Was Brian Clough ever the right manager for England?

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 21, 2018

The greatest manager England never had. That’s one of the many epitaphs applied to Brian Clough’s career. The back-to-back European Cups with Nottingham Forest have certainly allowed it to endure and the two unlikely First Division championships at the City Ground and, earlier, at Derby County give it plenty of weight, too.

Were it ever to have happened, his chance would have come in December 1977. England had failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup and Don Revie had defected to the UAE to manage their national team. The British press was apoplectic, the Football Association was deeply embarrassed (they actually attempted to ban Revie for bringing the game into disrepute), and England needed a new manager.

Ron Greenwood was placed in temporary charge and, in his one interim game, oversaw a 2-0 Wembley victory over Italy. It wasn’t enough to see England qualify, they were eliminated on goal-difference, and the interview process began. Clough was very much the people’s choice. Amongst the candidates (Dave Sexton, Jack Charlton, Lawrie McMenemy and the incumbent Greenwood), he was also the only one to have actually won the First Division.

History records what happened next as a terrible mistake. Clough believed that he had aced the interview at Lancaster Gate and left assuming that the job was his. By all accounts though, the decision had been made before even he set foot in the room, with it having been agreed to give Greenwood the job on a permanent basis. It was a sham. A PR exercise for show.

“People wonder what kind of an England manager Cloughie would have turned out to be. There’s only one answer - a bloody good one.” Brian Clough

It’s easy to fill in the gaps. Over time, the popular perception was that Clough was too controversial for The FA and that, as successful as he had been, his tendency to make enemies at boardroom level counted against him. His spectacular exit from Leeds was still fresh in the mind, as was his acrimonious falling out with Sam Longson and departure from Derby. Clough also wore his disdain for chairmen and directors like a badge of honour and, to the crusty men of the FA, that would have been an arresting red flag. Pertinent, too, would have been his habit of exploring all opportunities available to him. At both Derby and, later, at Nottingham Forest, he wasn’t shy of fluttering his eye lashes at other clubs or of threatening his resignation to create leverage. In every other sense he may have been the anti-Revie, but he was far from the guarantee of stability that his prospective employers were looking for.

It’s also important to remember that, in December 1977, the first of Clough’s European Cup wins was still over eighteen months away and that his sole title with Derby had been won in 1972; Forest would win the First Division the following May, but his CV at that point was far more tenuous that it would become. In that regard, history does The FA a slight disservice. Their decision to overlook Clough may principally have been instructed by self-interest and fears beyond football, but it’s certainly more understandable when placed in its proper context.

Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating hypothetical. Not to Clough, who, writing in his autobiography, seemed characteristically convinced that he was absolutely the right man for the job.

“People wonder what kind of an England manager Cloughie would have turned out to be. There’s only one answer – a bloody good one.”

It’s what you’d expect him to say. In fact, it’s what many of that generation still believe. Clough achieved wonderful things in his club career, but the presumption of international success depends on a highly selective reading of his style of management.

In some senses, he actually was ideal for the job. He didn’t rely on day-to-day contact with his players and, because he resented the restrictions club football placed on his time with family, he might even have enjoyed the long breaks between games. That would also have allowed plenty of opportunity for television work. Clough adored the profile punditry afforded him and Longson’s attempt to curb that interest had helped to fracture their relationship at The County Ground.

Nevertheless, the mechanisms behind his management would likely have caused issues. Clough depended on his players becoming submissive to him. Prior to truly trusting a player, he required them to bend to his will and, periodically, that created tremors which The FA wouldn’t have tolerated. He famously punched Roy Keane, he jabbed Nigel Jemson in the rib cage, and Asa Hartford, who was signed by Clough and Peter Taylor to replace Archie Gemmill, remembered a dressing room on egg shells during his short time at Forest.

“Even relaxing around a lunch table, players were terrified of saying anything that might upset Brian Clough. Nobody knew what mood he was going to be in; he liked to keep people on edge.”

Hartford wasn’t at the City Ground long enough to be considered a reliable witness, he was sold just 63 days after signing, but other anecdotes do suggest that Clough actively enjoyed tweaking his players and saw benefits in the resulting tension. Then, as now, it’s the kind of culture which can exist at club level, where there are no divided loyalties and players are focused on a singular aim. Internationally, it would have been much more challenging. There’s less elasticity to relationships, players are more loyal to their clubs and their full-time managers, and without those emotional tools available to him Clough is unlikely to have been quite as effective.

Would he, for instance, have been able to exert the same sort of authority over Emlyn Hughes, Phil Neal and Phil Thompson, all of whom owed their place in the game to Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and the intangibles of the Liverpool boot room. How would he have managed Kevin Keegan, by far the country’s most important player of the time and, although by that point in Germany with Hamburg, another child of the Kop. In his own autobiography, Keegan isn’t quite dismissive of Clough, but his lukewarm comments betray a different attitude towards him. Liverpool’s rivalry with Forest was yet to reach its crescendo in 1977, but it’s hard to imagine players who had been so successful elsewhere responding to Clough in the same way as, say, John McGovern, John Robertson or Tony Woodcock.

