Football Commentary: The crying game at Forest as the team go down and Clough leaves: On the day of reckoning Nottingham Forest fail to be a force to be reckoned with

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHAT a way to go. Tired and emotional, Brian Clough hardly knew whether to laugh or cry when the longest and most distinguished of contemporary managerships drew to a close not with a bang, but with the whimper of relegation.

After 18 years, during which he elevated Nottingham Forest to unprecedented peaks, twice winning the European Cup, he leaves them where he found them. In what his generation will always regard as the Second Division.

Clough's farewell to the City Ground on Saturday was a poignant affair, sad to behold. Forest's biggest crowd of the season turned out in the hope of one last miracle but, for all his talk of walking on the Trent, Old Big 'Ead had long since ceased to deliver those, and a 2-0 defeat by Sheffield United merely confirmed the inevitable.

While Clough and his green fingers tend the roses, his successor will have the devil of a job on his hands. The present team is a poor one, and will be weakened still further by the departure of its best players. Roy Keane, coveted at home and abroad, has a get-out clause in his contract, sparing him the dubious delights of Barnsley and Peterborough, and the Irish midfielder wasted no time in declaring his intention to leave.

He is not alone in his wanderlust. Clough indicated that his son, Nigel, would be following him out of the door, and doubt surrounds the future of Stuart Pearce, the injured England captain, who has been unsettled for some time.

In short, having stayed at least a year too long, the doyen is leaving a mess behind him. Who will be asked to clear it up? The leading contenders are Martin O'Neill and Alan Buckley, of Wycombe Wanderers and Grimsby Town, respectively.

The poverty of Forest's play in recent weeks, and on Saturday in particular, has made a nonsense of all that schmaltz about a team too good to go down. The pretty, yet incisive passing and devastating counter-attacks we came to associate with them are long gone, and Clough's legacy is a palsied bunch, too feeble even to make a fight of it against their relegation rivals.

The fans cheering him to the echo on his sentimental journey towards pipe and slippers are among the most loyal in the game, with unusually long memories. It is 12 years since he rewarded them with the championship, and in more recent times he has acquired an unfortunate habit of selling their best players and replacing them with duds, yet still they chant 'Brian Clough is a football genius'.

The past tense would be more appropriate. He lost the recipe, as Bill Shankly used to call it, some time ago, and took to throwing together increasingly unpromising ingredients. The result, unsurprisingly, was half- baked.

Still they love him. It seems ages ago now - another era - but distance lends enchantment, and it will be a long time before they forget those two League titles and the glory nights in Europe.

True, there were murmurs of discontent as the relegation clouds gathered, but gratitude replaced the grumbles as soon as he decided to go. The reception he was given on Saturday was touching and Old Stoneface was visibly moved.

It was a shirt-sleeve order sort of day, but a Forest-red top gave way to the familiar green one as he sauntered to the bench, smoothing his hair for the phalanx of photographers and kissing a startled policeman on the cheek. A double thumbs-up to the Trent End loyalists, a flower - the first rose of retirement - from a fan, and we could start.

Strangely, it was Sheffield United who played all the football and created nearly all the chances, banishing their own relegation fears with a nerveless performance. Glyn Hodges scored a lovely goal after 29 minutes, curling in a shot left-footed after rounding Steve Chettle, and the one always seemed likely to be enough. The second, headed in by Brian Gayle, removed all trace of doubt.

The trademark thumbs-up, and he was gone. Temporarily. 'We want Brian' boomed down from all sides, and after 10 minutes the old trouper was back for his encore. The public address stoked it up, bringing lumps to a few throats with 'Memories' from Elaine Page and Sinatra's 'My Way', and back he came.

The DJ milked it mercilessly, with 'Please Don't Go' but, emotion welling, he was not inclined to linger.

It being a special occasion, he broke the habit of what seems like a lifetime by presenting himself for interview afterwards, embracing reporters he had ignored for years.

Was he going to miss the game which has filled the largest part of his life? 'I ain't going to miss it at all. Would you lot miss having your editors screaming down the phone at you?

'The one thing I will miss is walking on the Trent, but I've got to the age now when I have to walk on the path.' No, he would not be seeking continued involvement as a television pundit. 'That's for people who can't manage.' He would be returning to the ground, but only 'to pick up my Ink Spots tapes'.

He shrugged off the suggestion that it was sad to have a marvellous career end in relegation. 'Sadness is the wrong word. It just happened, and that's the way it goes.' A teenage girl was sad enough to burst into tears as she handed her hero some flowers, receiving the inevitable kiss in return. 'No tears,' he told her, 'no need.'

Fifty-eight was a little young to be retiring, but there would be no comeback. 'Never say never? It was James Bond who said that, wasn't it? No, I won't be back.' That was it. One more League game, at Ipswich on Saturday, and the biggest character in the game will be gone for good. Like him or loathe him, the last of the great autocrats is irreplaceable. We will never see his like again.

Goals: Hodges (29) 0-1; Gayle (72) 0-2.

Nottingham Forest: Marriott; Laws, Williams, Chettle, Tiler, Keane, Black, Gemmill, Clough, Rosario, Woan. Substitutes not used: Stone, Orlygsson, Crossley (gk).

Sheffield United: Kelly; Ward, Beesley (Littlejohn, 89), Hartfield, Gayle, Pemberton, Bradshaw, Rogers, Hodges, Deane, Whitehouse. Substitutes not used: Carr, Leighton (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland).