Brian Clough, Peter Taylor and the saddest of endings…

Date published: Saturday 21st March 2020 8:00 - Sarah Winterburn

For once, Brian Clough had nothing to say. He replaced the telephone receiver. It was October 1990 and Peter Taylor had died.

The two had spent most of the last decade drifting further and further apart. It remains one of the great tragedies of English football. Two men who achieved such extraordinary feats in tandem could not share their triumphs in a way which allowed them to bask together in the afterglow.

Creating a division of labour between the two isn’t as easy as it might seem. Clough had a smart line to describe it, referring to himself as “the shop window” and Taylor as “the goods in the back”. It’s not inaccurate; it actually characterises their respective contributions concisely, but it ignores the subterranean layers of their partnership. Clough’s discipline, psychology and charisma were infused within his Derby and Nottingham Forest teams and Taylor’s scouting eye had architected their construction, but – as Clough would later admit – Taylor was also one of the few constraining forces in his professional life.

“Pete was the only bloke who could stick an arm around my shoulder and tell me – straightforwardly, mate to mate – that I was wrong, or right, or to shut up and just get on with my job.”

Theirs was a deep friendship, not just a footballing marriage. Taylor had been an ally of Clough’s during his outspoken playing days at Middlesbrough. His had been one of few voices of support for the young forward at the beginning of his playing career and, over time, the two would become inseparable, bonding over a love for the game and a shared vision for how it should be played.

Taylor’s judgement of players looks otherworldly, even in hindsight, but his understanding of Clough and ability to temper his more antagonistic traits was just as relevant.

It’s tempting to assume, then, that had Taylor accompanied Clough to Leeds there would have be no mutiny, no quick sacking and no David Peace novel. It’s a simplification. Taylor may have been a disarming figure – he’s often remembered as witty, self-deprecating and the ying to Clough’s strutting yang – but that was still a dressing-room fiercely loyal to Don Revie.

Clough was appointed by Forest in January 1975. Almost immediately, he returned to Leeds to sign John O’Hare and John McGovern, both of whom had been part of his 1972 title-winning side at Derby County. There was no quick surge, though. The Clough who joined Nottingham Forest was bruised by his experience at Elland Road and wearied by a chastening year at Brighton; Forest had finished eighth in the old Second Division during his first full season and with no hint of what was to come.

His severance package from Leeds United had changed his life, providing a level of financial security which he had never previously enjoyed, but that didn’t translate to any immediate success; Forest’s boilers stayed cold. At the time, Taylor was still at Brighton, having remained on the south coast when Clough decided to move north to replace Revie. In the summer of 1976, the two were reunited and, according to McGovern, that was when the ground began to shake.

“Clough was so invigorated that I knew it was just a case from that point onwards of when we got promoted.”

What they achieved together was remarkable. Many years earlier, former Derby chairman Sydney Bradley described their success at the club as having “built an ocean liner out of a shipwreck”. At Forest, of course, that would be surpassed. Promotion followed in 1977, a maiden First Division title was captured with the League Cup in 1978 and, most famously, Forest reached the summit of European football in 1979 and then climbed back again in 1980.

Clough’s role in that success is inarguable and the anecdotes of the time have been repeated so often that they remain imprinted on the game’s soul. Taylor’s contribution isn’t hard to spot, though. Four of the 11 players who started the 1979 European Cup final – Larry Lloyd, Kenny Burns, Gary Birtles and Peter Shilton – had been signed on his recommendation. Burns, of course,  was an unlikely reclamation project: signed as a brutish centre-forward from Birmingham, he would become a cultured, secure centre-half under Taylor’s direction.

A fifth player, John Robertson, had been inherited by Clough, but owed his career to an early Taylor scolding during a pre-season tour. Robertson was never an orthodox professional, but in 1976 he was circling the sport’s drain. Forest were spending pre-season in Augsburg and Robertson, who that day had been told to “f*** off back to the hotel” during training by Clough, was found sulking by the swimming pool. Taylor tore into him.

“Everything is wrong with you as an athlete…You’re in the gutter, socially and professionally.”

Robertson was 22. By his own admission, he had fallen into a pattern of blaming others for his failings and he both deserved and needed Taylor’s intervention. By 1980, he had won the European Cup twice, providing the spiralling cross for Trevor Francis’ winner in Munich against Malmo, and scoring the only goal of the game when Forest beat Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg in the Bernabeu a year later. Robertson’s talent was rare, but it could very easily have been squandered.

Madrid was the apex of the managerial partnership, but also the beginning of its end.

With Clough By Taylor, the autobiography Taylor published in the months after, was strange in its conception. It’s a fantastic book, very well ghostwritten and full of clever asides, but it’s hard to rationalise it as anything other than the pipe-bomb that it would become. Taylor didn’t inform Clough about the project, neither did he ask his permission or offer him a share of the proceeds, and it created a chasm within their friendship that would never close.

Rather than a simple chronology of their lives together, Taylor offered within a set of astute emotional observations about Clough which, realistically, he was never going to take as anything other than a betrayal.

