Portrait of an icon: Brian Clough

Daniel Storey

On what would have been the great man’s 85th birthday, treat yourself to a lovely tribute to Brian Clough…


Speak to anyone in Nottingham over the age of 40 with even a passing interest in football, and plenty without, and they will have a Brian Clough story. Our window cleaner says he once knocked him off his bike on West Bridgford’s Radcliffe Road, while a family friend talks of seeing him at a garden centre and discussing the best flowers to plant in autumn. A website set up to allow people to share their memories contains anecdotes about selling him scratch cards, seeing him speak at a school speech day and hearing him compliment a young man on his sign writing.

Despite being comfortably under 40, I have my own personal tale. I was only seven years old when Clough left Nottingham Forest, a man weathered irrevocably by addiction and a club relegated at precisely the moment when a seat at football’s top table became so crucial. In our house, Clough was used as a threat or bargaining tool. Growing up alone with my mother (it was she who took me to my first games and is responsible for my football obsession), when I was between the ages of four and seven, she would use Clough to control my behaviour.

“If you do that again then I’ll make sure Brian Clough finds out,” was the typical threat, and I had no reason to disbelieve or distrust that. “I think Brian Clough would be disappointed in you,” was another. Coincidentally or otherwise, a couple of years after he retired my mother met Brian through the friend of a friend, and got him to write a message to me. “To Daniel. Be good for your Mam,” it read. Bloody parents, always right.

The first thing to note is that these memories have stayed so vivid in the minds of the tellers. Meeting any celebrity is notable, but the impact left by Clough is almost unique. Simply living in the area around the City Ground during his 18-year tenure allowed him to permeate into your football-supporting psyche by involuntary osmosis.

Almost every personal story contains a few choice words from Clough, words that the recipient would cherish for years as if they were a motto for life. “I never forgot that” is a regular phrase. One of Clough’s greatest skills was making even his casual conversation sound inspirational, and therefore profound.

The second oddity is that so few of the memories of Clough revolve around football. This was a man achieving miracles at a provincial club, and yet what people remember is the minutiae, the brief seconds of interaction they had with the manager. That was the strength of Clough’s personality. As well as being a manager, to an entire city he was a teacher, a scribe and a religious leader.

Clough’s achievements at Nottingham Forest and Derby County are impossible to compare with the other greats of English football – though many try – because they are unique. To take one second-tier provincial club with little recent history of success to the First Division title would be impressive, and to do the same thing again with another extraordinary, but to then take the second of those to consecutive European Cup wins is, arguably, the greatest achievement in the history of sports management. What is certainly true is that no football manager has ever taken a club from such a low to such a high.

Examine the list of clubs to have won the European Cup in successive years: Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Ajax, Inter Milan, Benfica, Nottingham Forest. The last name on that list doesn’t just stand out; it has a neon flashing sign pointing out its status as the oddest of football’s odd ones out. As José Mourinho said to Sky Sports of visiting Nottingham for the first time: “I walked all the way around the city and when I saw the stadium I thought: ‘Are you kidding me – this club won the European Cup? Twice?’ It was a nice stadium and a nice city, but it was a small place. It was the size of the stadium that really took me aback.”

The greatest managerial reigns in sport don’t just bring success, they normalise it. Eleven of Nottingham Forest’s major honours were won during Clough’s 18-year reign between 1975 and 1993. As well as enjoying the three years of domestic and European glory between 1978 and 1980, Forest played in six Wembley finals between 1989 and 1992. For a generation of young supporters, myself included, this is what following Nottingham Forest meant; the past and future told a very different story.

In that lies Clough’s professional legacy. He was a freak of management, a man who raised the glass ceiling placed upon two clubs in the East Midlands, but only while he remained to hold it up. Forest fans still suffer the mockery of other supporters for their post-Clough fall from grace, but that emphatically misses the point. It’s better to have experienced glory and ignominy than never to have tasted either.

If Clough’s achievements as a manager made him a great – and I’m ignoring an astonishingly prolific playing career for reasons of brevity – it was his personality that made him an icon. Before Clough, the presumption was that humility was the key to popularity. Just as with Muhammad Ali in US sport (Ali’s first title fight came in the same year Clough retired as a player), here was a competitor using confidence, arrogance even, to ingratiate himself to the masses.

Clough’s statements of self-worth are too numerous to document, from “walking on water” to “in the top one” and infinite other boasts in between. Like Ali, the tongue was pushed slightly in cheek, but not enough to persuade the audience that Clough didn’t believe the things he said. One of my personal favourites comes via the BBC’s Pat Murphy, a friend of Clough with whom he picked an all-time XI in 2003.

“Johan Cruyff, Gerd Müller, Bobby Moore and John Charles were all selected. I asked him who would be the manager and was not surprised at the answer: ‘Well it’d have to be someone who’s played a bit, could talk about it clearly without waffling on as if he was Albert Einstein, someone who wouldn’t be afraid to tell that Cruyff bloke to pass the ball. I suppose it had better be me.’”

Public displays of narcissism are nothing without a record to back them up, and Clough’s brash statements were merely the public face of an inspirational personality. Even according to those who disliked his brashness, Clough had earned the right to talk the talk.

