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


In previous weeks we looked at Brian Clough’s managerial career up to 1977. In the final part of the series, we look at his candidature for the England manager’s job four decades ago. In addition, we examine the records of the men appointed to the position in that period, and finally, we examine the reasons why it just did not come to pass for Brian Clough when it came to the England job.

We start by going back to the summer of 1974 after Sir Alf Ramsey had been sacked, or to be more accurate, not had his contract renewed, following England’s failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. Joe Mercer had taken over as caretaker manager for England’s 1973-74 end-of-season tour, and then Don Revie had been appointed manager

1974 – 1977: Revie’s England

Revie was not a success as manager of England. He tried to replicate the ‘family’ feeling of Leeds but met with resistance and even bemusement from some players. He also seemed to make some confusing and contradictory decisions regarding players and man-management, which led to murmurings and a touch of resentment.

For example, he installed Alan Ball as captain for a few games and then suddenly ended his England career with no explanation; he then installed Kevin Keegan as captain ahead of his Liverpool captain Emlyn Hughes; and finally he picked Malcolm MacDonald and then promptly dropped him again shortly after he had scored seven times in two games.

The major problem, though, was results. England failed to qualify for the final stages of the 1976 European Championships and then found themselves trying to qualify for the 1978 Argentina World Cup in a group containing Italy, Finland, and Luxembourg.

With only one team qualifying from the group, it was thought that the two England-Italy games would be the most decisive.  However, it actually turned out that the matches against the two minnows were ultimately more crucial, as England and Italy managed to beat each other 2-0. This meant the group standings came down to goal difference and miserly 2-1, 3-0 and 2-0 wins against Finland and Luxembourg respectively meant that England finished second.

Revie’s team selection and tactics for the important away game in Rome had been widely criticised and from then on in the criticism never really let up. The poor performances against Finland and Luxembourg hadn’t helped, and neither had an abject showing in the Home International game against Scotland in the spring of 1977. The writing was therefore very much on the wall for Revie.

That summer England headed out to Argentina to play some friendly games in what they hoped would be a warm-up for the following year’s World Cup, and England actually acquitted themselves reasonably well in drawing three times; 1-1 with the hosts in a famously bad-tempered game, and 0-0 with both Uruguay and Brazil.

Revie asked the FA for permission to join the trip late. This was granted, but what wasn’t known at the time was that he was busy accepting an offer to manage the United Arab Emirates national team. Revie resigned from the England job and the FA were furious, famously charging him with ‘bringing the game into disrepute’, finding him guilty and banning him from the English game for ten years. This decision was later overturned in the High Courts.

Public opinion regarding the whole matter was rather against Revie at the time, it should be said, as there was a feeling that the England team were in the mess they were in mostly because of Revie, and yet here he was lining his pockets in anticipation of getting the sack. Revie supporters, on the other hand, held the opinion that as the guy was almost certainly going to find himself out of a job the following spring, he was entitled to look after his future and that the FA were being churlish (in charging him with disrepute) simply because Revie had jumped before he was pushed.

However, the timing of the whole affair was crucial and was to play a huge part in Brian Clough missing out on the job.

In the autumn of 1977 with Revie gone, the FA gave the job to Ron Greenwood on a temporary basis and announced they would be appointing a permanent successor later in the winter.

At this time Brian Clough, together with Peter Taylor, was just embarking on his first season in the top flight with Nottingham Forest.

England still had two World Cup qualifiers to play under Greenwood’s steering, but the woeful 2-0 win against Luxembourg meant that the final game against Italy at Wembley was almost academic as England entered it level on points with Italy but with an inferior goal difference. Italy, however, still had a home game against Luxembourg to come, so even an England victory at Wembley would merely mean a simple one goal Italy victory against Luxembourg would suffice to see them, and not England, qualify.

England played very well against Italy and won 2-0 in what was their best performance for some time. However, this was a game which amounted to little more than a competitive friendly as Italy came to Wembley knowing they could afford to lose as long as they completed the somewhat less than onerous task of beating Luxembourg.

That Italy match was on November 16th. The FA met to consider and interview candidates for the permanent appointment in December. This interview was the closest Clough ever got to the job.

The Interview and Bad Timing

Being interviewed for the job alongside Brian Clough were Bobby Robson, then manager of Ipswich of course, Lawrie McMenemy of Southampton, Greenwood, and two other men, the inclusion of whom in the shortlist for the job offended Clough at least as much as the decision to overlook him, Director of Coaching, Allen Wade, and Charles Hughes.

