Cloughie was good with kids. Those pictures of him going to the palace to collect his OBE, affectionately talking to the children outside and signing autographs for them was in keeping. It'll be a kindness they will never forget and also for me was his most endearing quality.

When, in the late 1950s, I hit upon the unoriginal idea of writing to footballers to get their signatures, there were three obvious candidates: Nat Lofthouse, the old “Lion of Vienna”, and the ancient maestro Stanley Matthews were two, but really they were of my father's generation. They sent my pictures back quickly and, with the clipped courtesies of the time, signed simply with their names. But Clough's picture - I'd sent him a grainy cutting from a newspaper since, then, there weren't so many pictures of him - came back by return of post from Middlesbrough, signed in his slightly flowery though flowing hand: “Best Wishes, Brian Clough”.

His courtesy proved my undoing as I graduated a few years later to getting the Saturday night signatures of teams as they departed from London's railway stations. (Actually Sunderland, for whom he now played, always stayed over an extra night in the capital; by the time their games were finished on a Saturday there were no trains to get them back from Kings Cross to their remote enclave in the north east.) The problem was the stations were run by big kids, semi-intellects of 17 and 18, four and five years older than the rest of us, who'd beat us up and steal our money and albums. The way I avoided them was by arriving on the platform just after the players, and while the big kids were occupied getting autographs for themselves, then nipping away just before the guard's whistle blew. But Clough was so obliging in signing several of my pictures, that I only jumped off the train just as it was leaving. Three East End dummies were waiting for me, stole the pictures I'd got signed and left the impression I was fortunate to escape a “f*****g good 'iding”.

In his Boro days, his team mates were surprised to find themselves invited by Clough's goalkeeping friend, the late Peter Taylor, for a pre-match meeting in Clough's room in the Great Northern hotel at the back of Kings Cross, where the team were staying. Clough told the curious few who turned up that England selectors would be at the game that afternoon, though they'd be watching him; his teammates, therefore, should make every effort to pass to him so that he could make a favourable impression.

He had a less than average international career, winning two caps, scoring no goals and being dropped in 1959 after a meek England loss at home to Sweden. He let it be known, however, that he thought himself a more worthy inclusion in the side than even Jimmy Greaves.

Scorer of a career total of 251 league goals in only 274 matches, he could at Boro be heard complaining that as quickly as he scored upfront his defence was leaking them at the back. He was referring to the emerging match-fixing scandal of the time in which several roads led back to Middlesbrough. His mate Taylor avoided them, though other former Boro defenders were eventually implicated and, in the mid-60s, thrown in jail.

By then Clough's playing career had ended on a bleak Boxing Day afternoon at Roker Park. His ruined knee cut him off in his playing prime and gave rise to the suggestion that this lay behind his general inability as a manager to handle players (with rare exceptions like Peter Shilton and Trevor Francis) of star quality. He was far better at taking awe-inspired juniors or apparently modest talents - the likes, for example, of dependable defender Frank Clarke - and making them believe they could beat anyone. As such, with his now coaching sidekick Taylor, he took Derby to the first division championship (the equivalent of today's Premiership) in 1972, and Nottingham Forest to second division promotion, the first division title and two European Cups in successive seasons at the end of the decade.

His spontaneous motivational techniques might demand his players do some very silly things; like making them all pile into a six-a-side net at the end of morning training. But it wouldn't have done for them to complain, even if they'd wanted to. If a player fell out with him, then there was every chance he'd be out of the club. One such found himself banned from the training ground; when he tried to turn up regardless, Clough called the police.

His man-management could be shocking. His treatment of Justin Fashanu was disgraceful by the standards of today, if less so at the time. One training day he called his players together in the dressing room for what they took to be a routinely quirky Clough monologue: “If I want brussel sprouts, I go to the greengrocer,” he said, in the cadences of Clough-speak that have to be imagined here; “If I want a bucket I go to the hardware store,” he added, to his now bemused entourage. But then as he turned to Fashanu: “So what were you doing hanging around that gay club, Justin?”. He was unashamed in making every effort to drive Fashanu from the club, and less than confidential in telling journalists that that was what he was up to. The talented striker took his own life in 1998.

Hartlepool, the first team Clough managed, will fondly remember that he offered at a difficult financial time for the club, to work for nothing. Later, while at Derby he carved out a parallel career for himself as a media star. Overnight in October 1973, however, he became a joke as he predicted victory for England in their World Cup qualifier against Poland, on the basis that Jan Tomaschewski, the Polish keeper, was a “clown”. By luck and judgement, Tomaschewski produced one of the most startling goalkeeping performances ever seen as England failed to qualify for a World Cup finals for the first time.

In one of his regular huffs with the chairmen of his clubs, he soon walked out on Derby. Strangely, he turned up at Brighton, only for the third division club to be eliminated from the FA Cup 4-0 at home to non-league Walton and Hersham. Rumours went round town that Clough was thinking of taking off to manage Iran's national side. A student in Brighton at the time, I wrote reminding him that, as a good socialist, he could hardly have anything to do with the Shah of Iran. I delivered the letter to the Goldstone Ground by hand; Clough announced he was shunning the job soon after, though possibly because champions Leeds United had offered him another one at about the same time. His failure to relate to Leeds' array of top stars over a grim 44-day period was probably his managerial nadir.

England fans will still imagine he was the best coach that the national side never had. But the ancient club and league officials who had a say in whether he should be appointed to the job were worried at the things he might say at polite receptions when England were on tour and when unClough-like diplomacy was called for. The gentle Ron Greenwood held the post into the early 1980s, the ever civil Bobby Robson after him.

So regularly in the spotlight, his life was possibly a better one to look in on than to have known closely at first hand. His deterioration thanks to his affliction with alcohol must have been devastating for his family. Many of his former players remained ever loyal, however, to the memory of what he had done for them, and what he enabled them to bring out in themselves. And not least because he was so good with kids who wanted his autograph, it is truly sad that he is dead at the age of only 69.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article


Comments have not been enabled for this article.