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Lost City

Notts Rebels: Brian Clough

27 May 20 words: Marcus Alton

In celebration of the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, our Notts Rebels series continues with a man who needs no introduction: Brian Clough ...

He’s often described as the Master Manager, or even the Miracle Manager. But there is no doubt that those in authority considered him to be the Maverick Manager.

As far as the first two of these titles are concerned, you only have to look at his incredible success during eighteen years as the manager of Nottingham Forest to appreciate those managerial monikers. After guiding a newly-promoted Forest to the league title and two successive European Cups, he went on to add much more silverware to the City Ground trophy cabinet in later years.

Alongside all the success came heaps of controversy. Cloughie’s unpredictable and outspoken behaviour – especially his criticism of the football authorities – meant he was also regarded by many as a managerial maverick.

Just as his fellow Nottingham legend Robin Hood could hit the target with his bow and arrow, Clough’s sharp tongue and comments about the Football Association also hit the bullseye: “When the FA get into their stride, they make the Mafia look like kindergarten material.” For Cloughie, having a dig at the Football Association was child’s play.

And it didn’t stop there. Looking back at his interview for the England manager’s job in 1977, he joked: “There were ten of them on the interview panel and four of them had been dead for a year. What’s more, the other six hadn’t twigged.”

Despite being the people’s choice for the top job, and feeling like the interview at Lancaster Gate had gone well, Clough was turned down in favour of Ron Greenwood, who wasn’t even on the interview shortlist. Cloughie’s wife, Barbara, told him he had talked himself out of the job.

Cloughie’s unpredictable and outspoken behaviour – especially his criticism of the football authorities – meant he was also regarded by many as a managerial maverick

And Mrs Clough was quite right. Just a few days before the interview, Clough had courted more controversy by expressing his disdain for those running West Bromwich Albion because they had failed to offer manager Ronnie Allen a contract.

As journalist Pat Murphy says in the book His Way, “It was a familiar theme of Clough’s – the insecurity of tenure endured by many managers – but his outburst was particularly ill-timed.” The chairman of West Brom was Bert Millichip, who later became FA chairman and probably conveyed his anger to the selection committee.  

Even in retirement, the FA’s rejection of Clough for the top job still rankled with him. But, by then, he had a collection of medals and trophies that most managers could only dream about. With his band of brothers at Nottingham Forest he had taken on the greats of European football and won.

Cloughie loved to fight the cause of the underdog. His friend Colin Shields told me (in the book Champagne Memories) how Brian agreed to become President of a local branch of the Royal British Legion after hearing it was in danger of closing due to financial problems. The branch, which Brian often visited to play dominoes and snooker, remained open.   

Going back to his childhood could give a hint of where some of that underdog fighting spirit came from. As one of eight children, he had slept three to a bed at Valley Road in Middlesbrough. His eldest brother Joe recalled that when the family went on holiday to Blackpool, Brian insisted on being in every photograph. It took up a whole roll of film.

Joe, whose memories are included in my book The Day I Met Brian Clough, also described how he returned home on leave from the Navy to hear that one of his brothers had been involved in a tussle with a lad across the road – “probably a few slaps and punches.”

Mrs Clough was told it was Brian’s older brother Billy – because the other boy was Billy’s age. She had words with Billy and promised to give him a clip round the ear. “But it was actually Brian who’d been involved – even though he was two years younger and much smaller. But Brian was lucky and managed to get away with it.”

It has become a cliché over the years, but Cloughie did things ‘his way,’ whatever the authorities may have thought – and whatever the consequences. When he clobbered several supporters for running onto the City Ground pitch after a cup match, a poll of BBC Radio Nottingham listeners gave him overwhelming support for his actions. The FA gave him a touchline ban.

Forty years ago, his unconventional managerial methods meant he took the Forest players away for a week’s break in Majorca before winning the European Cup for the second time. The players were ordered not to train. Instead, they were “soaking up the sunshine and the San Miguels.” Relaxation was the key to success.

Two days before that 1980 final in Madrid, Clough made the team’s base a converted monastery, miles away from the Bernabeu Stadium. UEFA regulations said teams should be able to train at the ground where they were due to play 24 hours before the match. But Cloughie’s underdogs did not set foot in the stadium until the night they faced Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg.

When he clobbered several supporters for running onto the City Ground pitch after a cup match, a poll of BBC Radio Nottingham listeners gave him overwhelming support for his actions

In the book My Magic Carpet Ride, striker Garry Birtles remarks: “UEFA regulations cut no ice with the Gaffer. Regulations, full stop, cut no ice.” Clough had calculated that, after a long, gruelling season, his team would regard the football that night as a long-lost friend. Victory was hard-earned thanks to a tremendous team effort. They needed every sinew of strength.

Yes, Cloughie was unconventional in many ways. Yet when it came to ninety minutes of football, he was a world away from the typical description of a ‘maverick’ or ‘rebel.’ His teams played football in the right way: quick, neat, exciting; passing to feet and causing no trouble for referees.  

“The people of Nottingham took him to their hearts – and he took them to his,” said Barbara Clough at the unveiling of the bronze statue of Brian in 2008. He had put the city on the map.

On reflection, those people of Nottingham (myself included) remain fortunate that he did not become England manager in 1977. Despite the disappointment of that rejection, he stayed loyal to Nottingham Forest for the rest of his managerial career, even when Derby tried to tempt him back.

He is often described as the best manager England never had. The sheer scale of Old Big ‘Ead’s success is very unlikely to be repeated. From humble beginnings, he took on the so-called Big Boys – the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United – and came out on top. He turned good footballers into great ones, and great ones into internationals.  

In the biography Nobody says Thank You Jonathan Wilson wrote: “Clough was the revolutionary hero who, without huge resources, stood up to the grandees, and did so with style.”

Marcus Alton is the editor of the tribute website, which has the backing of the Clough family. He has written four books about Brian Clough, including The Day I Met Brian Clough (its profits are supporting an NHS charity); the latest book is Brian Clough: Fifty Defining Fixtures published by Amberley. All four are available on the website. 


‘Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.

As part of the celebration of Brian Clough's rebellious legacy, LeftLion are joining forces with Nottingham Castle for the #CloughChallenge, inviting you to share your favourite Cloughie quotes. You can find out more information and see who has taken part so far here

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