Brian Clough 1935 – 2004: England's Greatest

Sean O'Conor

UK | Japan

Such a sad day I wished would never come. Said by many to have been the best coach England, the home of football, has ever produced, Brian Clough was a phenomenal goalscorer (251 goals in 274 games), prolific club manager and legendary personality who inspired a generation of fans like myself to be enthralled by football. His death from stomach cancer also sounds a profound death knell for the old English game as we know it.

Cloughie, one of nine children born to a hard-working and house-proud Northern mother and war-wounded father in Middlesbrough, was English through and through and his personality a galaxy away from today's commercialised and globalized Premiership with its functional coaches, obscenely overpaid young men and lack of characters.

Oh for a Cloughie in the Premiership today to punish those millionaire oafs or as an England manager to shake up the twits in Soho Square and get the players to fight for the pride of the three lions!

His no-nonsense outlook on life and his straightforward belief that football is a simple game played on grass were classic Yorkshire traits that he kept burning throughout his life, as was his socialistic insistence on discipline and graft for the common good. A devout believer in traditional values, Cloughie extolled his family at every opportunity, from letting his young sons sit on the bench with him for Forest games and carrying his granddaughter at his final match at the City Ground to forever praising his doubtless long-suffering wife Barbara.

What it must have been like growing up with Brian as a dad we can only guess at. It must surely have been hell for his family in his later years when in his own words "drink became more important for me than the anguish I was creating for those I loved the most".

Whilst he always seemed an indestructible personality, he also endured periods of great personal vulnerability, particularly when his playing career was cruelly ended by injury at Sunderland in 1962, when Leeds players forced him out as coach twelve years later and when Nottingham Forest were relegated in his final season in charge in 1993. Perhaps his lowest personal point came in 1990 when Peter Taylor, with whom he had played and coached for forty years, died.

The two had fallen out badly a few years earlier over a transfer yet Clough would go on to dedicate his autobiography to his greatest ever friend, "To Peter. Still miss you terribly. You were right. I never laughed as much". When his assistant coach at Forest telephoned him to inform him of Taylor's death Clough was for once in his life speechless, put the phone down and allegedly cried his eyes out. Never a stranger to drink, it was only then that Clough seriously hit the bottle and began his descent towards oblivion. Following immense pressure from his family, he appeared to have quit drinking in recent years and had a life-saving liver transplant in 2003, though undoubtedly the gallons of hard liquor he downed helped cause the stomach cancer that ultimately claimed him.

His famously bigheaded, arrogant and bombastic personality was his trademark but he was rarely called a bully, although players were afraid of him. Most people will fondly remember his TV appearances, when his verbal broadsides, always fired off with a dose of humour mixed in with the familiar arrogance, made him compulsive viewing, whether gloriously repelling a John Motson question by reminding him even he made mistakes reading off an autocue, "and you do it for a living", calling his own players "pansies" or publicly thanking the diminutive and unlamented former Tory sports minister Colin Moynihan after the Taylor Report ended the prospect of national ID cards by saying, "I'd like to thank Mr Moynihan and anyone who is above him, which is most of us."

In later years, he made a habit of referring to himself self-deprecatingly as 'Ole Big Head' when speaking to the media as if to tell us all that he had never really meant what he said. Whilst players, including the famously grouchy England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and also a young Roy Keane (whom Clough once punched in the stomach), would to a man defer timorously to the boss in a way that would be unthinkable today, the press and the public just loved him for it.

His charmingly confrontational style steamrollered all opposition and made you laugh at the same time. Famously dismissive of anyone's ideas but his own ("What are problems for other managers are not problems for me") he nevertheless got the results to prove the naysayers wrong.

Clough's unique ability to make great players out of journeymen footballers came from a motivational force that was his greatest gift. He would engender an unstoppable self-belief in his men through methods that have never been easy to pin down. Sometimes he would berate his players, other times praise them or do both at the same time.

He once made his players run across Dartmoor and another time bought them all ice creams. One of his tactics was to place a ball on a table in the centre of the dressing room and make his team concentrate on it for 15 minutes before a match as he hypnotically intoned, "Look at the ball. This is your friend. Treat it that way."

