Parking The Coach: Brian Clough
It is the late summer of 1975 and at Nottingham railway station, a cub sports reporter for Radio Trent called Clive Tyldesley has arrived in good time to make the journey to London to cover Nottingham Forest’s match with Chelsea. Tyldesley, freshly graduated from university and in his first job in journalism, is smartly attired in a crisp shirt, blazer and grey slacks. But nothing gets past the keen eye of Forest’s new manager: “Young man, good morning. You’re very welcome to be with the Nottingham Forest party, but when you travel with Nottingham Forest you always wear a tie.” Tyldesley apologised for the oversight, assuring the figure stood over him that he would not make the same mistake again.
A pause. “Young man, good morning. You’re very welcome to be with the Nottingham Forest party, but when you travel with Nottingham Forest you always wear a tie”. By now Tyldesley was beginning to panic, offering the most fulsome apology that he knew how. Next time he is travelling with Nottingham Forest, he assures the gaffer, he will go as far as to bring a selection of ties and allow the manager to pick one out for him.
Another pause. “Young man, good morning. You’re very welcome to be with the Nottingham Forest party, but when you travel with Nottingham Forest you always wear a tie”. With this, the Forest manager put his hand into his trouser pocket, produced a £1 note and pressed it into Tyldesley’s increasingly clammy hand. “The train leaves in ten minutes”. Radio Trent’s new man took off like a jack rabbit, disembarking from the train and running out of the station to the first gents outfitters that he saw. He grabbed the first tie he could lay his hands on, thrust the pound note at the cashier and ran back to join the rest of the travelling party just in time for their departure.
Five minutes into the journey, the Forest manager once again hoves into view. “You look very smart”, he said. “Very smart today”.
Tyldesley is now one of the most well-known voices in British football commentary. The Forest manager, who had just taught him a lesson that he would never forget, was – of course – Brian Clough. Tyldesley’s story is a particularly instructive and revealing example of Clough’s methods, his personality and his managerial style. The immediate imposition of a sense of hierarchy and discipline. There was warmth, generosity and friendship. Then follows control, humour and immaculate comic timing. Finally, once his subject has every nerve exposed, comes the lesson. It’s a simple strategy, but a blindingly effective one. Easy lessons to teach can prove to be just as easily forgotten: but with a little twist of psychological understanding a person can be quickly manipulated into forever changing a habit.
It is a fleeting insight into the way that Brian Clough made his way into the minds of the people who crossed his path during a stellar 26-year career in football management. Clough infected the imaginations of clubs, players and supporters alike, scaling impossible heights. In doing so, he transformed himself into the most notable star of the sport’s burgeoning television age, a character whose unique personality and drawl were known to everyone in the UK, actively sought out even by those people who had never seen a ball being kicked nor had any inclination to. His passing in 2004 at the age of sixty-nine was marked by the renaming of stands, roads and prodigious amounts of monumental masonry. No one man has made anything like his impact, before or since. Only Bill Shankly could realistically have claimed to have so fundamentally altered the philosophical understanding of the national game. But Shanks never won the European Cup and Brian Clough won it twice. With Nottingham Forest.
Brian Clough was born on 21st March 1935 at 11 Valley Road, Middlesbrough. This was the Clough family home, and Brian was the sixth of what would eventually be nine children. He was possessed of an unusual confidence and self-assuredness, although academically he proved to be the black sheep, the only member of the Clough family who failed to pass the Eleven Plus examination to get into the Grammar School. Clough would instead attend Morton Grove Secondary Modern until 1950, when he left without any qualifications to take a job as a junior clerk at chemical firm ICI.
Clough’s academic travails probably had a lot to do with the distraction of sport, always his most consuming passion. His first and most abiding love was cricket rather than football: he would later claim that the individualism and self-reliance required by the batsman particularly appealed. It should be no surprise to anyone that England cricketer Geoffrey Boycott, a singular character and similarly known for ploughing his own furrow, was a firm Clough family friend. Clough’s greatest ability, though, proved to be on the soccer field. After completing his mandatory two year national service with the RAF, Clough signed professional terms with Middlesbrough in 1955. A centre forward, Clough was unstoppable force: in six years with his home town club, he would score two hundred and four goals in two hundred and twenty-two games. In four consecutive seasons, Clough would score forty or more goals in a season.
