This article first appeared in Issue 15 of The Football Pink fanzine
As the heady days of the 1970s receded to be replaced by the more turbulent 1980s, so the great Nottingham Forest manager’s fortunes fluctuated against the backdrop of financial strain and musical upheaval.
After a giddy night at the Bernabeu Stadium in May 1980, Brian Cough and his team made their way back to the airport. It just so happened that the European Cup was safely ensconced on the team bus, following a Herculean effort to retain it just hours earlier after stubbornly defeating a Hamburg team comprising of, amongst others, Kevin Keegan, Manny Kaltz and Felix Magath. Nottingham Forest had only gone and retained the bloody European Cup.
From December 1976 to May 1980, Clough had won a bucket load of trophies with Forest. Chuck in a league title with Derby County in 1972 and it’s fair to say that the 70s belonged to Brian Clough. In his book, ‘I Believe In Miracles’, Daniel Taylor tells of how Clough turned to his mate and assistant, Peter Taylor, and asked, “Has anyone ever done so much in a short space of time?”
Probably not. Yet it was to be Clough’s last major trophy for nine years. There was a drought-a-comin’. There was trouble ahead.
It wasn’t just Clough who was on a high in 1980: Blondie were riding the crest of a wave. Chris Stein and Deborah Harry’s no nonsense attitude combined with an ear for a killer tune had propelled them to the big time, enjoying a UK Number One in March with ‘Atomic’, April with ‘Call Me’ and in November with ‘The Tide is High’. They could do no wrong.
But, like always, it was more complicated than that. The late 70s were a period of cultural flux: disco was dying and flares were fading. Unfeasibly wide collars and ties were on borrowed time. Besides, punk had risen and even though it had sunk as quickly as it had roared into life, it left an indelible stain on the British cultural psyche. Nothing was ever going to be the same again.
Just a year later, Adam and the Ants, The Specials and The Jam sat proudly on the top spot while the synthboys and new romantics were hitting their stride too. Whatever new wave was, it was here and the glory days of disco were not only in decline but under attack and feared dead, culminating in Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys likening the dying genre to the cabaret culture of Weimar-era Germany in 1982 in ‘Saturday Night Holocaust’, the B-side to the 1982 single, ‘Halloween’. Disco, like Brian Clough with his flares and wide ties and his eminently groovy team, was on the wane.
Take another look at those hits for Blondie in 1980, though, and you’ll see how transformative the year was in terms of pop. ‘Atomic’ with its disco and danceable baseline segues to ‘Call Me’ – all angry and shouty chorus with a hefty guitar solo through to the bubblegum pop and blatant commerciality of ‘The Tide Is High’. Blondie were at the heart of the transition from disco to new wave: by the end of the year, they even went one better and fused rap with pop and disco and whatever else was laying around by recording and releasing ‘Rapture’.
While Blondie evolved, experimented and enjoyed huge success and acclaim, Brian Clough sailed around in the doldrums. His flares and wide ties suddenly looked archaic compared to Deborah Harry’s black and white stripes, leather, chains and one-shoulder strapped dresses. A trophy-less nine years was in the post for Old Big ‘Ead. He was at risk of left behind by those Young Turks on the block. His time was up. He was all washed up and as his mate Taylor was fond of saying, ‘He’d shot it’.
That is one narrative but it only tells part of the story. What is often overlooked is what Clough achieved in those nine years, which - though not silverware laden or anything approximating miraculous - are worthy of recognition. Essentially, Clough dismantled his all-conquering team only to put another one together at a fraction of the cost whose pretty passing delighted and created smiles in equal measure. He might even have tasted further European glory too were it not for English clubs being banned from European competition and a corrupt referee that robbed them of a UEFA Cup final spot in 1984. A couple of third place finishes in domestic competition is not to be sniffed at either.
See, that’s the problem with greatness and, in particular, Brian Clough. Once you achieve such stratospheric heights, they are the benchmark by which you are measured. When Messi doesn’t skip past three opponents and stroke one into the net to round off another perfect hat trick, he’s – according to the naysayers - experiencing a dip in form; the one goal and 8/10 performance is overlooked. Jose Mourinho’s managerial record remains one for which most would chop off a testicle with a curled butter knife – but he’s clearly lost his mojo recently. Or at least, that’s what we are led to believe.
The comedown is always the worst part. By May 1980, Clough got busy refreshing his team. In retrospect, he burnt it to the ground too quickly. This is something he freely admitted in later years. He set about patching the team back together again with glue, paper clips and used chewing gum: Ian Bowyer, Garry Birtles and eventually, John Robertson all returned. Ian Bowyer, Garry Birtles and eventually, John Robertson were bought back. Rather than pouring lighter fuel all over his team, maybe lighting a few scented tea-candles here and there would have made for an easier transition into the 80s. Tony Woodcock and Archie Gemmill had already been gone for a year but following them through the doors in the months after the reclamation of the European Cup were Garry Birtles, Martin O’Neil, Ian Bowyer and Larry Lloyd. The backbone of the team was gone. Give it just one more year and Kenny Burns, Trevor Francis and John McGovern would be gone too. By 1981, only Viv Anderson, Peter Shilton and John Robertson remained from the starting line-up for the 1979 European Cup Final. That’s more churn than a ‘cream into butter’ factory.
