“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.” The immortal, enduring and typically self-affirming words of the inimitable Brian Clough.
As I wrote on this page last week, now that we are falling deeper and deeper into the football-less void brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic, fired by watching a couple of episodes of classic Match of the Day I am intending to delve back into the football obsessive archive that is my memory and to reflect on what for me was and always will be the golden age of football obsession: the late 70’s and the 80’s.
Having fallen hopelessly in love with the game after attending my first match in 1977 there can only really be one starting point in all this: “Old Big ‘Ead” himself and the way that he and long-term confidante, adviser and tactical mastermind, Peter Taylor rocked the very foundations of European football, taking humble Nottingham Forest of the Second Division to the absolute pinnacle of European football in the space of just five and a half magical seasons. Their reign at the top of the game may have been all too brief but encapsulated a league title win and successive European Cup victories between 1977/78 and 1979/80.
In examining Clough and Taylor’s indisputable genius it is vital to look at where they came from. Their ascent to the very top of the game actually started some two decades before they took up the reins at the City Ground, during a trial match for Middlesbrough when Taylor, the reserve team goalkeeper, having witnessed firsthand the precocious young striker’s talent, reportedly insisted that the club should snap Clough up. The two remained friends, footballing soulmates if you will, from that very day forward.
Clough’s ability as a player is often overlooked but a record of 251 goals in 274 starts for Middlesbrough and Sunderland is frankly astonishing. The two England caps he received perhaps an early indication of how his face, or more likely his outspoken personality, would never fit with the suits at the FA.
Tragically Clough’s career was cut short by a horrific injury on Boxing Day 1962 in which he tore both the medial and cruciate ligaments in his right knee ending up in plaster for the next three months. He endured a tortuous eighteen-month rehabilitation programme but shorn of his pace would never be the same player again and was forced to retire from playing at just 29.
Meanwhile Taylor was cutting his management teeth at Burton Albion until his old oppo got in touch to say that Hartlepools United (as they were then known) of the Fourth Division had offered him the chance to become the youngest manager in the Football League but he didn’t fancy it unless Taylor would come with him. Thus the dynamic management and coaching duo was born.
Despite tough financial circumstances the pair fared pretty well during their time at Hartlepools making some astute signings, most notably a certain John McGovern a hard working midfielder who would sign for Clough at four different clubs in total and go on to lift the League title and the two European Cups as Forest skipper.
Hartlepools secured promotion to the third tier in 1967; although somewhat unsurprisingly given what we know about how Clough’s career developed, there were continual fallings out with the Chairman which actually saw the pair sacked only to be reinstated thanks to a boardroom coup.
Their success alerted clubs of greater stature to their potential and in the summer of 1967 they took over at Derby County who had been languishing in the Second Division for the previous decade. While they actually finished lower in their first season than Derby had in the previous campaign, the seeds of both recovery and development were sewn through an astute programme of recruitment and rejuvenation of the squad in which they allowed eleven players to leave keeping only four.
At the same time, if rumours are to be believed and in a window into his idiosyncratic, almost maverick, approach to management Clough also allegedly sacked the club secretary, grounds staff, chief scout and two tea ladies he caught laughing after a Derby defeat.
The players they brought in during the first couple of seasons were not, for the most part, exactly household names: Roy McFarland, John O’Hare, John McGovern (inevitably!), Alan Hinton, Les Green, Dave Mackay and Willie Carlin; but they were players that possessed the skills, traits and character that were exactly what Clough and probably even more decisively, Taylor were looking for to fit their system.
That system was based primarily around keeping the ball on the deck, as Clough famously said many years later “If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there”. That clear and simple vision was supported by a refusal to tolerate dissent or violent conduct.
In 1968/69 Clough and Taylor led the Rams on a run of 22 games without defeat and secured the Division Two title and promotion to the First Division by 7 points. Once promoted Derby really started to make their mark finishing fourth, their highest league finish for over 20 years, and then ninth the following season further bolstering the squad with the acquisition of Colin Todd for a British record transfer fee of £175,000 on the same day that Clough had denied that Derby were about to buy the defender stating: “We’re not signing Colin Todd, we can’t afford him”.
In 1971/72 after battling with Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester City all the way Derby were crowned champions. Having completed their games ahead of their rivals and establishing themselves at the top of the table, the squad minus Clough who was holidaying with his parents on the Isles of Scilly, actually found out they had won the title while on an end of season break in Majorca. That was the first time that Derby had won the title in their 88-year history.
It is well-documented what happened next, in true Clough fashion and much against the wiser counsel of Taylor, he attempted to call the bluff of Derby chairman Sam Longson by threatening to quit after a series of rows and disagreements with the Board. To his utter amazement the Chairman and Board accepted their resignations and appointed Dave Mackay in their place.
After a brief sojourn at Brighton, Clough had the ill-fated 44-day stint at hated rivals Leeds, without Taylor, in which his big mouth hardly helped him when he denigrated the squad at the first training session telling them: “the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest f***ing dustbin you can find, because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by bloody cheating”. Not exactly the best way to galvanise a side who had lost their cherished leader, albeit long-term rival of Clough, Don Revie! Yet this was the way Clough was, it was always his way or the highway, unfortunately for him it turned out it was he who was on the way out.
