Few football coaches have grabbed the public’s attention through sheer force of personality in quite the same fashion as Brian Howard Clough. An intoxicating mix of intelligence, arrogance and abrasiveness, Clough was the antithesis of the mid-twentieth century stereotype which saw British managers as gentlemanly sorts who played the game to strengthen their moral fibre rather than to win at all costs.
Born into the humble surrounds of a Middlesbrough council estate in 1935, Clough was a keen schoolboy sportsman and began his youth career with his home town club in 1951 at the age of 16 before moving on to Billingham Synthonia in 1953. After attracting covetous glances from a number of professional clubs through his performances as a young striker, Clough eventually returned to Middlesbrough for whom he signed in 1955.
Between 1955 and 1961 Clough made 213 league appearances for Boro, scoring a remarkable 197 goals and going on to earn two England caps in the process. In 1961 ‘Cloughie’ moved to Wearside to play for Sunderland and continued to hit the net with great regularity at Roker Park, scoring 54 in 61 league games for the Black Cats. However, in 1962 Clough sustained a serious injury to his cruciate ligament from which he didn’t recover. After managing just three appearances in two years, Clough brought the curtain down on his playing career and immediately sought a fresh challenge.
In 1965, aged just 30, Clough was appointed manager of Hartlepool United – at the time an impoverished Fourth Division outfit – and so embarked on what would become a glittering coaching career. It was during his time at Victoria Park that Clough struck up his iconic professional relationship with Peter Taylor who became his assistant in the North East in those early days.
Clough’s first season with Hartlepool saw the club finish a disappointing eighteenth, but the 1966/67 campaign was one of great improvement as the ‘Monkey Hangers’ achieved a respectable eighth place finish. However, that was where Clough’s association with the club ended as he promptly walked out as a result of both boardroom strife and the fact that he has received an offer to take the reins at Second Division Derby County.
It was at Derby that Clough would make his name as one of the country’s finest young managers, guiding The Rams from second-tier obscurity to First Division champions in just five seasons. Indeed, when the Clough-Taylor partnership arrived at The Baseball Ground Derby had been stuck in the Second Division for over ten years, seemingly bereft of the talent and imagination required to progress any further.
The 1967/68 season saw Clough set about transforming Derby County from top to bottom, laying the foundations for the success that was to follow. The club may have endured a poor campaign that year, but Clough and Taylor had signed the likes of John McGovern, Dave Mackay and Roy McFarland and constructed a team that looked capable of pushing for promotion. That much sought-after promotion came the following season as Derby topped the Second Division by the significant margin of seven points and returned to the top level of English football.
Rather than merely aiming to survive the drop in his first season as a top-flight manager, Clough’s indomitable spirit saw him drive his team on to achieve a remarkable fourth-place finish in the 1969/70 campaign. The Rams may have been some thirteen points off the top, but they were separated from the great Chelsea side of Ron Harris and Peter Osgood by just two points, with Don Revie’s Leeds United (of whose style Clough was continually critical) only four points clear.
1970/71 saw the club take something of a backward step, Derby barred from competing in European competition due to financial irregularities and ending the league season in a frustrating ninth. However, that particularly underwhelming season ended up leading into the most successful campaign in the history of Derby County Football Club.
Inspired tactically and psychologically by Clough, Derby marched to their first ever top-flight title as they pipped Leeds to the championship by a single point on the final day of the season. For a club with relatively limited resources and several veterans amongst the playing staff, it was a truly incredible achievement and a career-defining one for Clough.
In 1973 Clough’s relationship with both the FA and the Derby board began to break down, the manager being accused of misconduct after writing an article criticising Leeds’ style of play as well as being caught making an obscene gesture in the direction of Matt Busby during a league game against Manchester United. In typical fashion Clough refused to apologise for either incident and eventually resigned (along with Taylor) in the October of 1973 with his exchanges with chairman Sam Longson having become increasingly hostile.
A brief and unspectacular spell in partnership with Taylor at Third Division Brighton & Hove Albion followed, only for Clough to leave the South Coast – this time without Taylor – to replace Don Revie at Leeds for an infamous 44-day spell at Elland Road which has come to be immortalised in David Peace’s fictionalised account, The Damned United.
It has been famously reported that Clough, intent on drastically altering the stylistic ethos of Leeds, announced to the players on his arrival that they could “throw their medals in the bin because they were not won fairly”. Predictably, this drew an exclusively negative response from the Leeds players who failed to respect his methods and, after a dreadful run of results, saw Clough unceremoniously sacked from the Yorkshire club.
The following season, having recovered from the Leeds fiasco, Clough took on what would be his last – and most successful – managerial post. Taking over at second-tier Nottingham Forest in January 1975, Clough and Taylor guided the club to eighth place before again proving their incredible capacity for transforming the fortunes of their teams by gaining promotion in 1976/77.
Having achieved an impressive promotion, Clough wasted no time in establishing Forest as a force in the division, masterminding the club’s unbelievable league title and League Cup double in their first season back in the First Division. That team, consisting of such talents as Martin O’Neill, Viv Anderson, John McGovern and John Robertson, would go down in history as the finest Forest team of all time as they continued to add to their list of astonishing achievements as the seasons went by.
The club’s greatest feat came in 1979 as Forest overcame Malmö in the European Cup final with a goal from Trevor Francis – the player who Clough had signed for £999,999 in order not to break the £1m mark for a player (although subsequent fees took the transfer over that particular milestone). For a club which had only claimed its first top-flight title a year earlier, Forest’s conquering of Europe was simply astounding and was the ultimate tribute to Clough’s tactical and psychological methodology as well as his uncanny ability to spot players ideal for his preferred system, usually 4-4-2 with attacking full-backs and traditional wingers.
Even more remarkably, Clough was able to defend the European Cup in 1980 as Forest beat Hamburg (another 1-0 scoreline) to further emphasise their dominance of the continental game and write their manager into history as one of the greatest of all time.
Clough spent a further thirteen years at The City Ground, Forest winning another two League Cups during that time, although, tragically, a rift grew between the great manager and Peter Taylor, something which sadly led to Taylor’s departure from the club in 1983.
In poor health and struggling to rebuild his team in the early 1990s, Clough resigned from Nottingham Forest after relegation to the second tier in 1993. It was a disappointing end to a truly wonderful career, but it did not take the gloss off Clough’s astonishing managerial record.
Like many of the game’s great coaches, his was a divisive personality, but Clough’s impact on the game cannot be denied. His ability to get clubs to excel despite a lack of money or a particularly high level of talent was exceptional and the ways in which he drilled his players in systemic intricacies and psychological toughness were unrivalled at the time and have since been echoed in the methods of other serially successful coaches.
An enigmatic figure, a master of domestic football and a double European Cup-winning manager, Brian Clough is arguably the best British manager the game has ever seen. His legacy lives on.