Tom Cullen

One of the most successful managers in the history of football reveals how his competitive instinct was fostered by a strict but dedicated teacher with a ‘never give in’ attitude

Elizabeth Thomson was an inspiration to me. That’s the perfect word to describe her. The area of Glasgow I grew up in, Govan, had one of the highest truancy rates in the city. She came from a different world, really. She was from a middle-class, wealthy family, but she had a raw determination about her.

When she first got to Broomloan Road Primary, she went round to the house of every student who wasn’t in her class that day and said, “If your kid isn’t in school tomorrow, I’ll be back at your door.” That was the first thing she made clear: “If you get your kid into school, I’ll make something of them. That’s all you need to do get them there. I’ll do the rest.”

She was a fierce woman with an incredible drive, and she commanded the utmost respect from students. I remember when she got married, I was 11, and six of us travelled across Glasgow to the posh side to be there for her. That was the kind of respect this woman had.

When I think about her now, I realise that it wasn’t all about education. Mrs Thomson endeavoured to make you want to be the best you could be.

Did she help to form my character? Well, she had a gritty determination about her; a competitive nature. On a Friday afternoon, she’d always give us an hour of playing rounders. Once, I was batting and I tapped the ball, then did the bare minimum to get to first base. “Ferguson!” she roared. “You tap that ball again and I will have you.” So I battered the next ball out of sight and ran like hell. She was good like that. She got you performing, you know? Yes, I think there’s part of me that comes from her. That determination and that sense of drive. That “never give in” attitude she had about all her students.

One day, when I was playing for Rangers, I received a letter from her. I hadn’t heard from her in years and years. In it, she wrote: “Are you the same Alex Ferguson who, when I asked the entire class what they wanted to be when they were older, was the only one to say footballer?” I wrote back to say yes and we were in contact again until she passed away. When I moved to Aberdeen, to manage, she came to spend the weekend with us. The same went for when I moved to Manchester.

When she died, I couldn’t go to the funeral because Manchester United were playing abroad, but months later I received a parcel. She had bequeathed her belt to me. Her nephew sent it to me along with a letter that said: “You’ll know more about this belt than anyone.” It’s in my study. My grandchildren are terrified of it. Six from that belt and you were in absolute agony. I used to try to draw my hand away. But that was the sort of punishment you had if you stepped out of line. In my case, it was usually for fighting in the playground.

She took an interest in the kids, though. If she was worried that they weren’t eating much at home, she’d sure as hell make sure that they ate well at school.

Teaching is a vocation, isn’t it? That’s what teachers are born to do. And they take it on as a quest to be the very best. Elizabeth was from a good class of family and she came to Govan. Maybe 2,000 teachers turned the job down, turned down that sort of challenge, but she thrived on it. She improved everyone she touched. She actively sought out challenge.

The three ingredients to Elizabeth, when I think about it, were personality, determination and energy. Anyone who’s in charge of someone else needs those three ingredients. It just won’t work without them.

Sir Alex Ferguson was speaking to Tom Cullen. Sir Alex is a patron of education charity Shine, which runs Let Teachers Shine, a competition to fund innovative teacher-led ideas to raise attainment in the classroom. To apply for a grant of up to £15,000 before the closing date of 27 April, visit shinetrust.org.uk

Take a bow

Sir Alex Ferguson

Born: 31 December 1941, Govan, Glasgow, Scotland

Education: Broomloan Road Primary School and Govan High School

Career: Footballer and football manager. During his 26 years managing Manchester United, the team won 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League and two Uefa Champions League titles.


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