Brian Clough: The best manager England never had? Part one

Brian Clough

The first of a multi-part series looking into the legend of Brain Clough, and in particular at the thesis statement that Old Big Head was ‘The People’s Choice and therefore The Greatest Manager England Never Had’. In this opening article, we look at Brian Clough’s start in management.

Brian Clough was The Greatest Manager England Never Had. There, said it and nothing else to discuss.

So says conventional wisdom and opinion anyway.

How and why was Cloughie, Old Big Head himself, overlooked by the powers that be not once, not twice, but three times (at least) in the 1970s and 80s? Let’s have a look, shall we?

Firstly, it is important to look at where we were at in the 70s and 80s with regards to football. Football in the 70s and 80s was considerably different from the modern version, to say the least. Without wanting to come across as looking at things through rose-coloured-spectacles, there was a completely different style, atmosphere, and ambience about football then. Spectators enjoyed a wholly different match-going experience, while the football on offer itself was also pretty unrecognisable to that served up today.

Stadiums were, in the vast majority, a collection of largish neglected stands thrown together eight or more years previously. Supporters were segregated, herded into standing pens and fenced in, or else left to fend for themselves in seats in rickety old stands. Families very rarely attended games together as hooliganism was, the press at least led us to believe, rampant, and football was seen to be rather a ‘working class’ sport.

Footballers earned more than the average man on the street, of course, but there were nowhere near the same differences in income there are today. In the 70s, the average First Division footballer earned two or three times the annual salary to the typical man or woman. Meaning that players weren’t viewed as inhabiting a totally different planet as they are today.

Brian Clough was seen by some as the very embodiment of the working class. He was born in Middleborough in 1935, and he had had a very good, but not fantastic, playing career as a striker in the 1950’s. Some people, himself especially, would take issue with the idea that his playing career was anything less than extraordinary. After all, Clough scored 267 goals in 296 professional matches – a magnificent record in anyone’s book. However, all but one of those goals were scored outside the old (old) First Division and while it still remains a record not to be sniffed at, perhaps full judgment can’t be passed on Clough as a player due to his very limited top-flight career.

Clough had his career ended early by injury at the age of 30. He took up a coaching position with the Sunderland youth team. He then got his first management position with Hartlepools United, as they were then called, in the old (old) Fourth Division. From there he moved to Derby County (then in the Second Division) until his resignation in the autumn of 1973. He had a very short spell out of work before stepping down two divisions and taking over at Brighton and Hove Albion.

At the end of the 1973-74 season, he controversially took over as manager of league champions Leeds United, lasting an infamous 44 days before getting the sack. His last, and possibly most famous position was with Nottingham Forest where he managed from January 1975 until his retirement 18 years later.

As a manager he won: two league championships, two European Cups, four League Cups, a Second Division title, another promotion from the Second Division, a Charity Shield, a European Super Cup, two Simod/Zenith Data trophies and an Anglo-Scottish Cup (which he always maintained was his most important trophy because it was the first won at Forest).

These are the bare bones of Clough’s managerial career but of course, there is so much more to his story than these simple details.

As a player, Clough had always been somewhat opinionated on the game regarding matters such as tactics and team selection. He made no attempt to hide or moderate his feelings. He had immense confidence and belief in his own ability. Clough lost no opportunity in letting his managers and teammates know that he considered himself the star.

He would frequently be heard expressing his disillusionment at the inability of teammates to prevent goals being conceded while he was keeping to his side of the bargain in scoring them at the other.

In Clough’s autobiography, he stated that at times he believed some of his teammates were guilty of not only being poor players but of being morally and legally corrupt ones too. He claimed that he was ‘pretty sure’ some teammates were involved in taking bribes in the early 60s. The players involved couldn’t possibly be naturally as bad as they seemed to be at times. These thoughts, no doubt aired aloud to the men involved at the time, together with his general manner of articulation, led to him being perhaps one of the least liked players within the dressing room in the history of Middleborough Football Club.

As stated, Brian Clough started out coaching the youth team at Sunderland, where he had played at the end of his career. It is there that he discovered he had a talent for coaching. He stated that he enjoyed his time trying to get his message across to younger players, who he considered to be ‘more honest’ than some of the seasoned pros he had played alongside. He seems to have thrown himself into the job, taking on all tasks and responsibilities, including that of driving the team to games. He had some success too, coaching young players such as Colin Todd and John O’Hare.

It was at this time that the still young (ish) man set about getting his FA coaching qualifications and perhaps embarked on the career-long antagonism of the FA. This would ultimately lead to him being deprived of the England manager’s role many years later.
Running the FA coaching course was legendary. Some would say ‘infamous’, Charles Hughes, later to become a candidate and interviewee for the England manager post himself. It is fair to say that Clough and Hughes did not see eye to eye, a fact which was borne out many years later when Clough would write in his autobiography, ‘I never worked with anyone who had less idea about football than Charlie Hughes.