That is not so say that all of this was beyond Clough’s control – it wasn’t. In fact, a good portion was of his own doing. His eye for a player to be brought in and snuggly fitted into the jigsaw was faltering - both his and Peter Taylor’s. Post Hamburg, Ian Wallace was bought on from Coventry for £1.3million alongside Raimondo Ponte from Grasshoppers for £180,000. Since you are wondering who these players are, it’s fair to say they didn’t work out.
Besides, the yarn was starting to unravel off the field. Money had been spent and lots of it. While Clough was canny enough to realise the quality at his disposal when he swanned in through the main reception of the Main Stand at Forest back in January of 1975 in the form of Ian Bowyer, Martin O’Neill, Viv Anderson, Tony Woodcock and John Robertson, he supplemented that with quality and players such as Trevor Francis didn’t come cheap. From success arose the monolithic Executive Stand (now the Brian Clough Stand) and repayments were mounting. Season ticket sales were down, perhaps as a result of no European football to entice the public to the City Ground. Forest were knocked out in the first round of the European Cup by CSKA Sofia before leaves started falling from the trees in 1980. There would be no income from inflated European gate receipts to swell the coffers for a while. In short, if Clough was looking for a pot to piss in, he would have to look very hard indeed and maybe make do with a sad looking weed growing out of the concrete.
This continued and by 1982, the club owed around £2million. On top of that, the Executive Stand needed paying off to the tune of £2.5million. As Duncan Hamilton describes in his wonderful book, ‘Provided You Don’t Kiss Me’, “There was trouble, and Forest were dancing – in this case to the rather bleak music played by their bank manager.”
By this time, Clough and Taylor had seriously fallen out which culminated in the latter retiring in that year. The reasons for the rift are many but Taylor publishing his book, ‘With Clough, by Taylor’, money, Taylor resurfacing at Derby County only six months after retiring from football, money, Taylor signing John Robertson from Forest as soon as he took the reins at Derby and once more, money, go some way to explaining the fall-out.
There was indeed trouble ahead. Big trouble in little Nottingham.
Scratch that…it wasn’t ahead, it was bearing down on Clough like a piano from a high building in a grainy black and white silent comedy.
A 12th place finish in the 1981-82 season was presented as exhibit A of Clough having lost his magic as new wave continued its assault on mainstream music in the UK while The Dead Kennedys got busy attacking disco in the US.
He’d shot it.
But this is Brian Clough. He shook himself down and set about tackling arguably the biggest challenge of his managerial career. He could have walked away but knuckled down with an eye on balancing the books and building one last great team. By the summer of 1983, Forest finished a very respectable fifth in the table and things were starting to settle down a little. Birtles was back by now – pride severely dented after an unsatisfactory spell with Manchester United – and the whole Justin Fashanu experiment was old news as he was sold to Southampton. Experience in the form of Colin Todd arrived alongside Paul Hart and Hans van Breukelen. The bill for the Executive Stand was down to £1million with an overdraft of £800,000. Not perfect but better.
Yet events beyond even Brian Clough conspired against him. In 1983, gate-sharing was dispensed with. No longer would the away club receive 20% of the revenue from attendance. For Forest, this was yet another barrier to overcome in order to maintain pace with the elite clubs. The trophy cabinet suggests they were indeed an elite club but season ticket sales, attendances and the bank manager strongly implied otherwise.
In November of ‘83, The Cure with ‘The Lovecats’ and Joy Division with ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ were firmly entrenched in the hit parade. The landscape was changing but somehow, Clough was hanging in there, like Donna Summer’s ‘Unconditional Love’. The high priest of disco wasn’t at the top of her game by this stage, having hit her peak between ‘75 and ‘80. But she wasn’t going gently into the night – there was life left in her yet.
The same goes for Clough. Against such a testing backdrop, Clough turned in a beautifully rounded pebble of a season in 1983-84. He came out fighting and landed a few well-placed haymakers. The mojo was stirring.
The UEFA Cup run of that year suggested Clough hadn’t quite given up on continental glory just yet. A 0-0 home tie against Celtic in the third round on a frozen pitch had most commentators writing off Forest’s chances of progression. Fools. Had they forgotten about the infamous Clough speech after the 3-3 home draw with Cologne in the first leg of the semi-final of the European Cup in 1979 when he smiled into the camera and confidently declared that John Robertson would turn them inside out over there in the return leg?
