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Brian Clough, arguably and he did love an argument, the greatest football manager Britain has ever seen and certainly the most talked-about, died in hospital on Monday, aged 69.

Clough achieved something matched only by Herbert Chapman before the war and Kenny Dalglish in modern times: managing two different clubs to the English league title. The difference between Clough and the others was that neither of his clubs, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, had any business to win the league at all.

They were both minor-key operations that barely had any business being in the top division. He took Forest to two successive triumphs (1979 and 1980) in the European Cup as well. These days, it would be unthinkable. Even then, it was breathtaking.

There was something mystical about these successes. But they are best explained by the clarity of his footballing purpose. In the great days, this was given added strength by his sidekick, Peter Taylor, who had an instinct for spotting the right players. Clough knew how to make them perform, who needed bullying, who needed bolstering. He had extraordinary drive, self-confidence and native wit, and that was reflected in his team's football.

The ultimate piece of Cloughism is sometimes held to be the signing of Kenny Burns, then firing in goals for Birmingham. Taylor was sent to the dog track to spy on his boozing and gambling habits. He reported that they seemed manageable. Burns was signed, converted into a centre-half and became footballer of the year.

But Clough's confidence had its downside. His chippiness made him enemies; and since he was a vindictive man, he kept them too. Thus he was never allowed the ultimate honour of managing England. He might have been a disaster as he was during his infamous 44 days as manager of Leeds: with Clough, you had to take him or leave him, and international players can't readily be transferred. Others believe his non-appointment was a disaster for England, robbing them of a potential inspiration.

Clough certainly saw it that way. It added to his sense of bitterness, first acquired when his brilliant playing career for Middlesbrough and Sunderland (267 goals in 296 games) and, briefly, England was ended by a knee injury when he was just 27.

That, however, was just the prelude. He was appointed manager of the perennial joke club, Hartlepool, aged 29. He captivated the whole town. The locals knew something special was happening even before the team did. He repeated the trick at Derby.

In the 1980s the magic faded. He fell out with Taylor, messily. The arrogance became overweening; his drinking became overwhelming; and the whispers that he expected a “bung”, a cut from the club's transfer deals, eventually spilled into the High Court and an FA inquiry that ended inconclusively. In Forest's unsuccessful 1991 FA Cup final against Tottenham, Clough gave a bizarrely disengaged managerial performance. Two years later he was forced out as manager and the club was relegated.

Yet he was touched with greatness. His bombastic pronouncements were sometimes spectacularly wrong (most famously when, as a TV pundit, he called the Polish goalkeeper “a clown” shortly before a series of spectacular saves that stopped England getting to the 1974 World Cup finals). But his dropped bricks were nothing to those he made with hardly any straw. He was given the freedom of both Derby and Nottingham, and on Monday night they were cities in mourning.

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