Upon reflection, this week probably wasn’t the best week to start reading “The Damned United”, David Peace’s outstanding debut novel about Brian Clough’s ruinous forty-four days in charge at Leeds United. Clough comes across in it as frustrated to the point of being a tortured soul, the massive ego becoming a security blanket against the impotent rage of having his playing career finished before its time, and against the psychological frailties that come with never having quite made it at the top level of English football. In tandem with Peter Taylor at Hartlepool United and Derby County, Clough channeled his inner rage into taking teams from nowhere and lifting them above their natural station. He took Hartlepool from the bottom of Division Four to a close shave with promotion and Derby County into Division One and then on to the League Championship and the semi-final of the European Cup.
Brian’s inner demons and frailties have been copiously discussed elsewhere, so we’ll leave him there. NIgel, on the other hand, in a blank sheet of a man. He managed a shade over ten years at Burton Albion, taking them from the Northern Premier League to the top of the Blue Square Premier and having the temerity to hold Manchester United to a draw in the FA Cup Third Round on the way. Burton’s maxim over this period of time has been steady, sustainable building. They moved from Eton Park to The Pirelli Stadium in 2005, and Clough’s steady team building has finally borne fruit this season. This year’s Blue Square Premier looked like being a very tight division, but Burton have won ten matches in a row to saunter thirteen points clear at the top of the table. The chasing pack will be hoping that Nigel’s departure to Derby will mean that Burton will slow down and allow them to catch up. It may already be too late for that. The teams below them seem likely to continue to take points off each other for the remainder of the season. Can one of them pull clear and launch an effective challenge against a team that have, for the last few weeks, been looking like champions elect?
What’s in all this for Derby County is pretty easy to measure. The Clough name still carries unsurprising reverence in the East Midlands, and the possibility that Nigel may have genetically absorbed some of his father’s genius carries an obvious (if potentially easily misplaced) appeal. What, however, is in this for Clough? He was six when Derby County won the league in 1972. One would expect his happy childhood memories to be associated with Nottingham Forest, whose greatest moments coincided with the start of his own adolescence and, quite likely, his own flourishing as a player. Thus far, Nigel’s achievements have been commendable, but hardly world beating. Winning the BSP this season wouldn’t tilt the earth of its axis, but it would at least be a significant trophy to get under his belt. Why couldn’t he wait until the summer? If he thinks that Derby County is too big a club to turn down, he may not have been paying particularly close attention to what has been going on there for the last couple of seasons. Their season in the Premier League was apocalyptically awful, and has been cast into an even harsher light by the half-decent fist of things that Hull City, Stoke City and even West Bromwich Albion are making this season. This season, they have continued their wretched form, with only a surprising run to the League Cup semi-finals as any consolation. Manchester United await them there, tomorrow night.
The intriguing thing about Nigel Clough is the extent to which he remains an enigma, in spite of the shoes that many feel that he has to feel. It’s difficult to get away from the feeling that he has painted himself like this deliberately, because the alternative is to fall short of other people’s expectations of his father. Quietly squirreled away in non-league football, he was largely left well alone to get on with managing a football club. Looking at the foot of the Championship, it’s far from implausible that Derby County will be dragged into a relegation battle, leading to the possibility of them being just a division above Burton Albion by the start of next season. Whether they can hold onto or build their lead at the top of the BSP will be a test of the psychological strength of Burton Albion, to say the least. Whether this ends up being the right move for either Derby County or Nigel Clough remains to be seen. It may be an idea to start writing “The Damned County” now, even though the subject matter couldn’t possibly be as engrossing as its predecessor.