Middlesbrough were, however, resolutely stuck in the Second Division, regardless of Clough’s marksmanship. This would prove to be the bane of his teammates’ lives, as the cocky Clough was not shy of holding back on what he perceived to be the shortcomings of his teammates. In what would become a pattern throughout his football career, Clough found himself ploughing a lonely furrow, making transfer requests on a yearly basis. Eventually, one of these was accepted, and Clough – who, despite having only played in the second tier, had two England caps to his name – was offloaded to Sunderland in 1961 for £55,000.
Sunderland, too, were in the second tier but their prospects looked a little brighter. Clough carried on at Roker Park where he had left off at Middlesbrough, scoring sixty-three goals in seventy-four games. In the 1962/63 season, Sunderland were chasing promotion back to the top flight when they played Bury at home on Boxing Day 1962. It was the beginning of a terrifyingly frigid winter and the Roker pitch was frozen solid. Many of the other games in the country had been called off, but Sunderland, it seemed, were made of sterner stuff. Clough had scored twenty-eight times in twenty-eight games so far and was chasing a twenty-ninth when he collided with the onrushing Bury goalkeeper Chris Harker. Bloodied and unable to stand, Clough was stretchered off to hospital. He had suffered a complete tear of his cruciate ligaments, an injury which – at the time – meant that you’d be lucky to be able to walk normally again, let alone play professional football. The determined Clough worked for eighteen months to get back into the Sunderland first team and during the 1964/65 season, he remarkably achieved his goal. By this time, his team were back in the First Division and the first three top flight football matches of Brian Clough’s career would also prove to be his last. Of his two hundred and fifty-one career goals, just one was scored in the top division.
By this time Clough had a young family at a time when the prospects for a washed-up footballer were not nearly as cushy as they would later become. It would be Sunderland’s new manager, George Hardwick, who offered his fallen player a lifeline, coaching the Sunderland youth team. At the time it was a side which contained both Colin Todd and John O’Hare, players with whom Clough would be league champions within eight years. In October 1965, Clough accepted an offer to become the manager of Hartlepools United, a perennially struggling Fourth Division side who had been forced to apply for re-election five times in their last six seasons. Clough took his best friend in the game, Burton Albion manager and former Middlesbrough teammate Peter Taylor, as his assistant. Clough was just thirty years of age, the youngest manager in the Football League.
Hartlepools were in a terrible state. The club’s stadium was falling to pieces and the finances were so parlous that Clough was forced to tour the town’s working men’s clubs, rattling donation buckets in order to team the side afloat. With the club chronically understaffed, Clough would also serve as the caretaker, groundsman, secretary and even its coach driver. At the end of Clough and Taylor’s first season, Hartlepools had finished eighteenth, for the second successive season avoiding the peril and collective anxiety of re-election. However, the previous season Hartlepools had finished three places higher, in fifteenth. This proved to be par for the course for Clough: never a quick-fix manager, on every occasion he took on a managerial job, the club would finish their first season lower in the table than they had the previous year. A more eloquent example of the gormlessness of trigger-happy football boardrooms you would be pressed to find.
Clough and Taylor’s second season at Hartlepools would, similarly, follow a repeating pattern. An upturn in fortunes saw the club finish eighth, in spite of the fact that both men had been briefly dismissed during the season by Hartlepools chairman Ernest Ord. Ord thought that Clough was a troublemaker. He was almost certainly correct, but at the same time there was no denying the effectiveness of the new regime. Clough worked the rest of the Hartlepools directors around to his way of thinking and Ord was unseated in a boardroom coup which saw Clough and Taylor reinstated to their positions. Clough and Taylor, apprenticeship served, were by now looking higher and at the end of the 1966/67 season, accepted the job at Second Division Derby County. Stories of how they transformed Derby from provincial also-rans to league champions and European Cup contenders are legion. But it should also be noted that the team that Clough had built at Hartlepools United would go on to win the club’s first ever promotion the very next season.
How did Clough achieve the results he did? Derby County would prove to be an case study. Firstly, Clough would never breeze in to a new club: he blasted in like a tornado and, as tornadoes are wont to be, it would prove to be a hugely destructive period. Derby would finish eighteenth in Division Two at the end of Clough’s first season, having finished seventeenth the term before. This was the period of time it took for Clough to win his battles early. He would run his eye over the playing staff and other employees of the club and, like a stage hypnotist, study their characters and cast aside those individuals who he knew would not be susceptible to his methods. In his first season at Derby, eleven first team players were dispensed with, as well as the tea ladies who Clough had found laughing after a home defeat.
