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Brian Clough and the miracle of Nottingham

He didn't like tactics and bought a load of rejects yet ruled Europe. On what would have been Brian Clough's 80th birthday, Champions Matchday explores the legend of Old Big 'Ead.

Brian Clough in pictures ©Getty Images

There was usually music in Brian Clough's office. Invariably provided by the man himself, crooning one of the classics from the great American songbook in a style borrowed from Frank Sinatra. One particular favourite was the Ink Spots classic I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire. The choice was ironic because that is precisely what Clough set out to do.

As a player, his ambitions were curtailed by a knee injury that forced him to retire when he was 27. Owning a sports shop or running a pub, the traditional fallbacks for British footballers of that era, were not for Clough. It was as manager of Derby County FC and Nottingham Forest FC that he would set football ablaze.

Forza Juventus
"Someone has compared me to Helenio Herrera and I have to thank him because I'm honoured. I, however, have never been sacked," Clough told the press before Derby's European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-final against Juventus in 1972/73. That tie was Calcio's first full exposure to the young manager in all his Old Big 'Eadedness, and Italy's footballers, coaches and football writers were, almost to a man, utterly baffled.

With his assistant Peter Taylor, Clough had won Derby's first league title and steered them past SL Benfica and FC Spartak Trnava to the last four of the European Cup to face Juventus. So great was the Italian media's curiosity that several journalists travelled to Highbury to see Clough after a game against Arsenal FC. Promised ten minutes, they were granted two hours. With a glass of champagne in hand, Clough interrogated them ("Could Colin Todd play for Italy?"), lectured them ("With your pre-game cloak-and-dagger stuff you're ruining Italian football") and charmed them.

In Turin, Clough's players caused consternation by drinking great quantities of tea before training, and after consuming several bottles of Barolo and Valpolicella ("a strange marriage of wines," noted La Stampa). Juventus won 3-1 and, with Derby centre-half Roy McFarland and midfielder Archie Gemmill suspended for the second leg, Juventus were all but home and dry. But the Italian press were still fascinated by Clough who, in his pre-match press conference, busied himself by uncapping bottles of beer and orange juice as he answered questions.

Brian Clough with Colin Todd and Roy McFarland in 1973
Brian Clough with Colin Todd and Roy McFarland in 1973©AFP

Revelling in the mayhem, he said: "I won't make predictions like Taylor. He says we'll score four or five. I'm only saying that we'll win and go through." Derby didn't go through. They drew 0-0. Clough's first European campaign was over. The Italian media – stung by his remark that Juventus players were "robots" – called him a "second-rate Herrera". So they were astonished when he burst into the Juventus dressing room and said "Complimenti" to Juve president Giampiero Boniperti.

The Italians didn't know what to make of Clough's games but Juventus coach Čestmír Vycpálek could see there was a mind behind the bluster, countering: "If he says we're robots, it means we have achieved perfection. However, I should emphasise that in London against Arsenal, he played – to great effect – a very Italian game."

The Czech trainer was one of the first to notice that although Clough always pronounced the word "tactics" as if it were an insult – or a dark art practised by his nemesis Don Revie – he was happy to use them when necessary. It just suited him to pretend otherwise knowing that the press, most of the time, were less likely to print the facts than the legend.

Conquering the millipedes
By 1979, Clough was managing Forest. His first signing wasn't a player but a cooker. The acquisition reflected the doldrums the club were in when he arrived. The trophy cabinet had hardly been opened since 1959 when Forest landed the FA Cup.

Legendary Moments: Francis on Forest glory

Clough quickly went about rebuilding the squad. In 2003, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane's brilliantly idiosyncratic way of appraising baseball players made him the hero of Michael Lewis's book Moneyball. Beane invariably preferred to bid for prospects no one else wanted because they didn't fit the conventional mould. Twenty-five years before Beane, Clough was applying the same principles as he created a squad that would conquer Europe.

Some of his purchases – England's best goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Birmingham City FC forward Trevor Francis, the subject of Britain's first £1m transfer – were no-brainers. His captain, John McGovern, had played for all of Clough's clubs.

But winger John Robertson, whose skill and guile swung both European Cup finals, was on the transfer list when Clough came. Ian Bowyer, Kenny Burns, Frank Clark, Larry Lloyd and Gemmill had all been deemed inessential by their previous teams. Striker Garry Birtles had joined from non-league Long Eaton United. Other players he inherited – such as Viv Anderson and Martin O'Neill – fulfilled their promise under Clough. It didn't matter if his players were overweight (like Robertson) or clumsy (Lloyd), if he saw something in them he was happy.

The manager's idiosyncratic approach has been fully described elsewhere but Clough had an unerring ability to keep his players in a state of almost existential uncertainty about his mood, behaviour and advice.

Impudent, charismatic, genuinely funny, scathing, maliciously frank, with an explosive temper, Clough encouraged his Forest side to regard their away fixtures in Europe as a kind of holiday. There were beers to be drunk, pranks to be staged and mind games to be played.

English football didn't quite know what to think when Clough's Forest won the league in 1978. When his team knocked the holders, Liverpool FC, out of the European Cup in the first round, it was widely considered – on the continent – a lucky giant-killing.

Clough proved them wrong, defeating AEK Athens FC, Grasshopper-Club Zürich and 1. FC Köln. The Bundesliga champions provided the sternest test in the semi-finals. At the City Ground, Forest fought back from two down, led 3-2 but had to settle for a 3-3 draw. Desperate to lift the players' spirits, Taylor kept reiterating that Forest only had to win the return 1-0. He said it so often Clough told him to shut up – though he later apologised.

Taylor and Clough celebrate Forest's 1979 triumph
Taylor and Clough celebrate Forest's 1979 triumph©Getty Images

Win 1-0 is just what Forest did. Köln did most of the attacking but Shilton saved brilliantly from Dieter Müller and Harold Konopka in the opening exchanges and Bowyer scored from a corner in the 65th minute.

La Stampa hailed Clough as a "great strategist" whose side had proved their "technical superiority" over Köln. In Spain, El Mundo Deportivo was so fulsome they made Clough sound like the heir to Rinus Michels, the architect of Total Football. (Indeed, there was a time, in 1979, when the Spanish press were convinced Clough would coach FC Barcelona.) "Everybody works for everybody else," the paper noted. "When they attack, they have nine strikers. When they defend, they have nine defenders. Whoever has the ball always has three or four players to pass to."

To complete 'the miracle of Nottingham Forest', as the European press dubbed it, Clough's players had to beat Malmö FF in Munich. Bob Houghton's Swedish champions were organised, energetic and efficient. Johan Stressi, coach of the FK Austria Wien outfit that lost to Malmö in the semi-finals, warned Clough: "It's like playing a millipede."

The final proved an anti-climax though it was hardly Clough's fault. The only aspect of Malmö's game that worked was the offside trap. Yet pundits singled out Anderson at full-back, the effervescent Tony Woodcock up front, goalscorer Trevor Francis and Robertson, who made the only goal. Italian coach Enzo Bearzot said of the Scottish winger: "When he has the ball, he can create something."

Forest celebrate retaining the European Cup in 1980
Forest celebrate retaining the European Cup in 1980©Getty Images

Shutting people up
If you win something once, Clough said once, people could dismiss it as a fluke. But if you win a trophy twice, they'd have to shut up. And that's what Forest did. Even as reigning champions, Forest were not expected to overcome Hamburger SV in the 1980 final at the Santiago Bernabéu. Asked about Kevin Keegan, Hamburg's biggest threat, Clough said: "I'm more worried we don't have Trevor Francis."

Robertson went one better than in 1979, scoring the only goal. Hamburg coach Branko Zebec said after the final: "Hamburg carried the whole weight of the game. Nottingham only defended. I say this not as a criticism but as a fact." Having been outwitted on the pitch, Zebec was caught out by Clough at the press conference when the Englishman breezed in and congratulated his opponent with a kiss.

In Spain, the champions were hailed as the matadors who provoked Hamburg's bull into a blind rage. Robertson led by example, organising counterattacks, shining as a defensive winger, running the line and pumping crosses into the box.

The statue of Clough and Taylor outside Derby's stadium
The statue of Clough and Taylor outside Derby's stadium©Getty Images

By contrast, Hamburg's crosses from Caspar Memering were invariably repulsed by Lloyd or Shilton. Somehow, Forest had persuaded their opponents to attack them at their strongest point. Though Bearzot accused Clough of simply reinventing the 'verrou' (or 'bolt', as the tactic that inspired Catenaccio was called) László Kubala, Barcelona's Hungarian icon, was more generous: "I liked Nottingham. They played their game and we have to learn from them. They played without the ball, marked their men, and went into combat with passion."

Yet victory had taken its toll. Clough felt "a bit choked at the end". He insisted his players return to the team hotel miles outside Madrid on the grounds that, "We won this together and we'll celebrate together." Eight players broke the curfew to meet their wives in the city centre. The miracle of Nottingham Forest was over.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Champions magazine. Champions Matchday is the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League and is available in print or free to download in digital format. You can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.