Brian Clough – Life, Career & Death

“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.” – Brian Clough

Brian Howard Clough is a character that is known throughout the world of football. He’s not only famous for his abilities as both a player and manager, but also for his often outspoken and eccentric behaviour. This persona gave him the nickname “Old Big ‘ead.”

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Growing Up

Clough was born on the 21st March 1935 in Middlesbrough, which at the time was part of the North Riding of Yorkshire. He grew up in a family of eight in the working class town but had a largely happy childhood.

Brian wasn’t interested in school and often chose to neglect his lessons. He would often concentrate on his love of sport, especially with football and cricket.

Playing for his hometown club Middlesbrough, where he netted 204 goals in 222 matches.
Playing for Middlesbrough (Image source:

Playing for His Hometown

A young Brian Clough decided to choose the larger ball and turned out for local side Billingham Synthonia. Soon after joining the team, between 1953 to 1955, Clough completed his national service with the RAF.

On his return from the forces, Clough joined his hometown club Middlesbrough where he became a prolific goal scorer netting 204 goals in 222 games. His form for the ‘Boro gained him two scoreless caps for England in 1959 against Wales and Sweden.

One of Clough’s teammates at Ayresome Park was a goalkeeper called Peter Taylor. In the future, both Brian and Peter would form a successful managerial partnership.

Despite his friendship with Taylor, he didn’t always get on with some of his other teammates and regularly sought a way out of the club. Eventually, Clough joined rivals Sunderland in 1961 for a fee of £55,000 which is roughly £993,000 in today’s money. While he was playing for the Black Cats, he netted 63 goals in 74 matches.

Tragedy Struck

On a wet Boxing Day in 1962, tragedy struck. In a match against Bury, Clough collided with their goalkeeper Chris Harker.

As a result, Clough never fully recovered from the cruciate ligament injury he sustained that day. This injury finally finished his career two years later at the age of 29.

The Beginning of His Career

Alan Brown, who was a no-nonsense manager, became a big influence for Brian Clough that would stay with him. Brown’s authoritative management style inspired Clough to go into coaching at the young age of 30.

In 1965, Clough briefly worked with Sunderland’s youth team. After a short while there, he decided to cut his teeth at lowly Hartlepool United, which at the time, was a club who were struggling to stay in the Football League.

Brian Clough was the youngest manager in Britain at the time and as a result, he was faced with a huge challenge to turn things around for the team. To help him, he appointed his old team mate Peter Taylor to be his assistant.

Clough and Taylor led Derby to win the title for the first time in their history.
Clough and Taylor led Derby to win the title for the first time in their history. (Image source:

The club were struggling with finances and it was touch and go as to whether they would be able to continue. Famously, Clough would trawl local pubs to try and raise money for the club and even drove the team bus to away matches.

Despite these efforts, Clough and Taylor were sacked by chairman Ernest Ord. This led to a boardroom coup which resulted in them being reinstated once the chairman himself was given his marching orders by the directors.

In the next season, Clough and Taylor managed to build a more successful team. They finished in an improved eighth place at the end of the 1966 and 1967 campaign.

Managing Derby County Football Club

Their relative success alerted the board of Derby County who were struggling in the Second Division. Clough and Taylor joined the Midlands outfit at the start of the 1967-1968 season.

Clough made numerous signings including a young John McGovern from his former club Hartlepool, Roy McFarlane, and John Hinton along with a few others. Famously, Clough sacked the groundsman, club secretary, and two tea ladies for laughing after a defeat.

In 1968, Clough and Taylor led Derby to the Second Division title. They went undefeated for 22 matches in the process which gave The Rams their first silverware since the 19th Century.

Derby continued to progress in the top flight by finishing 4th in their first season and 9th in the 1970-1971 campaign. The following season was one of the best in the club’s history. Against the odds, they fought off the challenges of Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester City to win the title for the first time in their history.

Their domestic success gave Derby County the chance to take on Europe’s best in the UEFA cup. The team made it to the semi-finals where they lost 3-1 to Juventus.

A Controversial Reign

Throughout Clough’s reign, controversy had never been far away. After the aforementioned defeat to the Italians, he labelled them as cheats and questioned their honour during the Second World War. Clough also turned on his own fans by insisting they only sang when their team was winning.

In 1973, Clough wrote an article which criticised Leeds United for their physical style and called for them to be relegated to the Second Division because of their dirty play. During this time, Clough had a fraying relationship with his chairman Sam Longson who refused to put up the money to buy some of the manager’s transfer targets.

Behind the chairman’s back, Clough signed David Nish from Leicester City and made a further bid for Bobby Moore from West Ham. The chairman found out and demanded Clough and Taylor to be sacked which was fuelled by an incident in which Clough was accused of giving two fingers to Manchester United’s Matt Busby during a recent league game.

Moving on to the Next Club

The management team, who had taken Derby County from the obscurity of the Second tier to the First Division titles and semi-finals of the European Cup, resigned on the 15th of October in 1973 much to the fan’s disgust. With them, their scouts and backroom team also walked out leaving the club in complete turmoil.

They followed them to their next club Brighton & Hove Albion. This was seen as a strange choice considering they were down South and struggling in the Third Division.

Just months after managing his new team, Clough found himself on the receiving end of a 4-0 walloping by minnows Walton & Hersham. However, the biggest controversy of them all was still to come.

Clough’s 44 Day Reign

If looks could kill! Clough leads out the Leeds team during his controversial 44 days in 1974.

After criticising them constantly in the press for their physical style of football, Clough was appointed manager of the league champions Leeds United. This happened when their previous manager Don Revie was asked to manage the England national team in July 1974.

Crucially, his assistant Peter Taylor disagreed with this decision. He refused to follow Clough back up North and instead chose to take over the reins himself at Brighton.