Next, Peter Taylor would identify the players that were needed and Clough would go off and get them, by hook or by crook. To the remaining rump of the Derby squad – Alan Durban, Kevin Hector, Colin Boulton and Ron Webster – Clough and Taylor would add Roy McFarland, John O’Hare, Alan Hinton, Les Green and a midfielder the pair had first encountered as a 15-year old trainee at Hartlepools, John McGovern. In their second season, Taylor’s brainwave saw Derby add Dave Mackay, a player who was a full year Clough’s senior and about to take a job as assistant manager at Heart of Midlothian. Along with Willie Carlin, a scrappy, talented creative midfielder whose myriad disciplinary problems had seen his asking price cut and cut again. From the outside it looked like madness, a ragtag collection of misfits and ne’er do wells. But these were the players who Clough knew he could mould, whose imaginations he could stimulate, whose habits he could change, who he could turn into a cohesive unit geared towards playing the style of football that he saw in his head.
It is widely believed that Clough achieved this by relying solely on intimidation and fear. This seems quite unlikely: For starters, Clough’s managerial career was founded on a series of regular players whom would sign for Clough time and again: both John McGovern and John O’Hare signed for Clough on three separate occasions, having already quite coincidentally encountered him when he was appointed to a coaching role at their club. Secondly, fear is no great motivator when it comes to consistency. Clough’s teams, put simply, won too frequently, won too many different competitions over too many years, for the players to have been continually on edge. Clough’s brilliance was his utter unpredictability. No-one knew what Clough would do, say or make happen next, on a day-to-day basis. It made playing under him exciting, turning up to training an adventure, playing the matches your great avenue for creativity, redemption or justification. The majority of Clough’s former players report that they would be itching to get out to play for him. Clough removed the fear from playing football more than he injected it. He made the game seem easy, almost second nature, to his players. Clough gave the men in his charge the confidence to do the things they hadn’t realised that they could achieve.
The last part of Clough’s method was to surround himself with the right people. His relationship with Peter Taylor is quite unlike any other similar partnership in the history of football. Taylor would be his most trusted scout, his sounding board and his confidant. He would also be on hand to act as the calming counterpoint to Clough’s more mercurial and abrasive excesses, smoothing over any upset that he had caused in the squad. Above all, in Taylor, Clough had someone whose judgement he completely trusted. When Clough went to sign Archie Gemmill in 1970, he drove to Preston and then refused to leave the player’s home, kipping on the settee until Gemmill signed terms over the breakfast table. It is a typically remarkable study in the way that Clough worked, his gimlet-eyed determination, the understanding of human psychology and the creative imagination. More telling still is the fact that at this stage in proceedings, he had never seen Gemmill play: Clough went to Preston and ran the full gamut of Cloughie to secure the signature of a player, completely on his assistant’s say-so.
It is also easy to overlook Clough’s youth. When he arrived at Derby in 1967, he was thirty-two and still having to win over the trust of players who were older than he was. While this did not prove to be a particularly onerous or problematic task for a man of his cast-iron confidence, it would be wrong to diminish the role of Jimmy Gordon, his coach and trainer throughout his golden era. Gordon, a hard-boiled Scot who had played with Clough and Taylor at Middlesbrough, was first approached by Clough when he was at Hartlepools but Gordon, then coaching at Blackburn, was reluctant to leave. Clough eventually got his man during the 1967/68 season, in spite of the potentially notable handicap that Gordon hated both Clough and Taylor. Clough offered to pay £1000 for a deposit on a new house and won Gordon over, although there would always be conflict between the pair.
Jimmy Gordon was, however, one of the most loyal deputies of Clough’s managerial career. It would be Gordon who accompanied Clough to Leeds United when Taylor demurred, and Gordon who spent months on the dole or in the assembly line at the Rolls Royce factory in Derby to make ends meet when the pair were dismissed from Elland Road. Their fractious relationship proved to be the grit in the oyster that eventually formed the pearl. Clough, Taylor and Gordon proved to be an unstoppable combination, a perfect chemical blend that would manifest itself in football players doing unimaginable things.
