Thursday 12 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: Clough's pupils may have to invoke spirit of their old master for day of destiny

Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill both learned much of their trade from the time they spent working under Brian Clough Picture: Sportsfile
Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill both learned much of their trade from the time they spent working under Brian Clough Picture: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It seems faintly perverse to imagine the spirit of Brian Clough being invoked in any dressing-room at the Euros other than one overseen by Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane.

But it was to the Welsh that Jonny Owen, director of 'I Believe in Miracles', despatched copies of his documentary charting the magical five years during which Clough took Nottingham Forest from the depths of the old English Second Division to becoming League champions and double European Cup winners. Owen, who hails from Merthyr, expressed a hope that the DVDs might inspire Wales.

And perhaps they have.

But if Clough's ghost has a role to play in France, it's surely far more likely to be tossing gentle, left-field notions into the minds of O'Neill and his unpredictable assistant. And after that scolding Bordeaux reality check, perhaps they need his wisdoms more than ever now.

Both speak reverentially of their former manager and the hypnotism of a personality that defied just about every convention imaginable to win big football games.

When Clough joined Forest in 1975, O'Neill was on the transfer list. A club "rotting on and off the field", according to their new manager, was also trying to sell a pot-bellied winger, called John Robertson.

Clough would take both men on football's equivalent of a magic carpet-ride, a journey that - to this day - nobody has ever been able to package in entirely rational analysis.

And that is the over-riding theme of 'I Believe in Miracles'. The implausibility of that Forest story, the sense of a maverick leader weaving a spell on football men who had, hitherto, been considered ordinary.

Clough's influence on men like O'Neill and Robertson became utterly profound. He regarded them both as "fine players", identifying "stupidity" as the energy behind Forest's desire to sell.

Robertson, especially, became the emblem of his story. Clough described him as "fat, often unshaven, dressed like a tramp, smoked one fag after another, indisputably the slowest player in the entire Football League, a slob, an absolute slob." Yet, five years after Clough's arrival in Nottingham, Robertson was scoring the winner in a European Cup final.

O'Neill was integral to that fairy tale, but it would be another decade before Keane walked through the Forest gates to a profoundly different vista.

By now, Clough's drinking had begun taking a visible toll and while still capable of ingenuity, that magic was becoming more and more elusive.

Roy would be voted the club's 'Player of the Season' in Clough's final campaign, yet it was one that ended in relegation for Forest.

For all that, Keane makes little secret of his belief, shared with O'Neill, that the most important part of their education in football was that in which Brian Clough stood top of the classroom.


Roy rates him ahead of Alex Ferguson (perhaps a little vengefully) with whom he won so much at Manchester United and, even now, 12 years after Clough's death, O'Neill still name-checks his old master with striking regularity.


In his own words, the eccentric Clough could reach "pinnacles of rudeness", but he seemed to understand the human spirit in a way that drew extraordinary things from men who had never known those things were theirs to summon.

O'Neill once described him thus: "I've seen big men hide in corridors to avoid him. He was egocentric, sometimes a bully, often impossible. But I wouldn't have missed a moment of it because, in the end, as a manager he was magical."

Clough pre-dated the arrival into the English game of Continental managers for whom matters like players' diet and recovery became fundamentals of how they ran a dressing-room.

Yet his ways seem not simply extrovert in the re-tracing now, they all but carry the status of reckless abandon.

If Ireland's accumulation of 'rest days' in France have drawn quizzical comment, they are nothing to what O'Neill experienced during his playing days at Forest.

Before night-time kick-offs, Clough routinely had bottles of wine served with the players' lunch "to make sure the lads slept well in the afternoon."

And he claimed they had crates of booze on the bus taking them to the '79 European Cup final against Malmo.

"Just beers," he stressed, mind, in his autobiography. "A few drinks for the lads on the way if they wanted it and nothing wrong with that, to my mind.

"Just another instance of the way we created a relaxed mood, rather than have a coachload of uptight footballers worried sick about the 90 minutes coming up. Managers sometimes do forget that it's only a game, after all."

Forest won 1-0 in Munich.

One year later, he took them to the Amsterdam red-light district before a European semi-final against Ajax.

And before the final against Hamburg? Forest flew away for a week in Majorca, "doing absolutely bugger all".

He wrote: "I told the players there would be no training, no formalities. It was a case of get your shorts on and into your flip-flops and down to the beach. And at night have your few drinks.

"But if you've got a bad head in the morning, don't come complaining to me. We didn't bother with deadlines or whatever they call them either. The players came and went as they pleased. And if they weren't in till two in the morning, they slept till 11.0."

Forest won 1-0 in Madrid.

That was the tenor of a Brian Clough education then. You weren't soldiers going to the front. You weren't brain surgeons. You didn't carry yourselves like gravediggers.

You did a job that was relatively simple and, better still, if you did it with a smile.

To hear O'Neill joke in Bordeaux on Friday about locking up his assistant, "the werewolf of Manchester", you couldn't but feel that - on some level - his mirth was a nod to the Clough way of doing things.

And yet, it's a moot point if Clough had a real fondness for either O'Neill or Keane. In that autobiography, he says he looked upon O'Neill as "a bit of a smart-arse".

When he eventually retired as manager at Forest, Clough knew that O'Neill was interested in becoming his successor but recommended Frank Clark to the club's directors instead.


He says that he often failed to see eye-to-eye with O'Neill and "far preferred" Clark.

As for Keane, the detail of his £3.75 million move to Manchester United, specifically a £650,000 "loyalty bonus" paid to the Corkman, infuriated Clough. His own son, Nigel - sold to Liverpool for more than £2 million - "left without a penny from Forest".

Clough wrote: "There is something wrong with a system that allows a youngster to pick up £650,000 from a club after only three years when another receives nowt for almost ten years."

He also, famously, floored Keane with a punch after his mistake led to a Crystal Palace equaliser in an FA Cup tie at the City Ground.

Keane himself recalled: "Clough punched me straight in the face. 'Don't pass the ball back to the goalkeeper,' he screamed as I lay on the floor, him standing over me.

"I was hurt and shocked, too shocked to do anything but nod my head in agreement." Clough, incidentally, never apologised.

He had little if anything in common with O'Neill and Keane but, then, they have little if anything in common with one another.

What they share, however, is Clough's belief that idealism and faith can, sometimes, overcome oppressive technical deficit. And it might now have to in Lille on Wednesday.

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