Clough’s young Forest side went and chalked up a 2-1 win at Celtic Park while a partisan 68,000 crowd bayed for blood. They got none from Clough’s young team.
Then Anderlecht happened. Anderlecht and a bent referee put paid to Clough tasting further European glory.
Nonetheless, the team finished strongly, winning their last three games of the season and banging in 76 goals to claim third in the league, (only six points behind the winners, Liverpool), top goal scorers and a UEFA cup semi-final (only denied a final by later proven corruption). This was some achievement for a manager who had pretty much dismantled his own glorious team, fallen out with his lifelong friend and assistant, and was working under severe financial restraints. For any other manager, this would be a standout season but for Clough, this was all a bit ‘meh’. It wasn’t lifting the European Cup and knocking bloody Liverpool off their perch.
The difficulties in rebuilding remained though. The bank manager coughed again and players were released while those whose contracts were up (Ian Wallace and Viv Anderson) were offered only reduced terms. The outstanding Hans van Breukelen was sold to PSV for £175,000 in December - he would later go on to lift the European Championship in 1988 and watched from the opposite end of the pitch as Marco van Basten defied the laws of physics in the final against Russia – yards away from the discus circle into which Trevor Francis rolly-pollied after nodding in at the far post to claim Clough’s first European Cup in 1979.
But by 84-85, the ship was well and truly steadied. In fact, the books were in rude health and showed a profit of £301,000. Clough rubbed his hands together and got to work by doing what he did best: building a team. Neil Webb, Stuart Pearce and Brian Rice were brought in. Peter Davenport, Des Walker and a young lad by the name of Nigel were promoted to the first team in the mid-eighties.
Clough’s young and neatly coiffed men with straight backs who didn’t argue with referees were once again in danger of maintaining their status as the neutral’s favourite. In 1987-88, Forest once again claimed third place in the league and reached the FA Cup semi-final. Having muscled Liverpool out of it back in the late 70s, Clough couldn’t quite repeat the trick as the Merseysiders overcame Forest to prevent Clough reaching Wembley to contest an FA Cup final. Liverpool were truly a wonderful team and Clough lacked the resources to get right under their skin like he once did. Nevertheless, just for good measure, Forest claimed a consecutive third place the season after but again came up against Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final of 1989 at Hillsborough on a tragic day.
Clough did claim silverware though in the shape of his old favourite the League Cup as his lad Nigel and Neil Webb scored to defeat a spirited Luton Town. Just for good measure, Forest retained the cup the following year thanks to a Nigel Jemson goal – a player straight out of the classic Clough mould.
This young Clough team played with verve, precision and didn’t trouble referees. They had neatly cut hair and passed the ball to each other. As Jonathan Wilson put it in his biography of Brian Clough, ‘Nobody Ever Says Thank You, “The eighties might not have brought quite the success of the late seventies, but there was realism about Forest’s stature and delight in their style.”
By the end of the 1980s, disco was remoulded, reshaped, reconceived and reimagined by Pete Waterman and his company PWL which churned out hits galore for the likes of clean-cut boys and girls like Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Sonia et al – youngsters that did what they were told, played nicely and underneath it all, had a fair amount of talent. Remind you of any football team from the late 1980s?
It wasn’t classic disco like Chic, Donna Summer and The Bee Gees. It was pop with a bit of disco chucked in: an evolution of disco. Like disco, Clough had evolved into something new, something fresh and something successful. The flares were long gone - replaced by scruffy jogging bottoms and a green jumper. He wasn’t the same Brian Clough but he was a different version – one that had built an ‘easy on the eye’ football team. There were no Larry Lloyd’s or Kenny Burns’ in this team – he didn’t need the hassle of managing such characters any more. His central defence these days was built on the unassuming Steve Chettle while Gary Crosby scampered up and down the wing like a boy on a paper round.
Three third place finishes and two League Cups in the 80s to follow that glorious evening in Madrid seem paltry in comparison. Such a haul does not compare to the spoils garnered between 1975 and 1980 but then again, what does? Clough’s captain for this period – John McGovern – described that period as, “…like one of those comets you see flying across the night sky. We burned brightly, but it was all too brief. But, boy, did we burn brightly for a while.” For Clough to repeat that feat again would have been akin to summoning Halley’s Comet back around again. He was a bloody genius but not a god.
Hamilton recounts him saying to him: “You think about the Championship, you think about another European Cup. I don’t know how many great teams one manager can create in a lifetime. Two? Three at most? The thing is, you never stop trying. It’s like an actor wanting to win another Oscar, a mountaineer who wants another crack at scaling Everest. I’m like that.”
He didn’t stop trying and can consider himself a little unfortunate to come up against an outstanding Liverpool again during the 80s. If it wasn’t for their excellence and bloody Anderlecht, he may well have created his third great football team. As it was, he did create a bloody fine one in difficult circumstances.
DAVE MARPLES - @DavidMarples