In fact, there’s a living example of that very issue. The Leeds United players he inherited from Revie were obviously loyal to another and, in many cases, unforgiving of Clough’s past criticisms, but they were also a highly successful side used to dossiers and reports ahead of games. When that meticulous preparation was replaced by Clough’s laissez faire approach, the results were disastrous. Bremner, Hunter, Giles and the rest didn’t respond to him for many other reasons, of course, but that was a fundamental disconnect  – and, of course, one which would have reappeared with England and with players who, by and large, would have been used to more traditional methods.

Clearly the relationship between Clough and his employers would have become a problem, too. His disdain for club chairmen was and remains legendary and at provincial clubs, where board members enjoyed the reflected glory that he provided and the match gates that he bumped, there was far more tolerance for his antics. Descriptions of the time hardly depict Lancaster Gate as a place of great foresight, but they vividly describe the weight of ego in those corridors. It seems unlikely, if not impossible, that Clough would have had as much latitude.

Clough was too quick witted for most of his employers and, often, too loved by the supporters who filed through their turnstiles. Yes, Longson won the war at Derby, but Clough triumphed in most of their battles and unquestionably in history. At Forest, a weak club structure and no concentration of power meant that, had any member taken up against Clough or tired of his occasional posturing, they rather than he would have been deemed expendable. With England, no such luxury existed. As was proven over time, The FA was remarkably resistant to natural selection and its boardmembers often carried themselves as if appointed by God; with a class divide still very much in play, too, Clough would almost certainly have been treated as an impertinent upstart had he stepped out of line. It had happened to Jock Stein at Celtic, to Bill Shankly at Liverpool and, had he stepped away from provincial clubs run by local businessmen, Clough would likely have had the same semi-serfdom imposed upon him.

John Robertson: “You don’t win two European Cups with ragta and bobtail”

Consider the foreign relations, also. The Revie mess had left The FA searching – essentially – for a diplomat, somebody who could restore the association’s reputation. In Clough, they would have appointed a manager with a suspicion of anything and anybody beyond England’s walls. Xenophobia is probably too strong a term, he was a man of his time without the benefit of today’s oversight, but he was neither entirely comfortable away from his own country or afraid of verbalising that discomfort when it occured.

It was likely a product of his insularity rather than anything deeper. The most memorable outburst occured in 1973, of course, when Clough’s Derby were eliminated from the European Cup semi-final by Juventus and quite possibly a crooked referee, with the result being a memorable display in front of the Italian press. Whether that uncorked his existing distrust or created it is hard to say, but the various biographies which describe his career certainly pitch him, at times, as a Little Englander. Within the confines of club football it’s the kind of behaviour which be swept aside, but had Clough made those remarks after a galling World Cup exit, the result could well have been a minor diplomatic incident. An exaggeration, perhaps, but certainly a scenario which would have occured to the high-brass.

One wonders, also, how the television dynamic might have played out. Clough was frequently bold in his punditry and not shy of criticising either players or rival managers. On the basis that the England job would only have swollen that confidence, the ructions could potentially have been endless; it’s not difficult to imagine that nasal drawl delivering forthright and stinging criticism, or of it having serious consequences at the next squad gathering. He may have struggled with the grind of the club season and been a pioneer of mid-season breaks, but it was into those long gaps that his appetite for mischief would likely have flowed.

These concerns represent only one side of the argument. It’s credible to suggest, for instance, that reaching the pinnacle of the game would have dampened the insecurity which instructed much of his behaviour and that, in the ultimate position of power, as the de facto King of British Football, his politicking and professional restlessness would have subsided. As was shown throughout the 1980s, particularly in his criticism of Bobby Robson and his attitude towards the Football Association, Clough likely desired the England job more than anything else. Perhaps with that ambition realised a calmer, more contented man would have emerged?

Possibly. Really, though, this discussion has always been approached from the wrong perspective. Asking what Clough might have done for England is, in hindsight, secondary to what England may have been able to do for Clough. After all, had his interview been successful in 1977, Forest’s history would have been very different and his legacy would have been without the twin European Cups which underscore his reputation. As notable as Derby’s progress was under him and as valid as it to claim that they, rather than Forest, might have been European champions had he not resigned, the reality is different. Had he not remained at Forest and if that later continental success had been replaced by just a moderately successful period with England, then Brian Clough would be remembered now in an entirely different way. A great orator, certainly, somebody capable of wonderful footballing deeds, but not a European Cup winner.

The irony, then, despite how nakedly bitter he remained about 1977, was that The FA’s distrust of him actually lit the right path for him at a critical juncture. Even had he been appointed, it seems unlikely that England would have been able to compensate him with anything of equivalent value. They failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup and probably lacked the squad to compete with either the West German side who won the 1980 European Championship or to progress further than they did in 1982, when they were eliminated in the second group phase. As a best case scenario, would Clough have willingly traded his miracles for a couple of solid tournament performances, presumably dozens of rucks with the FA, and the pages and pages of poisonous press coverage which would inevitably have accompanied his entire tenure.

No. Clough wasn’t England’s greatest mistake, but they could have been his.

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