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Brian Clough: In the top one

Editor's Pick
Published Sep 23, 2012
Sep 23, 2012 IST

When unbeaten runs in modern-day football come to mind, the first team that one remembers is the ‘Invincibles’ of Arsenal who went on a 49-game-unbeaten run, winning the 2003-04 Barclays Premier League game in the process.

Juventus are also currently unbeaten, with no team having bested them on 42 different occasions in the Italian League.

But what if I told you that neither of these teams were the first to achieve this run? What if I were to tell you that one of England’s most unfancied sides had done this when football pitches in England were not the lush, verdant playing surfaces we see today, which look like they’ve been fitted by carpet-layers, but grounds where grass was regularly pockmarked by patches of bare earth.

This was not the England of all-seater stadiums and seven substitutes swathed in jackets sitting on comfortable seats sipping Lucozade. This was the England where the capacity of a stadium was determined by how many people could stand in it, an England where two substitutes were named along with a teams starting XI, one of whom was a goalkeeper.

Between 26 November 1977 and 8 December 1978, Nottingham Forest went on a 42-game unbeaten run, winning the 1976-77 First Division Title in the process. The man who’d led this team on this fantastical run will go down in footballing folklore as one of the greatest to ever grace the beautiful game.

Brian Clough.

Here was individual worthy of a place among the titans of modern-day Premier League Football, standing tall and proud alongside Sir Alex Ferguson and Legionnaire of Honour Arsene Wenger.

But that is not the only reason Clough will be remembered. The Middlesbrough native played for six years at his hometown Club, scoring 251 league goals in 274 starts. To some, spending their childhood on a Council estate with eight siblings, relying on earnings from his sweet-shop worker father might be hellish, but Clough considered it to be heaven. Clough once said:

“If anyone should be grateful for their upbringing, for their mam and dad, I’m that person. I was the kid who came from a little part of paradise.

“Everything I have done, everything I’ve achieved, everything that I can think of that has directed and affected my life – apart from the drink – stemmed from my childhood. Maybe it was the constant sight of Mam, with eight children to look after, working from morning until night, working harder than you or I have ever worked.”


This maternally-driven inspiration would forever stay with Clough during his managerial career. While a player at Middlesbrough, he befriended Club goalkeeper Peter Taylor: a partnership that would stay strong and successful for many years to come.

After hanging up his boots at the age of 29, following six years at Boro, three years at arch-rivals Sunderland and two appearances for England, Clough was made the Football League’s youngest ever manager when he took over the reigns at Hartlepool FC. He was joined by Taylor, who gave up the Burton Albion managerial position to join Clough as his assistant. After an eighth-place finish in their first season at Hartlepool, Clough and Taylor left the side in 1967, two years after they had arrived at County Durham.

Unearthed there were goalkeeper Les Green and 16-year-old John McGovern, both of whom would join the duo at other clubs in the future. Though Clough only stayed their two years, the impact he’d left upon Hartlepools FC was instant: they won promotion in 1968, the first time in the Club’s history.

Clough and Taylor then spent six memorable years at Derby County from 1967-73, winning the Division Two title in 1968 after setting the Division record of going 22 games unbeaten, and challenging the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Leeds and Liverpool en route to winning the Division One league title in 1972, the first time Derby had won the League since its formation 88 years ago.

The imprint that Clough and Taylor had left on the Rams was quite deep, and is still fondly remembered by the Pride Park side to this day. At the time of Clough’s arrival, Derby had been mired in the Second Division for a decade, and hadn’t seen top-flight football for a further five years.

But failure between Clough and the Board seeing eye-to-eye meant that Taylor and him would leave Derby in 1973.

What was too follow was a period of dark times for Clough and Taylor. The duo went to Brighton and Hove Albion, where they were ultimately unsuccessful, before Clough alone went to Leeds United. The move was surprising to say the least, due to Clough’s hatred of then Leeds manager Don Revie and the lack of discipline shown by the Leeds players, which he had severely slammed in the past. After being manager of the Club for just 44 days, Clough was shown the door.

But even during this dark period, a silver lining was to be found. Yes, Clough had moved from Derby County, where he would manage the Club in the Champions League against teams like Juventus, to Brighton, who were languishing in Division Three, but the loyalty shown to him by his backroom staff and scouts and Derby was so deep they all moved with him from Derby to Brighton. So enraged were the fans over the sacking of Clough as Derby manager that they were baying for the resignations of all of Derby’s board members along with the reinstatement of Clough and Taylor.

Despite the manner in which he left Derby, Clough was now equipped with the ability to improve upon his already existent managerial qualities. On the sixth of January 1975, Clough was appointed as manager of Nottingham Forest Football Club, then in Division Two. The summer of 1976 would see him reunited with Peter Taylor as they set about changing the fortunes of the Club.

Much deadwood was cleared at Forest as they won the League Cup in 1978, following promotion the previous season where they had finished third in the league. They went one better and sealed the League Championship the season after promotion, finishing seven points clear of Liverpool.

The 1978-79 season would see Clough enter his name in another column of England’s history books as he won the League Cup and more memorably, the European Cup, beating Swedish outfit Malmo in the final courtesy a goal by Trevor Francis. Clough then defended the European Cup successfully when his Forest team beat German side Hamburg by the same scoreline in 1980.

Although these victories would live long in the memory of Clough, what he holds closest to his heart is the unbeaten run his Forest team set off on as he blazed a victorious path from 26 November 1977 to 8 December 1978, going on a 42-game unbeaten run. His team won the 1977 Championship title in the process.