With Taylor and Gordon in his corner and Derby County bolstered with the experience, grit and vision of Dave Mackay as its sweeper and captain, Clough’s vision quickly took shape. Derby won the Second Division championship in 1968/69, a slow start giving way to a twenty-two match unbeaten streak towards the season’s end. The following year, with the addition of Archie Gemmill and Colin Todd, then firmly established themselves in Division One, finishing fourth in their first season in the top flight. This was then consolidated with a 9th place and a victory in the pre-season Watney Cup for the top scoring teams in the previous term’s Football League.
By the time of the 1971/72 season, Brian Clough was a big name. He had made a breakthrough as a television pundit during ITV’s coverage of the 1970 World Cup and his brash, witty, no-prisoners style – combined with his undeniable footballing nous and remarkable achievements as a young manager – made Clough the most sought after and quoted voice in the game. Now he would back the chatter up with his greatest triumph yet, steering Derby County to the First Division title. Typically, the team were in Majorca on holiday – with the Clough family in the Scilly Isles – when the final results came through to confirm his triumph. Clough was just thirty-seven years old, only Kenny Dalglish, as player-manager at Liverpool in 1985/86, has won the English football league championship at a younger age.
Typically, Clough’s achievement came with a slipstream of upheaval and intrigue. Four weeks before Derby secured their first league title, Clough and Taylor had resigned to accept a job offer from Coventry City. Clough resigning was nothing new: he would continually hand in his notice, safe in the knowledge that the Derby board would never be so stupid as to kill their golden goose. Was it power-play or petulance? A little of both, probably. There is no denying that Clough had a profound, unshakeable, confidence in his own value. This kind of strident self-belief is widely discouraged by human society, chiefly because it results in the kind of eccentric and unpredictable behaviour that Brian Clough continually exhibited. However, Clough was that rare example of someone who regularly demonstrated that he was worth all the sleepless nights and trauma. And, ultimately, their ploy worked: Clough and Taylor came out of the whole affair with vastly improved contract terms, just as destiny prepared its ultimate benediction.
Modesty remained in short supply for Derby’s title defence. Clough refused to travel with the club on their pre-season tour to West Germany and the Netherlands because they would not allow him to bring his family, and then The Rams declined to participate in the Charity Shield. That September, Clough broke the British transfer record by signing David Nish for £225,000 without first approving the deal with the board. Derby would beat Liverpool at The Baseball Ground the following day, after which the manager publically castigated the fans for their fairweather support and the board for their intransigence and obstructiveness. Derby would finish seventh in Division One in 1973 but did make it to the European Cup semi-final. There they were defeated by a Juventus team who had almost certainly “influenced” the German referee. After the game, Clough criticised the Italian national character, made disparaging remarks about their conduct during the war and refused to speak to the assembled journalists at the press conference. “I will not talk to any cheating bastards”, railed Clough, before walking out. It was becoming an increasingly perilous time to be the chairman of Derby County.
That responsibility fell to Sam Longson, a man whose ego was roughly equivalent to Brian Clough’s but lacked the same finesse or easy charm. It is, however, hard to not sympathise a little with Longson’s situation: As the 1973/74 season opened, Clough wrote a newspaper column for The Sunday Express in which he opined that Don Revie’s Leeds United should be demoted to the Second Division to punish them for their disciplinary failures. Within days, Clough had been charged by the FA with bringing the game into disrepute. Within weeks he had made a secret dash to London to try and sign Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking from West Ham United, again without board approval.
By October, the black clouds were circling. Unable to garner sufficient boardroom support to sack Clough, Longson and club director Jack Kirkland decided on a strategy of divide and conquer. Kirkland demanded a meeting with Peter Taylor, so that Clough’s man could justify his role at the club and the expenditure it entailed. Taylor was furious and ready to walk away as Derby went to Old Trafford on October 14th. The Rams beat Manchester United 1-0, but Longson was not placated, accusing Clough of making a vulgar gesture at Sir Matt Busby in addition to demanding that Clough ceased all future media work to focus on his duties as Derby manager. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The following day, Clough and Taylor resigned, hoping to create a domino rally that would topple the Longson regime. Instead, the Derby board accepted the resignations and Clough and Taylor were out.
The town of Derby was in a virtual state of civil war, whipped up by Clough’s skilful manipulation of the media. He certainly cut a more wronged figure than anyone who, having resigned from their job only to have that resignation accepted and employment terminated, possibly has a right to. Clough would, famously, make one final brief valedictory appearance to say farewell to Derby’s support before their game with Leicester City on 20th October. Then he travelled to London and an appearance on Parkinson, where he said that the very sight of football chairmen brought the game into disrepute.