The 44 days of Brian Clough’s reign at Leeds United were mired in controversy from day one. He famously told the Leeds players to “throw all your medals in the dustbin because you have not won them fairly.”

The Leeds style of play had won them two league titles and one FA Cup which was built around a solid organised approach with a physical and direct style of play. This was the complete opposite of the Clough philosophy of short passing and movement with an emphasis of playing the ball along the ground. He once famously said:

“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there.”

The Leeds players struggled to adapt to Clough’s philosophy. As a whole, the team won only one out of the six games they played while he was in charge which left them fourth from the bottom in the table.

The manager’s eccentric behaviour had alienated many of the star names in the Leeds dressing room such as Billy Bremner, Paul Madeley, and Norman Hunter. After much pressure from the board and his own players, Clough was sacked from his post at Elland Road on the 12th September 1974 after one of the most controversial 44 days in the club’s history.

Clough’s failure with one of the top teams in the country at the time could have proved detrimental to his career. However, the best was still yet to come for Brian.

Returning to the Midlands

Just months after his ill-fated reign at Leeds, Clough returned to the Midlands as the manager of Nottingham Forest in January 1975. He took the City Ground outfit to 8th place in the Second Division by the end of his first season alone.

Clough and Taylor worked with forest Forest to achieve Division One Title and the League Cup.
Clough and Taylor worked with forest Forest to achieve Division One Title and the League Cup. (Image source:

In July 1976, he was reunited with his old running mate Peter Taylor. Taylor decided to leave Brighton to join up with Clough once again as Nottingham Forest’s new assistant manager.

Together, Clough and Taylor dramatically turned around this once-middling club’s fortunes and helped them gain a promotion in 1977. Miraculously, they won the Division One Title and the League Cup in their first season back in the top flight. The team were also unbeaten for 42 league games which was a record only surpassed by Arsenal in 2004.

Unlike at Derby, Forest’s chairman backed Clough in the transfer market, the pinnacle of which was the first ever £1 million transfer of a player in the shape of Trevor Francis. They had a European campaign to compete in too. Amazingly, they won this after a 1-0 victory in the final against Malmo.

Nottingham had never known this amount of success.

A Rift Between the Managing Duo

However, this success wouldn’t last for much longer. In the early 80’s, Forest’s power began to fade and a rift was beginning to grow between the managerial duo Clough and Taylor. In 1980, Peter Taylor wrote a book called “with Clough by Taylor” behind his back which outlined the details of their partnership.

Taylor retired from football in 1982, however he decided to return to management with Derby six months later. During this time, Taylor signed winger John Roberstson from Forest without informing Clough.

The two childhood friends never spoke again, even when acting as opposing managers during an FA Cup tie in 1983. Seven years later in 1990, Taylor died and a shocked and grief-stricken Clough attended his funeral.

A Controversial Defeat

The Damned United, starring Michael Sheen was based on Clough's manigerial reigns.
The Damned United, starring Michael Sheen was based on Clough’s manigerial reigns. (image source:

On the field, Forest remained in the top half of the First Division throughout the 1980’s. However, they couldn’t compete ultimately with the all-conquering Liverpool side of this era.

The team did manage a berth in the 1983-1984 UEFA Cup Semi finals of which they were on the receiving end of a highly controversial defeat from Anderlecht. It was revealed several years later that the referee of this game had been compromised by the Belgian’s chairman.

A Force to be Reckoned With

Domestically, Brian Clough’s Forest were always a force to be reckoned with in the cup competitions. They won the League Cup in 1989 and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup against Liverpool, forever remembered for The Hillsborough disaster.

Undergoing Massive Changes

In the 1990’s, a now ageing Clough ploughed on as Forest boss. They reached the 1991 FA Cup Final but lost to Tottenham Hotspur in a tournament which was to elude him throughout his career.

During this time, football was starting to undergo massive changes as the Premier League Revolution began in 1992. Clough reminded one of the few bastions of an older era and continually struggled to cope with the demands of more powerful players and agents who were just coming into the game.

Clough retired in 1993 after Forest were relegated following a 2-0 defeat against Sheffield United.
Clough Retires (Image source:

Brian Clough Retires

Clough finally retired in 1993 after an unsuccessful campaign in which Forest were relegated after a 2-0 defeat against Sheffield United. It had been a long journey and the sight of an elderly Clough on the pitch for the last time dressed in his favourite green jumper is one of the most famous early images of the new Premier League.

Throughout his career, Clough was interviewed for the England job and linked with roles for the other British nations and Ireland. Despite this, he never took charge of a national team.

Brian Clough’s Death

Brian’s retirement led him to fight against alcoholism which had plagued him since his Derby County days. In 2003 he underwent a liver transplant, however he died one year later of stomach cancer.

Clough and Taylor Statue in Derby, constructed in 2002.
Clough and Taylor Statue in Derby, constructed in 2002. (Image source: wikipedia)

The Legacy of Brian Clough

Brian Clough’s legacy in his hometown of Middlesbrough and the two rival cities of Derby and Nottingham have been profound. In 2002, the largest stand at The City Ground was named after him while two statues were constructed in Middlesbrough, Nottingham and Derby respectively, the latter of which includes Peter Taylor.

In 2005, the road between the two Midland cities was renamed “The Brian Clough Way.” Moreover, matches between the two sides in any competition compete for the “Brian Clough Trophy.”

A book and film called “The Damned United” was created starring Michael Sheen. It was based on Clough’s managerial reigns at both Derby County and his ill-fated days at Leeds.

Brian Howard Clough, although outspoken and antagonistic, was a fantastic leader of men who against the odds took two unlikely teams to domestic and European success. He was quite possibly the best manager in England never to take on the national job.