Clough's proud moment

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING to a report of the most reliable nature, here was the picture. Late last Saturday, with only the moon for company, Brian Clough took a stroll through the lanes near his home in Derbyshire, and whistled a happy tune.

The reason for this new-found contentment in middle age was the considerable victory Nottingham Forest achieved when recovering their form to put four goals past Leeds, the ailing champions of England, who had not lost at home in the League for 35 matches.

This must have come as a matter of joy, or relief at the very least, for thousands of Forest supporters who doubtless were beginning to suspect that an era had ended and it would be to their advantage if the old boy opted for comfortable retirement.

We have heard and read so much about the extent of Clough's decline this season that it might not be a bad idea to state what English football might hope to gain from a revival at the City Ground and what we should not deceive ourselves into expecting.

My own feeling, which nobody is required to share, is that if the improvement in Forest's fortunes proves to be more than temporary it will be an example of national rather than local importance, even if a dearth of outstanding players makes it unlikely that Clough will ever again be able to assemble a championship team.

Whatever prejudices have been stored up about Clough's eccentric management style, the pragmatism evident in profitable dealings with newspapers and television, he has not budged from the worthy principle that it is still possible to successfully oppose the artillery school of football.

It has been difficult to get this point over from the foot of the Premier League, and some younger contemporaries have nodded knowingly when asked about Clough's predicament. 'These days it is impossible to play your way out of trouble,' one is reported to have said. 'Cloughie will have to alter Forest's style, go for something more direct.'

Probably amused, if somewhat troubled, Clough has stuck with a philosophy best expressed by the barbed comment, 'If God had meant football to be played in the air He would have put grass in the sky.'

Last week, with Neil Webb back from Manchester United, came a glimmer of light and, it is to be hoped, perhaps a revival of confidence. Clough told John Sadler of the Sun, who is writing his autobiography: 'I am ashamed of our League position. It came about because we haven't passed the ball well enough, teams have out- thought us, we didn't have enough good players.'

Contrast that with a piqued response attributed to Dave Bassett, the Sheffield United manager, after a 2-0 defeat at Crystal Palace. Known mostly for his powers of motivation Bassett has never paid much account to style, but recently, it appears, he has been making some uncharacteristic concessions. No more.

'Forget this rubbish about playing good football,' he is reported to have said. 'After this we are going back to humping it. There is so much hot air talked about playing the ball along the ground. No team ever won medals or picked up extra bonuses for playing well (really?). That's now out of the window with my lot. I'm not in the fantasy world of all this pretty, pretty stuff. Anything as long as we win.'

Bassett has never bracketed himself with Clough or, praise be, any other disciple of pleasing football. He probably sings 'My Way' in the shower. Instinctively he knows only one way to win and it won't bring any marks for artistic impression.

Out of an unfailing belief in the qualities Clough continues to demand from his team, the purpose here is to exhort people in English football to make a thorough examination of their consciences, to decide to change, and to renounce policies that do not embrace the values he expounds.

The hard rule in these things, and very hard indeed for veterans, seems to be trust to the good patient football managers, and the hope that they will, in time, once again make up a majority.

We will just have to wait and see whether this turns out to be a disastrous season for Clough or one that will see a great reputation still intact. But, if there is any justice in sport, last week's victory at Elland Road will have turned things around for him.