Clough and Taylor quickly re-emerged at ambitious Third Division Brighton and Hove Albion. Clough’s stay on the south coast would be short and not-too sweet – an humiliating 4-0 FA Cup replay defeat to non-league Walton & Hersham and an 8-2 home loss to Bristol Rovers would prove to be the main headlines – but Taylor would stay on for another season and almost won promotion for the club. Again, the familiar repeating pattern was in evidence. Brian Clough, however, wasn’t: on July 31st 1974 he made the staggering decision to fill the managerial vacancy at Elland Road after Don Revie was appointed as the new manager of England.
No-one had been so vocal in their criticism of Leeds United’s style as Clough. Clough favoured his football teams to play the ball on the floor, keeping possession and moving it forward with decisiveness and creativity. On this count, Leeds United would have been a perfect fit for Clough. The team were the reigning league champions and were now, albeit grudgingly in many quarters, accepted as being one of the finest sides in Europe. However, their brand of hard tackling, off-the-ball retribution and continual chastisement of referees and linesmen was something that Clough – whose sides rarely ever accrued bookings, let alone sendings off or suspensions – could never abide. Whether or not it was perhaps the best idea to take this rancour into the first meeting with the Leeds players remains open to discussion – the Leeds players were very much of the view that it was not – but it proved to be a disastrous opening gambit to the most famous 44-day spell in British football history.
Could Clough have been a success at Leeds United? Of course he could. In fact, there is little denying the fact that Leeds’ lack of European Cup success most likely stems from the board’s decision to sack Clough just six weeks into his contract. However, the repeating pattern has to be remembered and a painful first season was almost inevitable. The following year, when Peter Taylor would have been free to rejoin Clough and Jimmy Gordon at Leeds, would have been the start of an inevitable revolution. Instead, that revolution blew through Second Division Nottingham Forest instead.
Clough took up the reins at The City Ground on the 6th of January 1975. The club were 13th in the league and floundering, their second-place finish in the top flight just eight years previously seemed a lifetime ago. Clough’s first season at Forest, in the estimation of his future European Cup-winning captain John McGovern, saw him “going through the motions”. This can be emphasised by the fact that he had returned to Leeds to re-sign John McGovern, who took a cut in wages to rejoin Clough for the third time alongside John O’Hare. However, the most important new appointments came at the season’s end: Peter Taylor and Jimmy Gordon once again moving into Clough’s inner circle. From that moment, in McGovern’s words, it was a matter of when, not if, the club would be promoted. Taylor added Peter Withe and Garry Birtles, an unknown striker signed from Long Eaton United for a cool £2,000. By the end of Clough’s second season in charge, Forest would be back in the First Division.
It was a narrow thing. Forest would finish third, the last of the promotion places in the league, as well as having to rely on their fellow challengers Bolton Wanderers losing their final game of the season at home to Wolves. All of this would soon be forgotten as Peter Taylor again would work his magic. Peter Withe, the previous season’s top scorer, was sold off to Newcastle United and replaced by a centre forward from Birmingham City, Kenny Burns, who Clough and Taylor transformed into a centre half who won the end-of-season PFA Player of the Year award. They also added Archie Gemmill – a player who Preston North End’s manager had warned Clough was spent seven years ago when he was signed for Derby – David Needham and, most crucially, Peter Shilton from Second Division Stoke City. Stoke’s manager warned them not to do it, that Shilton was past it and riven with personal problems. But, once again, Clough and Taylor seemed to have sight beyond sight. Forest started the season well but, after November, proved unbeatable, remarkably securing Forest’s first ever English league championship title. It was the first time that a newly-promoted team had won the league championship since Sir Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town a decade and a half before, and it has yet to be repeated since.
But the best was yet to come. Clough always viewed cup football as a treat, a break for the players but he conversely held the European Cup as the pinnacle of footballing achievement. Gallingly for Forest’s players, ready with their passports, flip-flops and Speedos, the first round draw of their inaugural European adventure took them to Anfield, Liverpool, home of the reigning European champions. Forest would prevail with an aggregate 2-0 win, before dispatching AEK, Grasshopper and Cologne – the latter despite a chastening 3-3 draw in the home tie only for Ian Bowyer’s goal to secure a vital 1-0 away win in the second leg – to reach the final with Malmo in Munich. There, their outstanding player, John Robertson, crossed deep for Trevor Francis – a £1 million arrival that February – to head in at the far post. Nottingham Forest were European Champions, an extraordinary turn of events and an achievement whose magnitude only grows by the year.
