Brian Clough

Brian Clough - Old Big ‘Ead

 Brian Clough: Old Big ‘Ead

by Andrew Godsell 


I would not say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one”. This was Brian Clough’s typically bold, and humorous, assessment of his ability. At both Derby County and Nottingham Forest, he made the most of limited resources, creating and inspiring teams that were to give great performances in both English domestic football and the European Cup.

Much of this was achieved in partnership with Peter Taylor, who acted as assistant manager to Clough at a series of clubs. Taylor, who had been a team-mate of Clough at Middlesbrough, was a quiet man, but Clough was a controversial and outspoken personality, who earned the nickname “Old Big ‘Ead” – this being his alternative suggestion when he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1991. 

Clough was also a strong disciplinarian, who insisted upon impeccable behaviour, and good sportsmanship, from the players he managed. When asked, during his time as manager of Derby, how he dealt with a player who disagreed with his guidance, Clough replied: “I ask him which way he thinks it should be done. We get down to it, and then talk about it for twenty minutes. Then we decide I was right”.

Clough began his playing career at Middlesbrough, the club from the city in which he was born on March 21 1935. He was signed by Middlesbrough at the end of 1951, but did not make his League debut until 1955. Once in the first team, Clough established his position, being a prolific goalscorer, an attribute which led to his winning two caps for England in 1959, despite Middlesbrough being a Second Division club at that point.

Clough left Middlesbrough in 1961, moving to Sunderland, another Second Division club, for £45,000. A knee injury suffered on an icy pitch on Boxing Day 1962 (during the early part of the “Big Freeze”) curtailed, and ultimately ended, Clough’s playing career. After a long battle to regain fitness, Clough made a short comeback in 1964, but was soon forced to accept the inevitable. At the age of 29, Clough retired from the playing field, having scored 251 goals in 274 League games – a truly striking average of 0.92 goals per game. 

After a short spell on the coaching staff at Sunderland, Clough became the manager of Hartlepools United, a Fourth Division club, in 1965, with Taylor as his assistant. Two years later the pair moved to Derby County, a club they led to the winners spot in the Second Division in 1969. Derby won the First Division title in 1972, for the first time in the club’s history, largely due to the influence of Clough and Taylor. This was followed by a run to the European Cup Semi Finals in 1972-73. 

Clough and Taylor had a series of rows with Sam Longson, the Derby chairman, and resigned their positions on October 15 1973. Part of the tension stemmed from Longson’s disapproval of Clough also working as a TV pundit – a role that would continue for much of the 1970s and 1980s.

Just two days after resigning from Derby, Clough – in conversation with ITV’s Brian Moore – famously described Jan Tomaszewski as a “clown”, only to see the Polish goalkeeper perform brilliantly in the 1-1 draw with England in 1973, that brought England’s elimination from the World Cup. 

Clough and Taylor soon moved to Brighton and Hove Albion, but the winning touch temporarily deserted them, and Brighton ended the season in the lower part of the Third Division. Despite this, Clough was appointed as manager of Leeds United in the Summer of 1974, as Don Revie took the England job, following the departure of Alf Ramsey.

Having previously been a critic of the often devious methods of Revie, Clough told the Leeds squad “You can all throw your medals in the bin because they were not won fairly”. Clashes with the players at Leeds ended with Clough leaving the club, sacked after only 44 days in post.

The Damned Utd, by David Peace, a book described by its author as “a fiction based on a fact”, centring on the events at Leeds, with flashbacks to Clough’s time at Derby, would be published in 2006. The novelisation was followed by The Damned United, a 2009 film version (with a slightly changed title), in which Clough is portrayed by Michael Sheen.  

At the start of 1975, Clough took charge at Nottingham Forest, a club where he would repeat, and then improve upon, his record with Derby County. He was joined at Forest in 1976 by Taylor, who had stepped up to the manager’s role at Brighton when Clough departed for Leeds. Forest’s rise began with promotion from the Second Division in 1977. Clough was often spoken of as a possible England manager. Following the departure of Don Revie in Summer 1977, Clough was interviewed for the role, but the Football Association selected the more solid alternative, Ron Greenwood. Clough and Taylor were given coaching posts with the England youth team, but did not hold them for long, as they preferred to concentrate on club responsibilities. 

Nottingham Forest won the First Division in 1977-78 – their first season after promotion – finishing seven points clear of a Liverpool team that were about to retain the European Cup. Forest also beat Liverpool in the League Cup Final, winning 1-0 in a replay, after the original game was goalless, while Clough picked up the Manager of the Year award.

Early in the 1978-79 season, two English clubs met each other in the European Cup, something which had not happened before. Nottingham Forest won their home leg against Liverpool 2-0, with goals from Garry Birtles and Colin Barrett. Liverpool’s European experience was expected to lead them to a decisive victory in the second leg, but Forest held them to a 0-0 draw. A few months later, Liverpool won the English league title, with Forest as runners-up. In Europe, Forest proved that their elimination of Liverpool was not a fluke, with a series of impressive displays, characterised by neat passing, and frequent goalscoring.

