“I want no epitaphs of profound history and all that type of thing. I contributed – I would hope they would say that, and I would hope somebody liked me.” - Brian Clough
Before the ruddy-faced passion of Sir Alex Ferguson, the scouting savvy of Arsene Wenger, and the overwhelming charisma of Jose Mourinho graced the soccer scene, there was Brian Clough, the perfect amalgam of all these vital managerial skills.
In a era of the sport dominated by strong, fierce personality and on-field viciousness, not to mention the various European superpowers currently making hay across the continent (Liverpool, Bayern Munich, a reviving Ajax), Clough thrived, winning trophies, league titles and European acclaim.
He began his soccer life as so many managers did: on the field. As striker for his hometown club Middlesbrough, he was prolific, scoring 197 goals in 213 league matches, earning himself 2 England caps in 1959. From there, he hopped across Tyne and Wear to Sunderland, where he managed 54 in 61 before injuring his cruciate ligament and prematurely ending his career at age 27.
The club eased his bitter disappointment by letting him coach the youth team before the board of directors fired him and sent him further into despair. Peter Taylor revived him on the managerial path, joining him at lowly Hartlepool United to assist, and their relationship would be the spine of Clough’s career.
Beginning early – Taylor was a reserve goalkeeper for Sunderland that aided Clough’s rise through the ranks at the club to become first-choice striker – the pair would enjoy a tumultuous partnership. From Hartlepool, they went to Derby County, a team struggling in the Second Division, and transformed the ailing franchise, bringing in Archie Gemmill (scorer of a legendary goal in the ’78 World Cup against Holland) and Roy McFarland for remarkably low prices and winning the league title.
Then, after some disputes with the Derby owners (stemming from the refusal by the club to let Clough bring his family along for a preseason tour of Holland), they were off again, with disastrous stops at Brighton & Hove Albion and Leeds United (the focal point of the book and film, The Damned United) before settling at Nottingham Forest, the scene of their greatest triumphs. There, they won a League Title in 1977/78, League Cups in 1978/79 and 79/80, and, most importantly, consecutive European Cups in 1979 and 1980.
Clough was the ultimate man-manager. Knowing how to extract the best from his players, he was frequently dictatorial, finding that fire and fury were the best motivators. While Taylor did the scouting (Clough once remarked of Taylor’s gifts: “I’m not equipped to manage successfully without Peter Taylor. I am the shop window and he is the goods in the back.”), it was Clough’s job to mold the individuals under his watch into a successful, coherent team. At Nottingham Forest, the duo thrived in picking up other clubs’ damaged goods on the cheap, confident in their ability to rehabilitate and remotivate.
Peter Shilton, who earned a reputation at Stoke City for being a malcontent, was given confidence at Forest and managed to finally wrestle the England goalkeeper position from Ray Clemence. Or Archie Gemmill, the squat Scottish midfielder, who followed Clough from club to club in the 70s after being rid of the prevailing wisdom that he was solely a left-footed played. Clough eschewed the notion and helped Archie find his form on both feet… at Forest, Gemmill would be a major factor in the club’s success, and went on to captain Scotland at the 1978 World Cup. And how did Clough sign Gemmill back in 1973? By sleeping in his car outside the Gemmill family home… until Archie’s wife invited him in to sleep in the guest bedroom.
As Brian Glanville put it, Clough was “a mixture of arrogance and initiative, bombast and generosity, intransigence and self-doubt.” It remains one of the great tragedies that he was continually overlooked for the England job, especially during the 1970s when England was a floundering mess after Alf Ramsay’s loud departure. As Clough said, “They didn’t want any trouble. They didn’t want me… I’m sure the England selectors thought if they took me on and gave me the job, I’d want to run the show. They were shrewd because that’s exactly what I would have done.” His opinion was backed up by Forest player Garry Birtles: “They [the FA] were scared stiff of him. Scared of his style. His management. They should have looked at his success.”
But, to their regret, they never did, and Clough ran Nottingham Forest until 1993, picking up a couple more trophies along the way before his uncontrollable alcoholism took hold. He died in 2004 of stomach cancer.