Clough, though, was not particularly satisfied. Forest were winners, but they had not played particularly well. It is often said that Clough was not a great tactician, that he gained his success through his unrivalled man-management skills. While this latter assertion has a lot of merit, Clough was not the naive, systemic simpleton that history records. He was possessed of a fierce, single-minded vision about how football should be played and the uncanny ability to bring these performances out of his teams without the need for excessive theory or obfuscation. Clough was a straight and true 4-4-2 man, but he had sufficient suss and understanding to make subtle alterations to his systems depending on the opposition or the circumstances. Forest would play one up front in the 1980 European Cup final, for instance, while Dave Mackay saw his career out at Derby as a new-fangled sweeper.
Forest remained unbeaten in the First Division until a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool in December 1978, establishing a record of 42 top flight games without defeat that would stand for almost thirty years. The team would eventually losing just two more games that season to finish their title defence as runners-up to Liverpool. They also secured the League Cup, beating Southampton 3-2 at Wembley to retain the trophy they had won against Liverpool in an Old Trafford replay twelve months before. Things had never looked rosier, yet in true Brian Clough style, the seeds for the break-up of his nascent dynasty had already been sown.
The following season, Forest would finish 5th in the league and lose the League Cup final to Second Division Wolverhampton Wanderers, but win the European Super Cup against Barcelona and, with a John Robertson goal, retain their European Cup title with a 1-0 win against Hamburg in Madrid. However, behind the scenes, the walls had started to crumble. Archie Gemmill, promised a starting berth in the 1979 European Cup final he did not receive, left the club under a cloud. It was at this point that, for the first time in their close working relationship, differences of opinion with regard to players and the direction of the squad’s development began to emerge between Taylor and Clough.
Forest would finish seventh in the First Division in 1980/81, as well as being knocked out of the European Cup in the first round by CSKA Sofia of Bulgaria. For the first time in the successful partnership that had so defined English and European football in the 1970s, there were more flops than there were successes in the transfer market. Asa Hartford was expensively purchased to replace Gemmill in 1979 but only played three times for Forest, quickly departing to Everton at a loss of £100,000. Peter Ward arrived from Brighton and Hove Albion in a deal which took Garry Birtles to Manchester United, but could not establish himself. Worse yet was the fate of Justin Fashanu, the first £1 million black player. Fashanu arrived from Norwich in 1981 and would score just three times in thirty-two appearances for Forest. Clough would treat Fashanu shamefully, forcing him to train separately once he learnt that his new player was gay and cheerfully repeating the put-downs with which he had belittled Fashanu in his 1994 autobiography, a book which also made several unfounded and untrue allegations about the conduct of Liverpool’s supporters during the Hillsborough disaster. To Clough’s credit, he later recanted on the latter. But Fashanu, who committed suicide in 1998 while facing a trumped-up charge of sexual abuse of a minor, never fully recovered from the experience.
At the end of the 1981/82 season, Peter Taylor and Jimmy Gordon both retired, leaving Clough with no alternative but to re-establish a new support network. Key players, too, continued to depart. John McGovern left to be the player-manager at Bolton, after an unseemly push-me-pull-you struggle between Taylor and Clough, in 1982. Martin O’Neill, Larry Lloyd, Ian Bowyer, Kenny Burns and Trevor Francis (the first million-pound player and, beset by injury and loss of form, arguably the first million pound flop) had all gone the year before. Before the 1982/83 season began, Peter Shilton, too, was on his way, consumed by personal problems and keen to start afresh at Southampton. Dutch international goalkeeper Hans Van Breukelen came in to fill Shilton’s boots – he would leave two years later after falling out with Clough over his international responsibilities – but on the whole, the players who had made Nottingham Forest European champions were cast aside without being adequately replaced.
Most critically of all, in 1983, John Robertson was bought by Derby County, managed by the now unretired Peter Taylor. Taylor had not discussed his intention to sign Robertson with Clough before the deal, with the result being a feud that would see both men not speaking again until Taylor’s death in 1990. Taylor was the man who made football management less of a lonely place for Clough, a sounding board who tempered his roughest edges and focussed his best inclinations. Clough would never be the same manager again and increasingly relied on alcohol to fill the emptiness and isolation he felt as a football boss, further compounding his problems.