What was for certain was that his tactics were so jaw-droppingly simple ("We let the opposition worry about us") he was more a manager than a coach in the modern sense: Not for him the dossiers of Don Revie, the science of Serie A preparation or the tactical labyrinth of the Ajax school.

For Cloughie it was 4-4-2 with clearly defined roles: Defenders would head away the ball to supply the midfielders who would feed the wingers who would cross to the strikers who put the ball in the net. It still seems amazing he won two Champions Cups with Forest and took Derby to a European Cup semi-final when Clough treated his European trips as relaxing short-breaks ("We never trained").

The night before Forest's successful 1979 League Cup victory he even made sure the whole team cleared a huge table of drinks in order to relax them and help them sleep. Martin O'Neill might have been carrying Archie Gemmill up the stairs that night, but they won the cup the next day.

As great as his European exploits (and Forest would have made 1984's UEFA Cup Final had Anderlecht not bribed the referee) were his triumphs on the domestic front. He led two mediocre provincial club sides to the Championship and in Forest's case in 1978, in only their first season in the top flight, a feat that today seems impossible.

At Forest he went on to win four league cups and create a 42-game unbeaten run (a record only recently beaten by money-rich Arsenal). There was therefore no question in the nation's mind he deserved the top job of all - England manager. That he was never given the chance remains to the FA's eternal shame, a scandal Geoff Thompson could have atoned for yesterday by admitting the FA was wrong not to have picked Clough at some stage.

That his personality and management style intimidated Lancaster Gate to the point of incompatibility was beyond doubt, but so too was the fact that he was the overwhelming people's choice throughout the late '70s and '80s. Had the FA bitten the bullet they would not have shouldered any blame if Clough and England had not hit it off.

By opting for 'safe hands' like Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor when Clough and later Terry Venables were clearly better candidates, the FA lost the respect of a generation of fans and journalists as well as many players and coaches too.

If managing an international team might have left Clough feeling a little lost without the day-to-day skirmishes he thrived on, he at least would have managed to do what no England manager has yet achieved: taken on the press and won. Never one to shirk a fight, Clough would have stood for no nonsense from his players on or off the field, when today's coaches feel almost powerless to instil discipline. The will of the nation would have been behind him and it is terribly unfair we never got the chance to see what would have been an explosive and exciting England under Clough, win or lose.

His only obvious career failures were his unhappy forty-four days at Leeds, when his famous powers were torpedoed by the notoriously abrasive Elland Road dressing room and in 1993 when Nottingham Forest, twice champions of Europe, were relegated following a disastrous season.

Clough had sold key players like Teddy Sheringham without replacing them, sold tickets on the black market, accepted bungs and throughout the season appeared on TV in an alcoholic haze with little connection to reality or his team's obvious plight. His final years for Forest were a depressing stumble downhill from the heights of success but no-one at the club was prepared to go down as the man who sacked Cloughie, the myth that was far, far bigger than the club itself, a deity no mortal dared question. Like all dictators he had made the mistake of staying on too long.

Yet when it appeared alcohol was about to kill him a few years ago everyone realised what an irreplaceable loss he would be. For Forest fans like myself it was Clough's entertaining and inspiring character that fired our love for the game in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a man whom everyone bar none respected as a true giant of the sport, and a colourful character the world, and especially the money-obsessed and increasingly mundane world of football we have today, badly needs more of. If not England's greatest coach then certainly the most remarkable.

Though I never met the Almighty Brian, I saw him close up on several occasions and treasure a signed autobiography my father bought me one Christmas. Cloughie had kept hold of it when my father had moved to take the book, saying "wait a minute young man", before adding two kisses.

I was lucky enough to attend his last home game at Forest, when both sets of fans sang his name throughout. "It has been a privilege knowing you Sir", the BBC commentator Barry Davies told him that day. Indeed it was. Clough's journey from a poor Middlesbrough childhood to the top of his trade and beyond ended on the 20th of September 2004. We will never hear his familiar voice or see that green jersey again but what a journey it has been. Farewell Brian.

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