On May 30 1979, Forest met Malmo in the European Cup Final, staged at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. The team selected by Brian Clough included Trevor Francis, a player making his European Cup debut, having been bought from Birmingham City in February 1979, in Britain’s first £1,000,000 transfer. Francis, a striker with pace and flair, who made his first appearance for Birmingham at the age of sixteen, played 52 times for England between 1977 and 1986. Nottingham Forest controlled the play in a largely uneventful match, and won with a single goal, scored just before half time. John Robertson ran down the left wing, and hit a powerful cross which Trevor Francis met at the far post, with a flying header high into the net. 

During the early weeks of 1980, Nottingham Forest won the European Super Cup, beating Barcelona 2-1 on aggregate. In the Spring, they reached the European Cup Final again, facing Hamburg, at the Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, on May 28. Hamburg dominated the possession, but Forest scored the only goal, after 20 minutes. John Robertson exchanged passes with Gary Birtles, and then struck a low shot from just outside the penalty area, that fizzed into the net via a post.  Hamburg thought they had equalised a minute later, but the effort from Willi Reimann was ruled out by Antonio Garrido, the Portuguese referee, as a linesman flagged for offside against Kevin Keegan – who had won the competition with Liverpool three years earlier.

Forest’s 1-0 victory was largely attributable to determined defending, and an outstanding display of goalkeeping from Peter Shilton, who required pain-killing injections before the match, due to a calf strain. Nottingham Forest had emulated Liverpool’s two successive European Cup triumphs. In contrast to the dour Final of 1979, this had been an absorbing contest, and Clough proudly declared “It was one of the best 90 minutes we have ever had. Absolutely marvellous”. 

The 1980-81 season was disappointing for Nottingham Forest. They exited from the European Cup in the First Round, losing both legs against CSKA Sofia by a single goal. Forest also lost to Valencia in the European Super Cup, and Nacional in the World Club Championship. Liverpool, by contrast, went on to regain the European title, beating Real Madrid 1-0 in the 1981 Final.  

Taylor retired from Forest in 1982, but soon re-emerged as the manager of Derby County. Taylor’s purchase for Derby of John Robertson from Forest, while Clough was away on holiday, ended the friendship between Clough and Taylor. The two men were never reconciled, a rift which Clough lamented after Taylor’s death in 1990. Forest were now a club in decline, although Clough remained a focus of attention.

Besides frequent outspoken comments on football issues, Clough displayed an interest in politics. Back in 1977, he had been a founder member of the Anti Nazi League, which countered the growth of the National Front. Clough marched with coal miners in support of their national strike, which stretched across 1984 and 1985, while also providing financial support. He was asked by the Labour Party whether he was interested in standing for Parliament, but preferred to stay in football. When once accused of being a champagne Socialist, Clough retorted “Of course I’m a Champagne Socialist. The difference between me and a good Tory is he keeps his money while I share mine”. 

After the European Cup success in 1980, Nottingham Forest did not win another trophy until the League Cup was regained in 1989, and retained in 1990. Two of Forest’s goals in the 3-1 win against Luton Town in the 1989 League Cup Final were scored by Nigel Clough, the son of Brian.

Forest reached the FA Cup Final in 1991, but were beaten 2-1, after extra time, by Tottenham Hotspur. This was the only time that Clough reached the FA Cup Final as either player or manager. In 1993 Nottingham Forest were relegated at the end of the inaugural Premier League season, and Clough retired. It was a sad end to Clough’s remarkable career in professional football, which had stretched across nearly forty years. 

Clough’s retirement was plagued by ill health. He admitted to a long-standing drink problem and required a liver transplant at the start of 2003 to save his life. Shortly afterwards Clough was diagnosed to be suffering from stomach cancer, but remained in the public eye, as the most famous supporter of non-league Burton Albion, a club managed by his son, Nigel. The cancer caused the death of Brian Clough, at the age of 69, on September 20 2004.

Tributes paid to Clough that day included the following from Alex Ferguson, manager of a Manchester United team that won the Champions League in 1999, and would do so again in 2008:

"Brian Clough was a fantastic manager. All of his teams were difficult to beat. There was a determination about them that mirrored the man himself. Clough achieved something unique – he won two Leagues with provincial clubs, not big guns. He also won the European Cup twice in a row, with a provincial team, and that was very, very difficult to do. He was eccentric at times. I quite enjoyed some of it – even though I was on the end of it sometimes. The game needs characters like Brian Clough."

Martin O’Neill, who played for Forest in the 1980 European Cup Final, but did not enjoy easy relations with his manager, also offered a perceptive assessment of Clough:

"He would be the first to say he was the greatest of all time. He was like England’s version of Muhammed Ali. He was just so charismatic. He had a great opinion on football, and an opinion on everything that he didn’t have a clue about."

Sixteen years on from his death, Clough is still revered as one of the greats of the game. In July 2007, the inaugural match for the Brian Clough Trophy saw Derby County beat Nottingham Forest 2-0, with proceeds being donated to charity. Since then the trophy has been at stake each time these two clubs have met in regular league or cup fixtures.

Long standing East Midlands rivals, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, are united in proud recollection of an amazing manager. Statues of Brian Clough stand in Derby, Middlesbrough, and Nottingham – the three places at the centre of his career – as a permanent tribute to the man. 


Follow the writer on Twitter @AndrewGodsell

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