Nevertheless, Forest continued to be contenders in the First Division. Having finished twelfth in Taylor and Gordon’s last season at the club, it would be the only time that they would finish outside the top ten until the relegation season of 1992/93. Indeed, the season after Taylor’s departure, Forest 5th in the league, winning a place in the following season’s UEFA cup. They would reach the semi-final, too, knocked out by an Anderlecht team whose chairman, Constant Vanden Stock, had given a “loan” of £27,000 to the match referee, a breach of the rules which would later see the team banned from European competition for a year. Indeed, by the time of the 1984/85 season, Forest were even starting to show distinct signs of a youth-led renaissance, with players assembled by Clough and his new backroom team including Archie Gemmill and Ron Fenton. It proved that even without Taylor, Clough still had a good eye for a player, even though in some cases there was more than a little fortune involved: Stuart Pearce arrived as the makeweight in a deal with Coventry City for Ian Butterworth, who would make just 27 appearances for Forest. Des Walker was spotted playing Sunday league football on Hackney Marshes by a keen-eyed Forest scout. Gary Crosby cost just £20,000 from Grantham Town, although Clough had, again, not seen him play. And Forest’s most significant new arrival came from closer to home still: Brian Clough’s youngest son, Nigel, would sign professional terms aged 18 in 1984. He would be Forest’s top scorer in five out of the next six seasons.
By the late 1980s, with the addition of the dynamic midfielder Neil Webb from Portsmouth and the re-acquisition of former Forest trainee Steve Hodge from Spurs, Clough had built an exciting, youthful team; comfortably the best side that he ever assembled without Peter Taylor’s assistance. In the 1987/88 season, Forest would reach the FA Cup semi-final, win the FA’s Centennial Tournament at Wembley and finish 3rd in the First Division. The following term, Forest would again finish third in the table, in spite of their manager spending much of the season watching from the stands. This came after the imposition of a touchline ban on Clough, for thumping Forest fans who had invaded the City Ground pitch after a cup game with QPR. Forest would also return to Wembley on two more occasions In 1989, winning the inaugural Full Members Cup (a pulsating extra time 4-3 victory against Everton) and Clough’s third League Cup (a 3-1 win against Luton). Forest were chasing a third Wembley appearance when, on 15th April 1989, they were caught up in the horrors of Hillsborough. Although this team were not reaching the same giddy heights, Clough’s side were at least, once again and for better or worse, at the hub of English football.
Indeed, for all his growing eccentricities and increasingly obvious misuse of alcohol, Clough remained a contender when the England job again became available from the end of the 1990 World Cup. Realistically, his chances had ended some years before, but in many quarters Clough is still considered the best manager that England never had. It’s a persuasive argument, made all the more so by the fact that Clough is almost certainly the most outstanding English football manager in the history of the game. The chances are that Clough would, indeed, have thrived in the England job insofar as it is a footballing appointment. However, for all the rest, there is the very real chance that England manager Clough would have caused a diplomatic incident. In the end, the Football Association probably did the right thing by itself and by its wider institutional responsibilities, but were forced to bite off their own nose to spite their face in order to do it.
Clough did made it all the way to the interview process at Lancaster Gate in 1977, alongside Jack Charlton and Lawrie McMenemy. In the end, the job went to… Ron Greenwood, a decision that serves as an accurate a depiction as you will ever need as to why the Football Association and Brian Howard Clough would not have enjoyed a fruitful working relationship.
In 1989/90, Forest retained their League Cup, beating Second Division Oldham Athletic 1-0 with a goal from Nigel Jemson despite a slump which saw them finish 8th in the league. The following year they would be 9th, but Forest did make it to Brian Clough’s first ever FA Cup final, against Terry Venables’ exotically attired Tottenham Hotspur. There was much talk about this milestone in the build-up to the match, with some of it speculating that should his side win, it could be an opportune moment for the grand old man of English football to step aside. Clough even laid his traditional groundwork for a fairytale ending, dropping Steve Hodge to the bench and instead picking reserve Lee Glover and newcomer Ian Woan in a starting line-up that also included Forest’s new star player Roy Keane, a £47,000 signing from Cobh Ramblers, who later claimed that he was not fully fit. It was the exact kind of brilliant eccentricity for which Brian Clough was renowned, but also the kind which just looks like wanton foolishness if things aren’t going your way.
