He “turned the average into the extraordinary”. He described himself as a “a little bit of an idealist”. He left school with no qualifications, but died having set records and achieved fame, wealth and success. There are statues to him in two English cities and he was awarded the OBE. Though he twice declined to be a Labour Party parliamentary candidate, he was founder signatory of the Anti-Nazi League. Frequently outspoken, often with great wit, he wasn’t afraid to voice an opinion – even about himself. “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one” is just one memorable quote. But who are we describing?

Even if you’ve never followed football, chances are that Brian Clough won’t have escaped your attention. For the uninitiated – or nostalgic – the following video clip gives just one overview:

Even in an arena that invokes such tribal passions as football, Clough to this day remains a legend. Commenting on the YouTube clip, “A Liverpool Fan” sums him up as “A remarkable player, manager and man. A winner, an entertainer, a socialist, a maverick, a one-off, a legend.” Controversial in life, he remains so in his afterlife. A recent film, The Damned United, covering a short disastrous period of his life has angered many as an inaccurate and unfair portrayal. But what can we learn from his undoubted achievements?

Injured out of his playing career aged 27 having scored 204 goals in 222 appearances, he understood the difference between playing and managing. As he said himself: “Some people think you can take football boots off and put a suit on. You can’t do that.” Nor can you start at the top – his management career started successfully but away from media gaze at Hartlepool – although you can aim determinedly for it.

Moving to Second Division Derby still as the youngest manager in the league, he instilled discipline, inspired the best playing his developing squad could deliver, and insisted on standards. Within five years, they were league champions. How did he do it? Discipline was one watchword. In Clough’s own words: “I regarded the game as a business and I was the first one to use the term ‘industry’ to describe professional football.” This approach applied to more than just him: he published a rule book for his players that left them in no doubt where they stood.

For a man seen as a maverick, Clough wanted fair play in every sense. His widow has spoken of his desire to “fashion a team people would enjoy coming to see”, and his (highly public) disregard for the successful Leeds United team of the era – which cannot have helped his case during his brief, unhappy spell as its manager – was that the team “played dirty”. In Clough’s words, “They’ve been champions but they’ve not been good champions”.

Having built Derby’s success from an unpromising start, this was a man who took pride in the fairness and quality that contributed to his and his team’s success, whose ambition had a strong streak of that self-confessed idealism. In a television interview with Don Revie (his predecessor at Leeds and bitter rival), he underlines his point: “I want to win the League, but I want to win it better”. His public criticism of Leeds’ disciplinary record went hand in hand with insistence on discipline on the pitch – no arguing with referees.

As subsequent triumphs with Nottingham Forest show, Clough was not daunted by starting with less than ‘premier’ resources. His talents – apart from his oratory (and one former player has said “we’ve got to win football matches because of the things Brian says”) – were in inspiring and motivating, and in communicating his ambition, hope and sense of values. As his Daily Telegraph obituary comments:


Probably Clough’s greatest asset as a manager was his ability to coax players, sure of their own mediocrity, to greatness.”

Yet his public cockiness – a mixture of arrogance and humour – may have concealed a more vulnerable modest man than he first appeared. He once remarked in interview that the most important job the manager does is to pick the team. Another quote shows this from a different angle:

Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes.”

Though team members and colleagues described him as man who instinctively knew how other people were feeling, it’s not easy to know how far the reverse was always true. One former player described him as a man you would gladly work for, but not go for a pint with. (Sadly, an ongoing battle with alcohol would cast a shadow over Clough’s final years.)

Looking back at his story, one aspect might be more instructional as a ‘how not to’ lesson: relationships. One particular relationship – with assistant manager, Peter Taylor – was crucial to his greatest success, and absent during his biggest failures. If Clough was the motivator, Taylor was the talent spotter. Clough seems to have been aware of this, commenting: “I’m not equipped to manage successfully without Peter Taylor. I am the shop window and he is the goods in the back.”  Yet from 1983 till Taylor’s death in 1990, they never spoke after escalating disagreements, and Clough attacked Taylor in the press. After his death, Clough was remorseful in recognition of a lost relationship that have achieved so much.

And, even more than the England shirt almost eluded him as a player – just two caps – the England captaincy eluded him fully on two occasions as the Football Association appointed others despite his immense public support. As his friend Geoffrey Boycott commented after his death, the establishment does not just look at how you handle your team, but at ‘how they might handle you’. (It might be interesting here to compare Clough with Kevin Pietersen.) There was a provocative honesty in Clough’s reaction to being passed over:

I’m sure the England selectors thought if they took me on and gave me the job, I’d want to run the show. They were shrewd because that’s exactly what I would have done.”

His comment on being remembered tell a surprisingly modest story:

I want no epitaphs of profound history and all that type of thing. I contributed. I would hope they would say that, and I would hope somebody liked me.”

That a lot of people liked him is borne out by statues in Nottingham and Middlesborough (his home town), partly paid for by public donation: if he might disapprove of them as epitaths, they show the rest of that wish to have been fulfilled. 

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