In January 1975 twelve weeks after his acrimonious departure from Elland Road, Clough was appointed manager of Nottingham Forest who were thirteenth in the Second Division. He brought in John O’Hare and John McGovern (surprise surprise!) but Forest were to ultimately finish sixteenth and then eighth in his first full season in charge, an achievement that Taylor, who rejoined Clough in the summer of 1976, after assessing the squad described as: “a feat.. because some of them are only Third Division players”.
With the dynamic duo re-united what followed next may well still stand as one of the most remarkable achievements in English football history. Forest secured promotion in 1977 albeit in third place with the fifth lowest points total for a promoted team in the history of the English game.
After some more shrewd refreshment of the squad that saw the hard-drinking gambler Kenny Burns, highly-rated goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Scottish international and title-winner with Derby Archie Gemmell join the likes of: Peter Withe, Larry Lloyd and Frank Clarke who had been brought in in earlier seasons, and Viv Anderson, John Robertson, Martin O’Neill and Tony Woodcock whose careers had been re-ignited by Clough.
Remarkably Forest won the First Division title in their first season back in the top-flight finishing 7 points clear of the era’s dominant side, Liverpool, thanks to losing just four league games all season and conceding a miserly 24 goals. That achievement made Clough the third of four managers to win the championship with two different clubs. They also won the League Cup thanks to a 1-0 replay win over Liverpool (who else?).
If that wasn’t a significant enough achievement, the following season in Forest’s debut bow in the European Cup they were drawn against the holders from the previous two seasons Liverpool in the first round. A 2-0 victory at the City Ground and a goalless draw at Anfield sealed Forest’s passage and subsequent victories over AEK Athens, Grasshopper and FC Köln saw them progress to meet Malmö in Munich where a goal from the first million pound player Trevor Francis, brought in in February, sealed an incredible victory.
The following year Forest did it again, this time they eliminated Östers IF of Sweden, Argeș Pitești from Romania, Dynamo Berlin and Ajax to set up a final clash in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid against Hamburg who boasted none other than Kevin Keegan in their ranks. In the end a drilled effort from Robertson was enough to give Forest their second successive European Cup and to make them the only team to have won the European Cup more than their domestic title. Quite some achievement!
In essence Clough and Taylor’s tactical approach was fairly straightforward and traditional rather than ground-breaking. The patient, neat and tidy passing game was similar in aesthetic to that of the country’s dominant side of the same era, Bob Paisley’s development, dare we even say improvement, of Bill Shankly’s great Liverpool sides. As Clough himself insisted “a team blossoms only when it has the ball. Flowers need the rain it’s a vital ingredient. Common sense tells you that the main ingredient in football is the ball itself”.
The individual elements of Clough and Taylor’s strategy were relatively simple: the Target Man’s job (O’Hare at Derby, initially Withe and then Garry Birtles at Forest) was to hold the ball up no matter what punishment he took from the defenders, the goalscorer (Hector at Derby, either Woodcock or Francis at Forest) was to play off the Target Man and be ready for a pass or a flick, one winger (Alan Hinton at Derby, John Robertson at Forest) provided width and the other (Alan Durban at Derby, Martin O’Neil at Forest) tucked in to create a midfield three and protect the defence.
In many ways Clough’s unshaking confidence and self-belief, or at least the impression of those two qualities that he projected, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that particular job” as he famously stated, instilled the belief in his players. His focus was almost always on what was expected of his players and the team as a whole, rather than worrying about and responding to the opposition and what they might do, not dissimilar to other great managers through history.
If not always a popular or especially likeable manager or even person, Clough’s instinctive feel for man-management was perhaps his greatest strength. He just seemed to know how to get into the heads of his players to not only motivate them but to get them to deliver of their absolute best.
If Clough was very much the front-man, the face of the managerial duo and the clubs they led, it was Taylor that handled the areas that Clough knew he wasn’t as strong at, namely: tactics, coaching and player recruitment. Clough used to say that he was the “the shop window” and his long-time coaching partner was ““the goods in the back”; that “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.”
In the end the European Cup winning side was broken up too early to capitalise on the market value of the players, the replacements such as: Ian Wallace, Raimondo Ponte and Justin Fashanu weren’t up to the same high standard and Forest never really challenged for the very top honours again.
Taylor retired in 1982 and while Clough remained in charge for a further eleven years, his increasingly publicly evident battle with alcoholism meant that the performance of his teams continued to wane until in 1993 Forest were relegated at the end of the inaugural Premier League season.
In January 2003 Clough underwent a liver transplant and even though that seemed to give him a new lease of life for a time, he died of stomach cancer on the 20th of September 2004.
There are other managers and coaches that came both before and after Clough and Taylor who could lay claim to being the greatest of all time, but for those magical years at Derby and then Forest they were very much the embodiment of English football. As Clough himself summed it up: “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.” Whether you liked him or not it is nigh on impossible for anyone who followed football in that era to ever forget him.