Hughes was pioneering his Direct Football theory at this time, which involved encouraging coaches to train players to get the ball forward quickly with as few touches as possible. Once they got within sight of the goal, to aim for the far post, as Hughes believed statistics proved that area to be where most goals were scored from.

Clough disagreed. He got hold of a ball, booted it into the empty net and said “There. That beats aiming for the far post any *****ing day of the week”. Clough then seems to have pretty much taken over the remainder of the course and took every opportunity possible to wind Hughes up and to disagree with him.

For example, Hughes was insistent that players should always head the ball with the forehead to which Clough’s response was a pithy “Bollocks! You should aim to use any legal part of your body to get the ball over the line. After all,” he added helpfully, “I did. 267 times.”

The erstwhile Mr Hughes couldn’t have been very impressed or amused, and therefore it is not unreasonable to assume that this first clash with the FA and their way of doing wasn’t forgotten, and this constituted Clough’s first black mark against him.

Somehow, Clough still passed the course, however, while Hughes went on to have a long career as the FA’s Director of Coaching and was even interviewed for the position of national team manager in December 1977 (at the same time as Cloughie, of course, a fact that infuriated him until his dying day).

Back at Sunderland, there came a change of team manager. Out went the incumbent George Hardwick, to be replaced by Ian McColl, and as McColl wanted his own men around him, out also went Clough as youth team manager.

Clough was then given a testimonial by Sunderland, to which 31,000 people attended, and after the match, the chairman of Hartlepools United, one Ernie Ord, approached Brian and offered him the position of manager of his club. Clough, needless to say, was delighted to accept and so became a manager in his own right for the first time.

The first thing Cloughie did on taking over at Hartlepools was to persuade Peter Taylor to join him as assistant. Clough and Taylor had played together at Middleborough and had been impressed with one another. Taylor had been one of the only people at the club to agree with Clough’s assessment that he was the star of the team and so should be treated accordingly, while Clough had been impressed with Taylor’s knowledge of football and insight into players in general.

It wasn’t altogether an easy task to get Taylor to come to Hartlepools because he was managing non-league Burton Albion at the time and making rather a good job of doing so. They were top of the Southern League, which in those days was the premier non-league division, and Taylor was enjoying the job.

Although he was keen to get into league management, Taylor wasn’t too keen initially to come in as a ‘number two’, and nor was he very impressed by the fact he would have to take a large cut in salary. Eventually, Cloughie gave him 200 pounds out of his own pocket and that did the trick, and so the most successful management partnership in the history of the British game was born.

Hartlepools was both a nightmare scenario and a golden opportunity for Clough and Taylor, simply because they were so bad. Finishing in the bottom four of the old Fourth Division meant they had had to apply for re-election in each of the last four seasons, and when Clough took over, the team in October was currently rock bottom of the table with just seven points. This, remember, was in the days of two points for a win.

Clough was therefore faced with the situation that although it would be a very difficult job, it would probably be even more difficult for him to make things worse. Clough and Taylor set about making things better – much better.

They tried the simple things first, such as working with the players they had at their disposal, encouraging them, coaching them, and trying to instil some belief and confidence in them. Slowly results started to pick up.

Once more, Clough threw himself totally into the job, even going to the local grammar school to persuade the headmaster that one of his pupils, a bright 16-year-old, should be given the chance to sign for him and not stay at school for his A-levels. Reluctantly the headmaster agreed and so the lad embarked on a career in professional football. 15 years later that boy lifted the European Cup for the second time as captain of Nottingham Forest.

His name was John McGovern.

With the signing of McGovern and others, improvement was relatively rapid. Hartlepools finished that first season in 18th place (out of 24) and safe from having to apply for re-election, and in their second season Clough and Taylor took the club to the rather heady heights of an eighth-place finish.

However, (there was always to be a ‘however’ in the Brian Clough story) Cloughie and Taylor were not happy bunnies. They were not happy with the chairman, Ernie Ord, nor he with them. The troubles had started practically on day one when Clough appointed Taylor as ‘trainer’ without consulting Ord, and from then on they were always at each other’s throats.

According to Clough, Ord didn’t ‘appreciate what we were trying to do for the club’ which included everything from running the team to painting the stand. The two men clashed repeatedly, with things coming to a head when Ernie Ord announced at a press conference that he had sacked both Clough and Taylor with immediate effect. They ignored him and turned up for work as if nothing had happened, which to them it hadn’t, and eventually Ord stepped down as chairman.

Clough and Taylor were looking to move on though, and through Taylor’s contacts within the game, Clough was granted an interview with the chairman of Second Division Derby County, Sam Longson. The interview went well and Clough was offered the job, although once again he neglected to tell his new employers he would be bringing Peter Taylor with him, and, once again, this was to lead to friction between the pair of them and the board in the future.

In the next episode of the series, we will look in detail at Clough’s time in charge at the Baseball Ground and in particular at certain events that may have contributed to him not getting the England job later in his career.