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Offside, 23 September

Goodbye to Old Big 'Ead.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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‘Football mourns Old Big ‘Ead’, announced The Times and, for once, the hyperbole that afflicts sports journalism seemed entirely appropriate. Brian Clough, who died this week, was a genuine 24-karat football legend. The thousands of tributes, which have poured in from all quarters, bear testimony to his enduring popularity. It is difficult to imagine any contemporary British football manager who could inspire the same degree of public affection.

So where does Clough rank in the pantheon of great football managers? Certainly, there are no managers, past or present, who can match Cloughie for charisma. Gordon Strachan and Neil Warnock are probably the nearest we’ve got today, but both are Cloughie-lite when compared to the great man. Clough was football’s first celebrity manager. As Times sports writer Simon Barnes so aptly put it: ‘He was the first manager to project himself to the world as a man more important than mere footballers.’ (1) Clough’s straight-talking northerner routine made him a hugely entertaining expert summariser, the seminal TV pundit in fact. He perfected the art of the soundbite long before the term itself entered the vernacular.

But was he the greatest British football manager, as some have suggested? Clough’s achievements in club management are pretty astonishing. He took two provincial clubs – Derby County and Nottingham Forest – from second division mediocrity and turned them into First Division champions. And if that wasn’t impressive enough he went on to win two successive European Cups with Forest.

How many British managers can boast a record like that? Herbert Chapman invented the role of the football manager and won four league titles with Huddersfield and Arsenal. Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Alex Ferguson all managed teams that dominated the English top flight and tasted European success. But all these managers won most of their silverware at big clubs with considerably more resources at their disposal than Clough ever enjoyed.

But despite Clough’s undoubted achievements, there are still question marks over his managerial abilities. Clough was an alchemist who could turn journeymen, has-beens and misfits into champions. Players like Kenny Burns, John Robertson, Larry Lloyd, and Peter Withe were transformed under Clough’s tutelage. But could he manage superstars? His brief reign at Leeds United suggests that his abrasive, autocratic style was ill-suited to coaching star players. Clough’s attempt to stamp his authority on a team of successful big-name players with a few tongue-in-cheek jibes backfired badly. Memorably he accused Peter Lorimer of conning referees and told Eddie Gray that if he had been a race-horse he would, given his injury record, have been put down. The Leeds players were not amused and Clough’s tenure at Elland Road lasted just 44 days.

Clough has been described as the best manager than England never had. He was interviewed for the post of England manager but the conservative blazers at the Football Association were unwilling to take a chance on an outspoken maverick. ‘One of the reasons I never became England manager was because the FA thought I would take over and run the show’, Clough said. ‘They were dead right.’ But while it is not hard to fathom why the FA passed him over, what we will never know is whether Clough would have been able to handle England’s star players.

Clough was a supreme man-manager and motivator. He knew how to get the best out of individuals as well as how to instil discipline and foster team spirit. His innovative motivational techniques and bonding exercises are now common practice in football (although it is hard to imagine Arsene Wenger forcefeeding his stars a few beers the night before a big match). But while his motivational methods were revolutionary at the time, his approach to tactics was positively prehistoric. ‘Tactics played very little part in my method of management’, Clough boasted in his autobiography (2).

Stan Bowles, who played under Clough at Nottingham Forest, was surprised to find that the team never practised tactical set plays. ‘Training consisted of walking alongside the Trent three times a week to a public park, where we had a warm up, and then an eight-a-side game which was occasionally attended by Cloughie and Taylor’, recounted Bowles (3). Clough could get away with eschewing tactics in the 1970s but these limitations would probably be exposed today.

We loved Cloughie because he was an entertainer, a bit of a nutter who cocked a snook at the football establishment and inspired middle-ranking clubs to punch above their weight. Of course, being British, we are all too willing to overlook his tactical shortcomings (not to mention the bung allegations). And sadly, because he was never given a chance to manage a big club or coach the national team, we will never really know the true measure of his greatness.

(1) ‘Football mourns Old Big ‘Ead’, The Times (London), 21 September 2004

(2) Cloughie: Walking on Water, 2003

(3) ‘Genius or madman?’, London Evening Standard, 21 September 2004

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Topics Politics

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