The panel interviewing the candidates included FA chairman, Sir Harold Thompson, Sir Matt Busby, (now Sir) Bert Millichip, Peter Swales, the Manchester City chairman who ‘guaranteed Clough his vote and then didn’t give it’, and Dick Wragg from Sheffield United.

Clough later described the interview as ‘bent’ and a ‘sop’ and a ‘sham’. The job was all sewn up for Greenwood long before any interview took place and the only reason interviews were held at all was for public image, Clough claimed. McMenemy and Robson had one FA Cup success between them in management at the time, and were never in with the remotest chance of being appointed, while Wade and Hughes appear to have been granted interviews more in recognition for their length of service with the FA than anything else.

Clough was ultimately offered, and accepted, the position of England youth team coach, while Robson and McMenemy would both come again later with England, of course. Robson as manager in his own right from 1982 to 1990, after a period working in the Greenwood camp as a scout and as manager of the England B team, while McMenemy was Graham Taylor’s assistant from 1990 to 1993 and later had a spell in charge of the Northern Ireland international team.

So why did Clough not get the job? The greatest factor was simply due to timing as a look at the periods in question shows.

England v Italy, November 1977. Greenwood was given the job on the back of one good performance against Italy in a near meaningless game. Had England been as awful as they had in Greenwood’s two other games in caretaker charge (an abject home scoreless draw in a friendly against Switzerland and an even worse performance when beating Luxembourg 2-0 away) then there is conceivably no way that Greenwood, nice ‘safe’ choice that he was, would have been retained.

December 1977. Clough and Forest were top of the league and into the latter stages of the League Cup. Admirable achievements so far, especially when taken into consideration alongside the success enjoyed at Derby, but still not quite earth-shattering. Had Revie hung on for grim death until the expiry of his contract in spring 1978 and then been relieved of his position, as Ramsey had been four years earlier, by that time Clough would have been the manager of the League Champions and League Cup winners and so impossible to overlook.  Therefore it can be safely said that Revie, by resigning before he could be sacked, unwittingly ‘did’ Cloughie out of the England job.

Had Revie waited to see what happened upon expiry of his contract in the spring of ’78, or had England qualified for the 1978 World Cup under Revie and then failed there, then Clough would have surely been the only man considered as a replacement. Cloughie missed out on being the England manager because of unfortunate timing by a matter of months.

Summer 1980. Greenwood had qualified impressively enough for the European Championships in Italy but had greatly underperformed once there, failing to qualify from the group stages and only winning one game – a dead rubber against Spain. Greenwood thought about stepping down then but decided against it. Clough had that spring just won his second European Cup and, again, would have been the only possible replacement.

Summer 1981. England were in the midst of trying to qualify for the 1982 Spain World Cup and were struggling. They had lost early on to Romania away from home and then failed to beat the same side at home. A disastrous defeat at Switzerland in the early summer of 1981 put both England and Greenwood on the brink once more.

This time Greenwood did decide to resign only to be talked out of it by senior players such as Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking. It is worth noting that neither Keegan nor Brooking enjoyed a mutual appreciation society with Clough, who had criticised both previously, and so may well not have been keen on the possibility of Greenwood’s bowing out opening the door for him.

Had Greenwood stepped down at this time, however, Clough would still have been in with an almighty claim for the position. although he perhaps would not have been quite the shoo-in for the job as in previous years due to the fact that Bobby Robson was ever increasing in stature and had just enjoyed a fantastic season with Ipswich ( just missing out on the league title and FA Cup to add to the EUFA Cup they did win).

Summer 1982. Greenwood made it clear from the outset that he was not going to seek a renewal of his four-year contract and so was always going to step down at the conclusion of the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

He led England into the second group stage where goalless draws against West Germany and the hosts resulted in England’s elimination without losing a game (in five) while conceding only one goal.

Greenwood was hampered by injuries to Trevor Brooking and England’s talisman, Kevin Keegan, both of whom played a mere twenty minutes in the tournament, but more than this, it seems, Greenwood was hampered by a lack of belief and confidence in his team when it mattered.

Having scrambled into the event by finishing second in their qualifying group behind Hungary and then somewhat fortuitously been named amongst the top seeds, England won their group with wins over France (3-1), Czechoslovakia (2-0) and Kuwait (1-0).

This brought England into the second group stage and a nervy tense game against the Germans, which ended goalless. The Germans then beat Spain 2-1 to put the home side out and ensure that England would need a two-goal victory to make the semi-finals and a rematch with the French.

