BY KEVIN O’NEILL
In an illustrious managerial career that included winning at home and abroad with unfashionable provincial clubs Derby County and Nottingham Forest, the legendary Brian Clough had a habit of overshadowing his peers.
He was that sort of larger than life character, whose mere presence in a building could shift all focus his way. Old Big ‘Ead, as he was often called, had also enjoyed a productive playing career, scoring tonnes of goals for Middlesbrough and Sunderland before injury cut-short his on-field efforts, aged 29.
Undeterred by such a cruel twist of fate, Brian Clough proceeded to become one of English football’s finest ever managers, steering Derby and their local rivals Forest to First Division titles, and the latter to an amazing brace of European Cups. He also won the League Cup four times with Forest.
Such success was usually accompanied by huge media interest in his every passing word, making Brian Clough a very public figure who often divided opinion and could be sometimes perceived as arrogant, bullish and – from time to time – downright cutting.
These traits were, in ways, what set Brian Clough apart from some of his more mundane and predictable peers, ensuring he was always as capable of making controversial headlines as he was at making fine football teams.
Indeed, there was only ever one Brian Clough.
And regardless of what his talented son Nigel has achieved in the game – and he has achieved a lot as an excellent midfielder-cum-striker and manager in his own right – it was always going to be impossible for him Clough Jr. to attain the type of reverence bestowed on his now late father, who passed away in 2004.
Not that Nigel would have it any other way; it seems the son of one of the game’s most opinionated figures revels in portraying a much more sanguine and understated persona.
But one can’t help wondering if Nigel’s own achievements, both on and off the field, would be more acknowledged and celebrated had his father been a less iconic figure and, maybe, just another ordinary run-of-the-mill manager.
For example, if you look at the lower reaches in the current Championship season you will see a team hovering slightly above the relegation zone. You might notice them largely for the fact that they have never been there before, having previously failed to play above England’s third tier.
And while jostling for position with much more renowned and financially superior clubs like Blackburn Rovers, Cardiff City, QPR and Wigan Athletic – all with quite recent Premier League experience – they stand out like a spot on the nose. They are Burton Albion, managed by Nigel Clough (for the second time), who at the turn of the century were still playing in the Southern Football League.
Indeed, that’s where the then 32-year-old Nigel Clough began his dugout career, initially as player-manager, in 1998. And since then, he has played an enormous role in the club’s meteoric rise to English football’s second tier.
By 2002, Clough had helped the club to win promotion to the Football Conference, just one step away from the Football League. Then, in 2006, Clough’s ability to get the best from limited resources came to national prominence when The Brewers held the famous Manchester United to a scoreless draw in the third round of the FA Cup.
But the real focus was on getting Burton in to the Football League for the very first time. And three years later, in 2009, that ambition was realised. Clough, by that time, was no longer at the helm when they sealed the promotion having himself stepped up by agreeing to join Derby County in January 2009. However, even though Roy McFarland was in the dugout when promotion was confirmed on the last day of the 2008/09 season, it was Clough who had carefully and patiently built a team capable of winning promotion in almost a decade of loyal and productive service at the Pirelli Stadium. It was ‘his’ team and despite watching from afar as Albion went up, Clough could feel immensely proud of his part in the success.
In that time, Clough had astutely mingled experience and know-how with youthful energy, to create a side that was unafraid of the non-League hurly-burly and capable of exciting play when going forward (similar, you might say, to the fashion in which Clough played the game).
While with Burton, Clough also showed a keen eye for potential by introducing the likes of defender John Brayford to the side. Brayford had come through the Burton youth system and was handed his first team debut by Clough in 2006 before later signing for Clough at both Derby and Sheffield United. In fact, Brayford – who also played for Cardiff and Crewe – is now back under Clough’s tutelage, as they both strive to keep Burton in the second tier.
That Clough was not in charge when Burton actually confirmed promotion was a little disappointing; kind of like when a hard-working lady prepares the whole of a luscious five-course meal only for her lazy husband to steal the plaudits for putting together a slipshod but luscious dessert that was thrown together at the last minute.
But his elevation to the position of a Football League manager had been a long time in the offing. His own father, in typical forthright manner, once publicly questioned his son’s managerial ambition for staying so long with Burton.
“I think he (Brian Clough) once said that I had a lack of ambition by staying at Burton for too long as a manager. I never thought about it too much, but he won two European Cups with Forest and instead of taking the next step, which might have been Barcelona or Real Madrid, he stayed at Nottingham Forest for 18 years. For me, staying at Burton for nine years and achieving what we did and watching the kids grow up, I wouldn’t swap that for anything. And actually, Dad used to come along to Burton and I think he enjoyed going there as much as going to watch anywhere,” Nigel once told The Mail’s Oliver Holt.
But instead of using his loyalty to Burton as a negative, this writer feels his dedication to the cause was indicative of the manner in which he has carried himself since becoming a manager; humble, dignified and without an air of grandness that one might associate with some former top-flight stars (although it must also be added that Clough, similar to his father, has never been averse to expressing his views when challenged by opposition managers or when he feels like his team has been wronged).
But his willingness to get his hands dirty in the rough and tumble of non-league instead of sitting back on retirement expecting a major club to call, showed the characteristics of a person comfortable in testing himself out of his comfort zone and in working with players that could only dream of having half the talent that Clough had as a player.