And karma can be a bitch. Nottingham Forest lost the 1991 FA Cup final, in spite of the injury to Paul Gascoigne – who should have been sent off for an earlier tackle on Garry Parker – and Mark Crossley saving Gary Lineker’s penalty kick. Clough would return to Wembley the following season, once to beat Southampton 3-2 in the Full Members Cup and secure the last silverware of Clough’s glittering managerial career, and also a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United in a League Cup final spoilt by crowd trouble and, subsequently, rumours of improprieties regarding the sale of match tickets onto the black market by Clough himself.
Fate, then, had decreed that Brian Clough’s downfall would be a particularly ignominious one. Nottingham Forest began the 1992/93 season – the first of the brand new Premier League – by playing the first ever Super Sunday match live on satellite television. Forest won, too, a single goal from Teddy Sheringham enough to beat Liverpool. However, chaos awaited: that match at The City Ground would be Sheringham’s last game for the club and, shortly afterwards Des Walker would be on his way too, sold to Sampdoria for what some considered to be a suspiciously low fee of £1.5 million. Forest’s form crumbled, losing their next six games on the spin to find themselves in a relegation mire from which they were unable to extract themselves. It was a desperately sad state of affairs and one which visibly took its toll on Clough, now an increasingly elderly, sickly-looking man, blotched and puffy from a developing alcohol dependency.
The vultures, too, had started to circle. Alan, now Lord, Sugar, then chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, stated under oath in court that Brian Clough “liked a bung” during an investigation into illegal transfer dealings. ITV’s World In Action current affairs documentary strand made a programme about Clough’s abuses with regard to his personal ticket allocations. Rumours circulated that Clough would physically assault the players in his charge in order to get his point across. His increasingly volatile and unpredictable behaviour – once the calling card of a superstar of the game – now just became tabloid fodder. In time, all of these accusations against Clough turned out to be true, to a greater or lesser extent: the FA later declined to charge him for his improper transfer dealings on account of his ill health, a thoroughly sensible move and one which, no doubt, saved a lot more than just Brian Clough’s skin. Clough was a product of his time, and as unique as his achievements were, his methods were far from unusual for the era in which he operated.
There’s no doubt that Nottingham Forest became a playground for Clough in his later years. The unusual boardroom structure: with a collective in charge rather than the buck stopping with a single chairman, allowed him to manipulate his way into getting more or less whatever he wanted. He became a dictator as much as he was a football manager, doing all the good that people argue that a benign dictator can, but increasingly prey to the corrupting temptations that absolute power reveals. Like a dictator, too, it can be argued that Clough, in the end, outstayed his usefulness and ended up doing as much harm as good.
That said, there were few who were unable to dredge up any sympathy on that day, in April 1993, when a tearful Clough said his last goodbye to a tearful City Ground, as Sheffield United beat Nottingham Forest 2-0 to confirm their relegation. Clough had announced his retirement a few weeks before when the cards were very much all down on the table, but the reality of the situation was still hard to fathom. Having done so many impossible things in the past, it seemed odd that Clough could not summon up one last miracle.
What is Clough’s legacy? It is very much the modern trend to take a total view of a person’s life and accomplishments, and then judge them according to the worst things they did. There’s no shortage of skeletons in Brian Clough’s closet, for anyone who is so inclined. However, to ignore the good that he did, the dreams that he made, would be to do him a great disservice. Clough died of stomach cancer on the 20th September 2004, a year after he had received a liver transplant. His death saw statues commissioned, in Nottingham, Derby and Middlesbrough, as well as the renaming of the A52 Derby to Nottingham road as Brian Clough Way. Few British figures from recent history, of any order or occupation, have been greeted with such fulsome and wide-ranging tributes.
What remains are his words, his humour and stories of his humanity. The footage of his teams, playing football attractively, incisively and fairly. Clough was a football manager who was twice asked to stand as a Member of Parliament and who sat as the chairman of the Anti-Nazi League. His imperfections served only to accentuate his moments of greatness. In football, there has never been anybody remotely like him, nor any achievements to match his. Brian Clough was a man who believed in fairies, but who was singularly blessed with the ability to make other people believe in them, too.