In Praise Of… Brian Clough
The unveiling of a new statue of Brian Clough in Nottingham last week seems like as good a time as any to to take a quick look back at the career of arguably English football’s greatest manager. It’s probably fair to say that the managerial achievements of Brian Clough will never be repeated again. He took two clubs from the middle of the Second Division to be the champions of England, and one of them went on to become back to back champions of Europe. Moreover, he went on to keep the second of these sides in the top division for a decade and a half afterwards while other, arguably bigger, clubs had to spend periods in the Second Division or lower.
Brian Clough was always likely to become a manager. His playing career is often overlooked, but was exceptional in its own way. He scored 241 goals in 274 league matches for Sunderland and Middlesbrough before a cruciate ligament injury to his knee ended his career at the age of just twenty-seven. Such a goalscoring record was remarkable even for that time, and it’s plausible to say that, had he played at a bigger club, he could have achieved much more as a player. After three years out of the game, he took up management at Hartlepool United with Peter Taylor, and it would be his relationship with Taylor that would come to define his managerial career. After two years at Hartlepool, the two of them left the north-east to manage Derby County.
Derby had been in a slow decline since their successful period immediately after the Second World War. Clough and Taylor immediately swept the dead wood out of The Baseball Ground, bringing in seven new players, getting rid of the backroom staff and keeping only a handful of the players that they had inherited. The clubs finished just above the relegation places in his first full season in charge, but in 1969 they were promoted to the First Division as champions and, the following season, they finished fourth in the First Division. An astonishing rise up the table. In 1972, they brought the English championship to Derby. Admittedly, there was a degree of fortune in this – Derby had already completed their season and the players were in Majorca when the news came through that other results had gone their way.
Relations between Clough & Taylor and the Derby directors had long been fractious. Not long before the championship was won, Clough & Taylor briefly accepted an offer to manage Coventry City, before being persuaded not to leave. The following season, Derby made the semi-finals of the European Cup before being knocked out in controversial circumstances by Juventus. Relations hit a new low after a match at Old Trafford in October 1973. A row in the boardroom led to Clough & Taylor resigning, and protests at The Baseball Ground calling for their reinstatement almost led to the people running the club having to leave. To considerable surprise, Clough & Taylor resurfaced on the south coast, managing Brighton & Hove Albion. This time they were less successful. Media interest led to one of their first matches, a home league match against Bristol Rovers, being covered by ITV, but an 8-2 home defeat was humiliating and things didn’t improve much afterwards, and they lasted less than a full season (including a 4-0 home defeat by non-league Walton & Hersham in the FA Cup).
Clough’s next move couldn’t conceivably have been more surprising. In the summer of 1974 he replaced his nemesis, Don Revie, as the new manager of Leeds United. Leeds were the defending First Division champions, but Clough was joining a club at the start of a long decline. If Clough didn’t trust Leeds (he had been an outspoken critic of Revie’s aggressive style), then Leeds supporters held no great love for him either. Things were no better in private. He alienated the established star players and (again) the directors of the club. He needed to be immediately successful, and wasn’t. He won just one of his six matches in charge at Elland Road, and was sacked after just 44 days in charge. This period in his life has been beautifully dramatised by the book “The Damned United”, a film version of which is due to be released next year.
Put simply, Clough’s achievements at Nottingham Forest cannot be understated. In his very first match in charge at The City Ground, his Second Division team knocked Tottenham Hotspur out of the FA Cup. In 1977 (with Peter Taylor having joined as his assistant) they were promoted into the First Division and, the following year, won the First Division championship and the League Cup. What happened next would seal Clough’s reputation. In 1979 and 1980, Nottingham Forest won the European Cup. In 1979 they beat Malmo 1-0, with the only goal of the match coming from new £1m signing Trevor Francis, and the following year a John Robertson goal was enough to give them a 1-0 against Hamburg in Madrid. As the signing of Francis (the first £1m signing) confirmed, Forest weren’t short of money. However, to take a club of this size and with no great tradition of winning to the summit of Europe and keeping them there was an astonishing achievement.
After this, Forest couldn’t maintain their position at the top. The increasing importance of money meant that Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur would be the dominant forces of the next ten years. Clough and Taylor’s magic touch in the transfer market started to run out, with big money signings such as Justin Fashanu failing to settle. In 1983, Taylor left to manage Derby County, and the pair soon fell out over Taylor’s alleged poaching of former Forest player John Robertson. They would never speak again. Clough’s physical decline is well documented elsewhere, but it is worth pointing out that not only did he keep Forest in the First Division, but also continued to punctuate their seasons with occasional success. They won the League Cup in 1989 and 1990, and were unfortunate to lose the 1991 FA Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur.
It has been said that, had Forest won the FA Cup in 1991, Clough would have retired then. As it was, with his health declining and his alcoholism more and more apparent, he struggled on before retiring as Forest fell through the trapdoor in 1993, at the end of the first season of the Premier League. His managerial style was looking increasingly dated by this time and, coupled with his erratic behaviour, his retirement seemed to have come a couple of years too soon. His legacy, however, is as rich as anyone else’s. He won more European Cups than Busby, Shankly or Stein. More importantly, his career was surrounded in “what ifs”. What if he had been given longer at Leeds in the mid-1970s? What if he had ever been the England manager (he was passed over in avour of Bobby Robson in 1982)? What if he had been given a go at Manchester United or Liverpool during the 1980s? Most importantly of all, Brian Clough was a football man, whose teams were clean, attractive to watch and treated referees with respect. Regardless of any considerations about his ego, there can surely be little argument that football needs more his type nowadays.