That record stood till August 2004, when Arsenal added game number 43 to their unbeaten run as they beat Clough’s boyhood Club Middlesbrough 5-3 at Highbury. Thierry Henry(2), Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Jose Reyes scored for Arsenal that day.

It was to be 1988 before Clough would win another trophy with Nottingham Forest, and in that time, much had changed. The European Cup-winning side slowly disbanded, as Peter Taylor left in 1982. Cracks in the pair’s long-lasting friendship were beginning to appear. New signings, such as Justin Fashanu, Asa Hartford and Peter Ward failed to click with the rest of the Forest team.

The League Cup in 1990 would be Clough’s last trophy as a manager. Although he did take Forest to the FA Cup in 1991, they lost 2-1 to Tottenham in extra time.

While Clough remained a capable manager on the surface, his personal life had caught up with him. The inaugural Premier League season saw Clough losing his battle against alcoholism, and his last season as a manager would see his Forest side relegated in the first season of the Premier League.

Brian Clough will be remembered as one of the greatest managers to grace the game of football. Those who worked with him will remember him as somebody who was tough but fair. A man to whom respect for the club came above all else: while at Derby County, he sacked the groundsman, the Club secretary, the Chief Scout and two tea ladies who were caught laughing after one of Derby County’s defeats.

‘Mr. Clough’, as he wished to be known, was known for his outspoken nature, and was not afraid to speak out against what he considered injustice. When his team were leading 2-1 against Liverpool after coming back at the Baseball Ground, the former home of Derby County, Clough lambasted his own fans, saying:

“They started chanting only near the end when we were a goal in front. I want to hear them when we are losing. They are a disgraceful lot”

The following day, Derby Board member Sam Longson apologised to the fans over Clough’s interview, where he’d also slammed the Club’s transfer policies. A few months later, after his Derby team had lost to Italian giants Juventus in the European Cup, Clough called his opponents cheaters:

“No cheating bastards do I talk to. I will not talk to any cheating bastards.”

What was worse was him mocking the Italians’ courage during the Second World War. It was his comments against the establishment, against established coaches like Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Matt Busby that drew the ire of opposing fans and press agents alike, infuriating his employers and endearing himself to his fans at the same time.

Although he was manager of Leeds for 44 days, his hatred for former Leeds manager Don Revie and his style of play which he called ‘dirty’ and ‘cheating’ didn’t win him any followers. During some of his first training sessions for Leeds, he told the players:

 “You can all throw your medals in the bin because they were not won fairly.”

Like some people at the time, Clough did not take kindly to homosexuality. It did not help, then, that Justin Fashanu, one of his star players, was a closet homosexual. The confidence that Fashanu had began to evaporate as Clough began questioning his lifestyle. In his autobiography, titled Clough: the Autobiography, he recalls one of the dressing downs delivered at Fashanu:

“‘Where do you go if you want a loaf of bread?’ I asked him. ‘A baker’s, I suppose.’ ‘Where do you go if you want a leg of lamb?’ ‘A butcher’s.’ ‘So why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club?’”

Fashanu came out as gay several years later, and was the target of abuse from his former teammates, who said that gays had no place in football, and from fans, who hurled vicious chants at him. Although several of his teammates accepted his orientation, they would make private jokes regarding his sexuality behind his back.

Years after his brother John had disowned him because of the lifestyle he’d chosen to lead, Fashanu committed suicide in a garage in Shoreditch, London, where he was found hanged from the neck. John Fashanu finally delivered the eulogy that Justin deserved when he was alive:

“I’m not homophobic and I never had been, but at the time I was certainly cross with my brother. I sleep at night wondering all the time, could I have done more and I keep coming up with the answer, yes I could have done more. Does that console me? No. We’ve cried for nearly two decades for Justin, it’s enough.”

In January this year, Amal Fashanu, John’s daughter said about her uncle:

“I’m proud Justin was my uncle and that he was brave enough to say what he did. I think my dad now regrets the harsh way he responded. The game needs more people like my uncle if homophobic barriers are to be removed.”

Clough was infamous for other reasons as well. He was once summoned to answer to the FA for receiving ‘bungs’, an illicit payment made to agent to ensure players joined the right Clubs. The charges were later dropped on account of his ill health. Former Premier League chief executive, Rick Parry who led the inquiry, said

“On the balance of evidence, we felt he [Clough] was guilty of taking bungs. The evidence was pretty strong.”

Brian Clough will forever go down as a pioneer of the beautiful game. His legacy lives on, and he remains forever an icon of footballing folklore. Not for nothing are statues in Nottingham, Derby and Middlesbrough erected in honour of him. When people drive on the A52 that links Nottingham and Derby, they now drive on Brian Clough way.

Clough’s legacy lives on in his son, Nigel, who played under his father at Forest, and was made manager of Derby – like his father – in January 2009.

Clough died on 30th September, 2004 from stomach cancer. In January 2003, Clough had undergone a liver transplant after 30 years of heavy drinking had left him on the verge of death. Clough’s funeral was held at Pride Park, the home of Derby and was attended by more than 14,000 fans. Clough will live on the memory of fans of the beautiful game. Managers like him are far and few between.

Some might call him arrogant for his managerial ability, when he once said:

 “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.”

Given what he’s achieved during the course of his life, truer words were rarely spoken.

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