by Roy Dalley.
Brian Clough is still dividing opinion 10 years after taking his place in the Great Dug Out In The Sky. To many (this correspondent included) he was the greatest manager England never had. To others he was an arrogant alcoholic ass (and that’s just a few A-words…).
Certainly the evidence available online is conflicting and contradictory. His critics are still queuing up to condemn his uncompromising attitude towards Justin Fashanu, football’s first openly gay player, while others recall his penchant for greeting friends and acquaintances alike with a theatrical kiss on the cheek.
He told the Leeds United team he inherited from Don Revie to throw their medals in the bin because of their blatant foul play, then years later cuffed a fan for running onto the pitch during a match (a dispute that was later settled, obviously, with a kiss).
The bare facts, however, are indisputable. Indeed his managerial career was so wondrous his astonishing achievements as a centre-forward are often overlooked. Who knows how many goals Clough could have scored were it not for a serious cruciate ligament injury he sustained when he was just 26..? More than two years of rehabilitation proved fruitless and Clough had to settle for just the 251 League goals from 274 matches with Middlesbrough and Sunderland.
Hartlepool United called themselves Hartlepools United back in the days when they gave Clough his entry into management in 1965. It must have seemed like winning the pools for some, not least Clough himself, who immediately made perhaps the wisest decision of his career by appointing former Boro team-mate and goalkeeper Peter Taylor as his assistant.
It was a double act something akin to Good Cop-Bad Cop… or Hinge and Brackett, depending on your point of view. Certainly the pair generated drama, controversy, and pure comedy gold as they went about shaking the foundations of the English game.
They fell out with Hartlepools chairman Ernest Ord (though were re-instated after a boardroom coup resulted in Ord’s departure) while discovering a teenager named John McGovern.
They fell out with Derby chairman Sam Longson after guiding them from the old Second Division to the League Championship.
And they finally fell out with each other, but only after an ever greater transformation of Nottingham Forest, this time stretching the journey from Division Two to the League title and beyond, all the way to two triumphs in the European Cup.
For context, try to imagine Steve McClaren winning the Premier League with Derby… or Stuart Pearce leading Forest to not one but two Champions League triumphs… and all within five years of their appointments!? These are the sort of time frames during which Clough and Taylor were writing their own Mission Impossible scripts in the East Midlands.
Taylor had an almost unrivalled eye for spotting potential, and a contacts book second to none. As the cliché goes he was the goods to Clough’s shop window.
The examples of Clough’s bluster and blarney are numerous, and will no doubt be wheeled out again by the football media over the weekend. The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor got in there first a few days back with his wonderful account, and I empathised while reading of his first encounter with Clough: “It would be a lie to say your heart is not racing. Your palms are sweaty… yet there is also that rare appreciation of being in the presence of authentic greatness.”
My feelings exactly when I first spoke to Clough some 30 years ago (and in my case, over the ‘phone, I was foregoing the added pressure of having to look him in the eye). The call was on behalf of the Daily Express and before answering any questions he put one to me: “Are you the cleaner?”
Yet for all the chat it was Clough’s footballing philosophy that separated him from the pack and placed him, in his own words, in the “Top One” of English managers. Simplicity was the key, perfectly encapsulated in the playing style of his son Nigel, who was as technically adept as just about any other English footballer of the era. An assured first-touch with either foot, and the eye and ability for an early accurate pass to feet, Clough Junior was the antithesis of the long-ball game being served up elsewhere. Indeed were it not for a distinct lack of pace he would surely have won more than 14 England caps.
That’s 12 more appearances than the Old Man at international level, but it probably wasn’t a fact often repeated from son to father, who would no doubt have responded with a finger pointing reminder that Nigel had merely been fortunate to have had the better teacher.
In many ways Clough became a victim of his own success at Forest, who soon became little more than a feeder club for Manchester United. Garry Birtles, Peter Davenport, Neil Webb and Roy Keane all left for large transfer fees and higher wages at Old Trafford.
Clough found himself left with a young team, including Nigel, that stubbornly fought against the tide of idly punting the ball into a “position of maximum opportunity” as the FA’s antiquated coaching manual of the time preached.
I had the opportunity to watch the Old Master at close quarters during those final years, when he took Forest to Selhurst Park. It could have been a fixture against Crystal Palace, or even Wimbledon or Charlton (who both ground-shared at their South London neighbour in those austere days before the Premier League and Sky tv)… dunno!
The press box was situated just behind the visitors’ dug-out, and Clough’s presence on the touchline soon became the main point of interest. There he was in his white tennis shoes, dark blue trackie bottoms and green rugby jersey, white collar upturned.
But the stereotyping ends there. Clough wasn’t raging, nor berating the ref, nor even head-butting his opposite number. He stood still, arms folded, watching his young team pass their way around the pitch. His only movement consisted of gaining eye-contact with a player then lifting his right forefinger toward his eye (translation: Look!) or toward his forehead (translation: Think!)
No histrionics. No abuse. No drama.
I wish I could add it was a pleasure to attend his last match in charge, in 1993, but alas it was anything but. Forest lost to Sheffield United and their place at football’s top table was gone with their manager. His post-match press conference was memorable only for the sad, sorry figure who stood before us; his once sharp facial features now puffed and hideously reddened by alcohol abuse. He was thin and his patter was thinner. He was not yet 60 years old, yet in truth looked much older.
Clough died on September 20, 2004, aged 69, but the legend lives on via book, film, sculpture, silverware and, even, geography. The road that links Derby and Nottingham was called the A52 during his lifetime… now it’s known as Brian Clough Way.
It’s probably fair to say the travelling footy fans of the East Midlands wouldn’t want it any other way.