Almost every player who played under Clough discussed a motivational power that the manager used to make his teams feel invincible. Their eyes still twinkle 40 years later, such was his impact upon their professional and personal lives. Thomas Edison may have believed that genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration, but Clough shifted that ratio to match his own charisma.

Not that the physical demands Clough made of his players should be overlooked amid the soundbites. The pre-match team talks would often last less than a minute, but that was only because the preparation had been refined during the week. With the crucial help of his assistant, partner and friend Peter Taylor, Clough had Forest’s players primed physically, whatever the stories of extra-curricular nonsense.

Clough and Taylor were a remarkable double act, and ground-breaking in English football. Simply speaking, it was a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic, with the assistant offering the arm around the shoulder after the manager’s dressings down, but Taylor also had an eye for potential ability that assisted Clough in building his teams. “I’m not equipped to manage successfully without Peter Taylor,” Clough once said. “I am the shop window and he is the goods in the back.”

Their relationship was predictably strained due to the sheer force of Clough’s personality and finally ended in 1983 after a serious argument, but when Taylor died suddenly in 1990, Clough wept openly. ‘For Peter. Still miss you badly,’ the dedication in Clough’s autobiography read. ‘You once said: ‘When you get shot of me there won’t be as much laughter in your life.’ You were right.’

“They inspired us and gave us confidence,” European Cup-winning captain John McGovern told the Daily Record in 2015. “There was no secret to becoming Europe’s best. Our training was a warm-up and then playing fives. It was all-in stuff and played at cup final tempo. There was no such thing as pulling out of tackles.”

Clough did not expect miracles from his players – he looked after the divinity – but he did expect devotion. If not to him personally (although that usually followed) then to the club and the supporters. “We were only under one pressure,” Ian Bowyer said of Clough’s demands. “You gave your lot and that was it. He could live with people mis-controlling the ball. He could live with people shooting at goal and missing the target. He could handle all that. He couldn’t handle you not giving your lot.”

The greatest myth is that Clough was merely a maverick, an entertainer and a showman. That underestimates the calculation of everything he said and did to make his teams successful. His public displays of pomp took the pressure away from his players. He took an infamously authoritarian stance with players, but almost always left them understanding, and even agreeing with, his reasoning. The best man-managers can make their subjects accept censure and revel in praise. When Cloughie said something nice about you, you felt as if you could sprint up Everest. When he criticised you in front of your peers, you wanted to sprint up twice as fast just to show him.

Yet, to me, Clough’s biggest achievement was temporarily persuading me to believe in destiny. After news of his death broke the day after my 19th birthday in 2004, I was a student in Manchester and devastated. Forest’s next home game was against West Ham, and a group of us piled on the train in the customary green jumpers that Clough wore to almost every home game. His favourite songs were played before kick-off, his trophies and former players paraded around the pitch as a city stopped even trying to hold back the tears.

The gods of sport don’t always pay their respects. Forest were rotten that day, and at the end of that season would become the first European champions to be relegated to the third tier of their league structure. They fell behind to a goal from former striker Marlon Harewood. Then, just as supporters sang their tributes but cursed their team, an equaliser came. Deep into stoppage time, Forest scored a winner. It was the best kind of goal for the occasion, that rare curling shot that you know is in a full second before it hits the net and thus gives you an unusually extended moment of pleasure. I never cried so much with happiness in my life, and still well up thinking about it. I don’t believe in fatalism, but was prepared to make an exception.

The latter years of Clough’s life were destroyed by his addiction to alcohol. He had always been an addict, but by his final seasons at Forest a great manager was barely functioning as a human being. His senses had been dulled, so too his ability to inspire as his glory days were consigned further to the past. Perhaps there was something fitting in Forest being relegated back to the second tier as Clough waved to the crowd for the final time in 1993, crying in front of his congregation. Forest were left where they had started in 1975, the fairy godfather departing on the stroke of midnight.

Clough was not a great man, too often allowing his fierce competitive spirit to cloud his decency. His treatment of Justin Fashanu was abhorrent, and players such as Archie Gemmill would continue to feel bitter about their treatment and eventual exit from the club. Many found his manner distasteful and disrespectful.

Leeds United supporters may not even consider him a great manager, given his disastrous brief tenure in charge. Clough regularly complained at not being given the England job by the Football Association, but had they done so it could just as easily have been bleak as brilliant. The truth is that, at Derby County and Forest, Clough found the perfect canvas for his own unique art. Given the right paints and brushes, he could paint a picture worthy of hanging in any gallery.

To say that we will never see the likes of Clough again is a laughable statement of the bleeding obvious. That was apparent during every moment of every day of his managerial career. He was unique, the ultimate one of a kind. Clough would sink like a stone in today’s management, just as he did during his final days at Forest, because his was an approach only suited to a bygone era where the passion and soul of a manager really could be enough to achieve the seemingly unachievable.

“I want no epitaphs of profound history and all that type of thing,” Clough said when asked how he would like to be remembered. “I contributed. I would hope they would say that, and I would hope somebody liked me.”

In Nottingham and beyond, that is never in doubt. A club can flounder, a city change shape and a sport move in an entirely different direction, but the memories and stories will never fade. The dirge before and since only increases the majesty and magic of what came in between.

Daniel Storey