Here Greenwood lost his nerve and showed the indecision some said had plagued his reign. Both Keegan and Brooking were now fit and chomping at the bit to get involved. Greenwood didn’t know whether to play them from the start in what was, after all, a win or bust game and so started with them on the bench.

England lacked confidence and spirit throughout the game, and indeed their performance had all the hallmarks of a team playing for a draw in a tricky away game. Barely a chance was carved out by either side before Keegan and Brooking finally made their World Cup bows with twenty minutes remaining. Immediately England started to pick up their game and chances started appearing, with, ironically both Keegan and Brooking missing the two best ones, but it was too little too late and England found themselves eliminated. They thus ended up spurning a golden chance of winning the World Cup, and all due to a seeming reluctance to try and win a ‘must-win’ game.

As Greenwood bowed out to a sense of anti-climax, Bobby Robson was named as his successor. This was an appointment that was never really in doubt, despite Fleet Street’s attempts to drum up some debate on the matter, and Cloughie was never really in with a shout at this time, or, really, at any time after about 1980 or 1981 at the latest.

Bobby Robson had been working within the England set-up for some time, taking charge of the England B team and doing scouting work for Greenwood, and his star was on the ascent at club level after some very good seasons (but relatively few trophies compared to Clough) at Ipswich.

Cloughie, on the other hand, had during the period 1980 to 1982 endured a couple of less successful seasons with Forest, not really coming close to a major trophy and being unable to finish higher than 12th in the First Division in 1982.

Summer 1984. This was the last time that Clough’s name was realistically linked with the England job and it came about simply due to the fact that Bobby Robson seemed to be making a bit of a hash of things. England had failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championships in France following a home defeat to Denmark in September 1983, and, as is usual in situations like this, there were mumblings and general unhappiness as spring rolled around. To compound matters, England then embarked on a poor run of results and performances which included a defeat against Wales, a draw against Scotland and most particularly a terrible 2-0 home defeat against Russia in a friendly. This last performance was truly wretched and as England and Robson trudged down the tunnel at the end it was to the universal signal of dissatisfaction and disapproval: a hearty chorus or three of ‘what a load of rubbish’.

‘Robson must go’ and ‘Clough for England manager’ decided the tabloid newspapers, who now embarked on separate missions to get Robson sacked and Clough installed as part of one of their periodic and ever-tedious circulation wars. One newspaper invited its readers to wear “Clough for England” badges and attempted to get some support for the idea, but truth be told it was all really much of a non-starter; partly because England promptly beat Brazil in the Maracana courtesy of that John Barnes goal, and partly because Cloughie himself declared himself ‘not interested’ anyway.

Years later Bobby Robson admitted the pressure of Cloughie’s shadow nearly got to him around this time and that he had even offered to resign so that ‘everyone can see if (Brian) can do the job or not’ but his offer was turned down by the FA.


The next biggest single factor why Clough didn’t get the job in December 1977 is probably the fear factor. Cloughie was Cloughie: always good for a quote, a laugh, something controversial in print or in person. Were the FA ever really going to take a chance on their national manager perhaps causing an international incident with an ill-timed or advised comment about ‘cheating foreigners’?

No chance, not really, not if they could possibly get away with appointing someone else, especially not after Revie and the embarrassment his departure had caused them. England needed a ‘safe choice’ this time.

Remember, in 1974 the decision to dismiss Ramsey had not exactly been a popular one, and it could be argued the decision to appoint Revie had also not been totally well-received either. Now Revie’s dismal reign and departure to chase the Saudi shekel meant that the FA were seriously left with egg on their face, and there was no way they were going to risk giving Brian Clough and his equally troublesome mate, Peter Taylor, the opportunity to embarrass them further if they could help it. The events of Turin ’73 and Clough’s infamous outburst were probably most prominent in the minds of the FA when they made their decision.

Years later Clough would say that while he could possibly understand the FA’s feeling and way of thinking, they were wrong. He would have, he countered, toned down his public appearances and his outspoken comments, and he would have done anything required in an ambassadorial sense. These words were written many years later by Cloughie in his autobiography when he had had the best part of two decades to reflect on matters and perhaps to have mellowed a little. The fact remains that if he had been appointed manager in December 1977 he would have still only been forty-two, he would have still been young and brash, he would have still been ‘Cloughie’. Would he really have toned things down? Would he have been able to even if he wanted? The FA weren’t ever going to take a chance on finding out at that point.

