In modern football, terms are banded about without any real conviction or insight. ‘World Class’ has become something of a trigger phrase and it has been trivialised to the point in which critics and pundits have now become fearful of using it. Robbie Savage coined the idea of being ‘world class on the day’ – a concept which seems ill advised and self-indulgent at the very least. The phrase: ‘greatest’ falls under the same blanket with players and managers alike being referred to as the greatest of all time. In the light of his 6th Ballon D’or, Lionel Messi is now once again being referred to as the greatest player of all time and rightly so but his ongoing rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo still divides fans and pundits alike. This is without even considering the impact their predecessors had on the game. With managers however, the choice is not so crystal clear. Many great teams have been and gone from Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan to Wenger’s invincibles to Guardiola’s all conquering Barcelona. Teams are only as good as the sum of their parts and only the man who encompasses this philosophy more than any other deserves the title of greatest. From the bottom of the second division to the pinnacle of Europe, one of the greatest ever underdog stories was masterminded by the greatest ever manager: Brian Clough.
Clough’s managerial career began in October 1965 at Hartlepools United (later changed to Hartlepool in 1968.) He asked then Burton Albion manager; Peter Taylor to become his assistant. This began a long and fruitful relationship both on and off the field between the two men. Clough and Taylor were inseparable, and their bond resonated with the players on the pitch, inspiring them to an 8th place finish. An impressive feat considering Hartlepool had finished in the bottom 2 of the 4th division on 5 of the last 6 occasions. However, never short of controversy, Clough and Taylor were originally sacked by then chairman Ernest Ord due to financial difficulties but were then reinstated with Ord being ousted instead. It seems even at this early stage Clough’s contempt for chairman was evident. It was at Hartlepool were Clough would meet a 16-year-old John McGovern; a player whom would follow him to Derby County, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest winning a plethora of trophies along the way.
Following success with Hartlepool, Clough left for Derby County in 1967. Derby had been outside of the top flight for over a decade and things didn’t improve instantly with Derby finishing one place lower in Clough’s first season than the previous year. After this initial disappointment, Clough and Taylor set about making wholesale changes with 11 players departing. One major acquisition was the signing of previous Hearts midfielder Dave Mackay. It is well documented how the veteran marshalled the rest of the team and provided the base for, as Peter Taylor reportedly put it, “the skewer in the shish kebab.” This new-found belief and footballing system propelled Derby County back into the first division and by the end of the 1971/72 season The Rams were crowned first division champions. Peter Taylor took the squad to Mallorca to celebrate but Clough opted to holiday in Sicily with his family. A trait often overlooked by many was Clough’s more sombre side. ‘Old Big Head’ in the press but a gentle and reflective man around those he loved.
Another well documented part of Clough’s character was his disdain for chairman and no more so than at Derby County. Derby’s chairman Sam Longson was unaware of much of Derby’s transfer business including a then record fee of £225,000 for Leicester City’s David Nish. Tensions rose exponentially between Clough and the Derby board during the 1972/73 season with Clough often being extremely vocal about everything from the Derby fans to the footballing establishment as a whole. Clough was a lifelong socialist and this was mirrored in his attitudes towards the footballing upper class with figures like Sir Matt Busby and Don Revie never being far from his crosshairs. Around this time Clough’s media image was increasing. Punditry positions were being awarded to him because he made such great Television. Clough’s wife Barbara spoke in a documentary named: ‘Cloughie – The Brian Clough Story’ about his talent at conveying his views and opinions without the need for over exuberant language. Clough’s wit and wordsmanship made him a perfect candidate for a panel of experts and he wasn’t afraid to take anyone on including Sir Bobby Charlton in a 1973 FA cup final preview.
Derby Chairman Sam Longson hated Clough’s media image and tried to ban him from such appearances, only serving to tighten their already strained relationship. Following their title winning season, Derby were unable to replicate their achievements with the club slipping to 7th place. They did however make the semi-final of the European cup but were unfortunately knocked out by Juventus by 3 goals to 1 on aggregate. It is widely believed Clough had fielded Derby’s strongest team in their match before Juventus against Don Revie’s Leeds in a hope to beat him as part of their long-standing rivalry. This may have contributed to the loss in Turin as players were tired from fixture congestion. Sam Longson blamed Clough for the downturn in form and Clough blamed Longson for his vice-like grip upon proceedings. In a fit of rage, Clough spoke to Italian newspapers after the game saying: “I will not talk to any cheating bastards” – believing Juventus had influenced officials at half-time.
Clough and Taylor’s final act at Derby County was to tender their resignations in an attempted coup to oust Longson from the board of directors. A Machiavellian rouse that had worked in their favour during the 1971/72 season. This time however, the Derby board accepted their resignations and a former Clough signing Dave Mackay took over control of the club. Clough and Taylor then fell out over the next step for their career trajectory with Taylor opting to stay at Brighton and Hove Albion and Clough accepting the Leeds United job following Don Revie’s resignation to become manager of the England national team.
There has been lots of media coverage over Clough’s ill-fated tenure in charge of Leeds United. 44 days is all it took for the board to part ways with Clough. ‘The Damned United’ is a book written by David Pearce published in August 2006. It details Clough’s reign as Leeds manager. Pearce himself describes the book as being a look into the mind of Clough during this time. ‘The Damned United’ was the subject of great controversy upon its release with many regarding the content as factually inaccurate. Leeds midfielder Johnny Giles stated the book is “fiction based on fact, whatever that’s supposed to mean.” Following Clough’s death in 2004, Giles appeared on the previously mentioned documentary Cloughie, highlighting first-hand the difficult relationship the Leeds players had with Clough during this time but ultimately showing his respect for his former employer. Barbara Clough also debunks some of the traits Pearce claims Clough showed in the book. Namely his excess smoking and drinking. Whilst Clough was guilty of both of these things, they were not apparent when he was in charge of Leeds. Barbara Clough rightly points out “he was the perfect figure of youth and health” at the time. It was clear at Leeds, Clough was unable to emulate the success of his predecessor and bitter rival Don Revie so upon his dismissal on 12th September 1974, Brian Clough set his sights elsewhere. It took only 12 weeks for the former England centre forward to be back in management taking over a modest second division side: Nottingham Forest. It was at Forest where Clough would write his name into the history books.
It is well documented the success in which Brian Clough achieved with Nottingham Forest and I feel the accolades and accomplishments he enjoyed there pale in comparison to the character of the man himself. It is one thing to list and categorise his achievements, but I get the sense the man himself would have celebrated the tales behind each game, the dressing room drama and the ecstasy in each win – the trophies were just a bonus!
Forever an idealist, a champion of what was ‘right and proper’ and fair man, Cloughie would have been 85 today. Gone but never forgotten.