He was furious. Taylor had a legitimate right to earn from his career, financially he had always been the junior partner and, unlike Clough, he had never had the opportunity (or desire) to boost his income with television or media appearances. Nevertheless, it was something for which Clough would never forgive him. It was really his story which had been told and his face which adorned the cover.

Duncan Hamilton’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me records a bizarre episode in Taylor’s office in January 1982. Two years on from the second European Cup win, Forest had dropped back into the pack. They would finish that season in mid-table and suffer early elimination from the FA Cup. Taylor’s professional reputation had also begun to ebb away, having overseen a succession of failed transfers, including Justin Fashanu’s notorious £1m move from Norwich City.

Clough was away in recovery, having suffered a suspected heart attack over Christmas, and Hamilton remembers being called to the City Ground by Taylor, only to find him trance-like and distanced, searching his desk and telephone for bugs and listening devices. It’s an eerie passage and one incongruous with the book’s tone. It’s descriptive, though. After two years of civil war with Clough and declining performances, he was showing the full attritional effects of football’s grind.

The end, by that point, had become inevitable. Taylor wouldn’t last the season, announcing his retirement from football the following May. There was even a brief thawing in the relationship, with Clough helping him to negotiate a generous settlement from Nottingham Forest. Had that truly been the final act, there appeared enough goodwill for an eventual reconciliation. It’s symmetrically fitting, though, that the final fracture was delivered by a player who had instructed so much of their success. John Robertson remains a symbol of what they achieved, but also an unwitting footnote to their partnership’s permanent dissolution.

Half a year after announcing his retirement, Taylor was back in football. Worse, he was back at Derby, where he and Clough had fallen foul of Sam Longson. The sense of unfinished business had always followed the pair and when Taylor was appointed he initially attempted to take Clough back with him; it didn’t happen, Clough instead using that advance to leverage a new contract from Forest.

It was the smarter move, though. The Derby County that Taylor joined was not the one he had left. They were riddled with debt and while he managed to rescue them from relegation in 1982-83, he was unable to repeat the act: he would retire for good before the end of the following season, with Derby ultimately relegated back to the Second Division.

Unfortunately, an unremarkable 18 months still created one extraordinary negative. In May 1983, Taylor signed Robertson. It was a nebulous transfer saga which was ultimately settled by tribunal, but Clough claimed to be unaware of the approach until a deal was essentially complete. Under the circumstances, he considered it a further betrayal. In reality, Robertson’s contract had been set to expire that summer and Forest had dragged their feet over a renewal. With his wife pregnant and Derby offering a three-year deal and Forest proposing a reduced salary, his own decision was understandable. Nevertheless, while Taylor’s actions didn’t contravene any FA rules, the incident brought the animosity between him and Clough back to the boil.

Clough’s reaction would partly have been drawn by the literal loss of Robertson, but by 1983 the player had turned 30; his brief, unsuccessful time at Derby suggested that his best days were in the past. More likely, then, that Clough was provoked by the symbolism of the act – of, in his eyes, Taylor sneaking into his house when his back was turned and taking something of great emblematic value. The terms he used to describe Robertson were often artistic and emotive, unusually so for him, and that language was suggestive of a relationship beyond the typical.

It was an incident characteristic of the wider feud. Their final years seem ultimately to have been poisoned by possession; who was responsible for what, who owned which parts of their success. Robertson’s career was indicative of what they had achieved, his rise was quite extraordinary, so it’s easy to see him as an extension of that wider theme.

By that point of his career, Clough had also begun to concern himself with legacy. His most celebrated moments had always occurred with Taylor by his side, his lowest ebbs most often without him, and he wondered how history would apportion credit if, in his remaining years, he was unable to repeat their success. In time, it’s been shown that he needn’t have worried: he remains celebrated as one of the greatest British managers of all time and as the author of unique achievement. Nevertheless, in the late eighties he was swimming against the tide of Forest’s financial dysfunction and Taylor’s sporadic newspaper commentary of his performance hardened the rift between them.

In April 1987, Martin Tyler conducted an interview with Taylor in which, tentatively, he asked about his falling out with Clough. The clip can still be found on YouTube and it remains oddly fascinating.

Taylor was never a great orator, nor did he ever seem at ease with a camera in his face, but the line of questioning makes him so obviously uncomfortable. He plays the wobbliest of straight bats throughout, insisting that the two “had nothing to discuss”, before letting slip a darker comment about the distress caused to members of his family. Certainly, his repeated insistence that he felt no bitterness would have been more convincing had his face not twisted into a knot over the course of the interview.

It ends on a poignant note. Taylor rejects the suggestion that he and Clough might ever work together again, but he softens at the prospect of reclaiming their friendship. “Life’s too short to say no to that…”

Clough would eventually soften, too, but only after it was too late. By the time he took the phone call to tell him that Taylor had died in Majorca at just 62, the two hadn’t spoken for seven years. Even then, as he would reflect on one of those long afternoons recorded in Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, it wouldn’t have taken much to cure the rift between them.

“I should have picked up the phone. Just one phone call would have done it. In five minutes we’d have forgotten all the harsh words, all the bitterness.”

Seb Stafford-Bloor


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