Clough was good. The FA knew that, but he was also trouble. Look at the fuss that had been kicked up when he left Deby and the campaign, that he had had a large hand in, to get him reinstated after his resignation had been accepted. Look also at the flirting with other clubs Clough and Taylor had done when in charge at Derby and then say with all certainty that the FA weren’t concerned they could possibly do the same with England if the opportunities arose as after all, Revie did just that.

All these factors considered together and it’s no wonder the FA ran scared from him.

The interview itself probably didn’t go as well as Cloughie thought at the time, and some of the answers Brian gave to some questions posed could perhaps in hindsight have counted against him. Cloughie attempted to reign in what people called his arrogance and what he himself referred to as confidence during the interview, and managed this to some effect. However, perhaps he went a little too far the other way. In his eagerness to be involved with the England set-up he let it be known that he would be prepared to accept ‘any job’ within the FA. This willingness to accept something less than the top job was confirmed in a quick chat with Sir Matt Busby on the way out of the room and perhaps gave the FA a way out of their dilemma.

During the interview, Clough criticised the decision to change England’s playing strip from simple white shirts to white shirts with red and blue stripes down the arms. This decision was made by Revie and Ted Croker, the FA secretary, who had struck up a deal with the sports manufacturing company, Admiral. Such implicit criticism of one of the FA’s top men probably didn’t go down too well.

As previously mentioned, Bert Millichip was on the interview board and Cloughie had been extremely critical of him personally in his capacity as chairman of West Bromwich Albion. This must also have counted against him and lost him at least Millichip’s vote.

A Different Corner?

So, would Brian Clough have been a success as England manager? The man himself was in no doubt.

‘My record as a player would have helped me. The players knew I had been one of them for a longish period of my life. Also, I knew most of the better players in the country. I would have known who were the good players and who didn’t have a prayer (of getting in the team). So, don’t tell me I would have failed as England manager. I’ll never believe it for a second. I couldn’t have failed.’

The question could be looked at from two angles: diplomatic and football. As stated earlier, it would have been an awfully big risk to take to expect Clough to behave himself, as it were, and not upset the applecart, but if he could have done then would England have been a success?

The accepted opinion is yes, Brian Clough could and would have been an unbridled success and England would have achieved World Cup and European Championship glory in the 1980s had he been appointed.

If seen from the angle of Clough’s achievements at club level, then a very strong case can be made in supporting this view. His achievements at Derby and Nottingham Forest were simply breathtaking, and if applied in any sense to the national team then he surely can’t have failed, could he?

As a club manager, Clough had very few peers and even fewer critics. The only slight criticisms of his managerial methods concerned the way he was supposed to ‘rule by fear’ and whether or not he could have handled ‘star players’. His brief unhappy experiences at Leeds seem to give a little credence to the idea that he may have struggled to make his mark on established players who didn’t like him, as he would have surely encountered others had he ever become England manager. The truth is Clough didn’t manage many ‘star’ players at all during his club career. The majority of players he and Taylor had charge of were good club players moulded into great ones by the pair of them, rather than high profile signings. One can only wonder how the likes of Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking, for example, would have responded to Clough and Taylor’s methods, or how the FA would have reacted in the face of player-management problems.

If one looks at the few high-profile players managed by Clough during his career one can perhaps see that there are some questions regarding his man management of established players. For example, Trevor Francis was signed as the first million pound player in early 1979 but lasted only two years with Forest before asking for a transfer, while ‘star’ players such as Peter Shilton, Viv Anderson, and Tony Woodcock all left Forest while at the peak of their careers.

However, had the timing been right and Clough had been appointed manager at any time between 1977 and 1980, and had he toned down his controversialness, then I believe England would have won the World Cup in 1982 at least, and possibly again four years later, and would also have been in the shake-up for the European Championships of that era too. England were close to winning the World Cups of 1982 and 1986, and would perhaps have done so had they not seemingly been encouraged by Greenwood and Robson to play for draws in must-win games against Spain and Argentina, a mistake in cautiousness Clough would never have made.

Clough was simply too good to have failed as England manager and I don’t believe he would have done so. His record in the two and a half years directly following his infamous interview for the England job was phenomenal (League championship, two European Cups, two League Cups) and had these results and achievements been replicated at national level, Cloughie would indeed have been the success at the job he always believed he would have been.

On the pitch, England would have been strutting and our history would be very different. However, off the pitch, I fear the same would be true.