Nevertheless, it had also been quite obvious that Clough would one day test himself at a higher level and the move to Derby, in early 2009, ensured his managerial credentials would really be put to the test, especially as his father had been such a revelation as County manager.
At the time, taking the Derby job was not an easy task. For as much as Nigel had to prove his own worth where his father once thrived, he also inherited a side low on confidence and heading the wrong way in the Championship.
The Rams were only just back in the second tier after relegation the previous year, and it simply hadn’t worked out for Clough’s predecessor Paul Jewell, who departed with the team just five points above the relegation zone.
When announcing the appointment, Derby chairman Adam Pearson referred to the ‘fine legacy’ that Clough had left behind him at Burton, who had won ten straight games prior to his departure and were on the cusp of promotion to the Football League. The hope was that Clough would, in time, build a similar legacy at Derby and when he steered them to safety from relegation (comfortably by eight points) the feeling was that, with a bit of squad strengthening, Derby could have an outside chance of promotion in Clough’s first full season in charge (2009/10).
Such was the level of pre-season optimism that Derby sold an excellent 21,406 season tickets and would attract an average home attendance of 29,207 in the 2009/10 season (the second highest average in the division, only behind eventual champions Newcastle United). But while Derby did improve on the previous campaign (finishing 14th) the season never really took off, as a lack of consistency and a large injury list put paid to any promotion aspirations.
Clough would stay in charge for another two-and-a-half seasons and at the beginning of the 2011/12 season it seemed, for a while, that Clough had really got Derby moving. Four consecutive wins at the outset of the campaign meant Derby recorded their best start to a league season in 106 years. He soon signed a new three-year deal to stay at Derby and had them within five points of the play-off places by the middle of April (2012).
Ultimately, they finished the season in twelfth but Clough deemed himself satisfied by the improvement in his side. Again, they improved slightly in the following season to finish tenth but after a ropey start to the 2013/14 season, Clough – by then the longest serving manager in the division and Derby’s longest serving boss in a decade – was dismissed after a rough period of three defeats in less than a fortnight.
So, although Derby’s progress under Clough was somewhat pedestrian, and certainly not as rapid as many County supporters would have liked, he did manage to bring a certain amount of steadiness to the club by taking on a relegation-threatened team and making them a solid mid-table outfit. Of course, for many Rams’ supporters it wasn’t near good enough, given the club’s illustrious past, large supporter base (in Championship terms) and their wish to get back to the Premier League as soon as possible; something the club is still seeking to achieve.
And while Clough’s tenure never hit the heights, he unquestionably did a reasonable job before his departure and next move – to Sheffield United in October 2013.
Again, this job meant taking over a side in relegation trouble, with The Blades deep in a basement battle in League 1. But Clough quickly put United back on track with the team finishing in seventh place in the 2013/14 season – just outside the promotion play-off places. And they reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, where only a defeat against Hull City denied them a place in the final against Arsenal.
In the following season, with great expectations placed on Clough and the team to go up to the Championship, the Blades achieved a fifth-placed finish but lost out to Swindon Town in the play-off semi-finals. Again, they excelled in cup football, reaching the last four in the League Cup.
Indeed, in his all-too-brief period in charge – he was sacked after the play-off semi-final defeat to Swindon – Sheffield United would beat seven teams from higher levels in the Cups including Premier League Aston Villa, Southampton and West Ham United. And while the team admittedly fell short of expectations, which completely centred on winning promotion, Clough only lost 25 times as United manager in 104 outings in all competitions.
Yet, taking a third tier side to two domestic Cup semi-finals in successive seasons – something most top-flight clubs don’t achieve – and turning a relegation-threatened side into a top-six outfit was not enough to keep him in a job. And United would finish their first season without Clough (2015/16) in eleventh place in League 1.
By then, Clough had been heavily linked with a return to Nottingham Forest – where it all began – as a player under his father’s management.
In nine seasons playing under his old man, Nigel scored 131 goals in 412 games and firmly established himself as one of the finest players in Nottingham Forest’s history. So, it has never been surprising to see him linked with a return to the City Ground as manager.
Indeed, a couple of years ago he told The Nottingham Post that a job offer from Forest could be too tempting to turn down.
“From supporting the club for nine or ten years and then being fortunate enough to play for them for a similar sort of time, it’s quite a chunk of our lives that we’ve been associated with the club. I think when you have been associated with the club for that amount of time you have always got a soft spot for them,” he said.
To date, however, Clough has not made the return and he possibly never will, which would mean that his memories of the City Ground remain confined to the achievements created there by himself and his father, before Nigel went on to play for Liverpool and Manchester City.
All of that though, is in the past. And it’s what Nigel Clough continues to accomplish in his second spell as the Burton manager that most captures the eye.
For we are talking here about a real minnow of the Football League that’s competing superbly well and holding its own in the Championship against clubs of the stature of Aston Villa, Leeds United and Newcastle United.
Indeed, Burton’s victory against Rotherham United just before the end of 2016 had put them in real good stead to avoid an immediate return to League 1, which was absolutely predicted by most observers before the season kicked-off.
But Clough and his players are performing marvellously well in the second tier and they look to have every chance of staying in the division for at least another season. Doing so would represent a significant achievement in a brilliant career for Nigel Clough, who despite forever remaining in his famous father’s shadow has made the type of impact in the game, as a player and manager, that probably should be treated with a bit more respect and recognition.