'I haven't seen Cloughie's team this season,' Johnny Metgod said last week. 'I was really looking forward to watching their match. Now I've got to go to France with Feyenoord, to play a friendly against Auxerre. But I'm not going to miss seeing Forest.'
Metgod, whose calm Dutch-bred skills illuminated the Nottingham Forest team of the mid-Eighties, is worried about his old boss, stuck five points adrift at the bottom of the Premier League. So are lots of other people, many of them with no connection or allegiance to Forest, who suddenly find themselves sharing the thought that something more than the relegation of a single football club is at stake. If Cloughie's boys can't survive, they're thinking, what hope can there be?
'I imagine there's a lot of pressure on him to change things,' Metgod said. 'He deserves credit. There aren't too many managers in England now still trying to play real football. And when things aren't going right, you've got to stick to the things you're good at. I just hope he sticks to his ideas.'
Nobody seriously believes that, almost 30 years after he entered football management, Brian Clough is about to change his ways, even in the face of the most serious crisis of his career. And that characteristic intransigence is why he's become such a cherished figure. When he was taking broken-down Second Division clubs and turning them into the champions of England and Europe, he was hard to love. But as the years have passed, and as he has refused to mellow, so our view of him has softened. What was once seen as arrogance is now taken for originality; perversity is eccentricity; wilfulness is independence; harshness is strength. Suddenly, without doing a thing, the old bete noire has turned into a white knight. Tarnished, maybe, by the excesses and contradictions of the past, but a symbol of values that seem increasingly under siege in English football: values involving things like skill and beauty and pleasure.
All you read now, every Monday morning after Forest's latest defeat, is the opposing manager telling the world that Clough's team are too good to go down, and what a tragedy for football it would be if they did. Those are worthy sentiments, although the concept of 'too good to go down' is nonsense. But beneath the chorus of concern for footballing virtues are deeper and more complex feelings.
One is something to do with a sense of continuity. This month, Clough will celebrate the 18th anniversary of his arrival at Forest, which makes him easily the longest-serving manager in the top flight of English football. (He had already been at the City Ground for seven years when his nearest challenger, Joe Royle, took over at Oldham Athletic.) And there's no doubt now that the reign is in jeopardy.
The other reason people are worried about Forest's manager is the one thing insiders won't talk publicly about. And if you saw him interviewed by John Motson on Sportsnight a few weeks ago, you'll understand their reluctance. Cloughie, once so cool and sharp, with a voice like a grindstone and a glance like a dagger, seemed suddenly older than his 57 years.
His troubling performance added credibility to the stories you hear all the time. That he doesn't go to training sessions any more. That he's hardly ever at the ground. That he doesn't have much to do with transfer negotiations. That there's a faction on the Forest board in favour of his removal before the club returns to the Second Division, out of which he dragged it in the late Seventies. That, above all, he's not looking after himself.
'He'll pull them out of it,' an old friend of his said this week. 'If he wants to, that is.'
If he wants to?
'Well, if he doesn't decide to stop. And there are plenty of people trying to persuade him to do that. There's a lot going on there.'
Another friend, David Pleat, the manager of Luton Town, has known Brian Clough since the late Fifties. 'I think he's got the cleverest and most fertile mind of any manager,' Pleat said last week. 'While he's bright and sharp, Forest have a good leader.'
And if he's not? Pleat fell silent.
'Well,' he said eventually, 'the people around him know what the problem is, and they're telling him. The question is, is he listening to them?'
Like everyone who's watched him over the years, David Pleat knows that Brian Clough has always been a lot better at talking than he is at listening.
PEOPLE SAY that Darren Wassall is the reason Forest are bottom of the Premier League, which seems hard on a young man who doesn't even play for them, but there's some truth in it.
This time last year, after an eight- year apprenticeship at the City Ground, Wassall, a gifted 24-year-old defender, was being made ready to step into the shoes of the Italy-bound Des Walker. Suddenly, though, Wassall too was away, down the A52 to Derby County. How could Clough lose a key player not merely to Forest's local rivals, but to a club in a lower division?
It had nothing to do, Wassall said last week, with personalities. 'It was a good apprenticeship. I never had any cause to complain. I got on with him. But my contract was due to expire in the summer. The club said they'd offer me a new one, and I told them I'd stay. But the months went by, and nothing happened. So I told them that I was going to consider all the options. And when I'd spent five minutes talking to Arthur Cox at Derby, I knew that this was the club I wanted to be with.'
Had he sensed the crisis approaching at the City Ground? 'No. I don't think anybody could have predicted it. And I don't think anybody knows why it's happened.'
But Wassall's departure had grievously weakened Forest's defence, just as Clough's autumn sale of Teddy Sheringham, a pounds 2m centre-forward, left them without a recognised striker to capitalise on the pretty approach work.
'I saw them three weeks ago,' David Pleat said, 'when they beat Spurs in the Coca-Cola Cup, and they were splendid. Absolutely splendid. But in really tight games, for all their width and passing and the qualities that make them so important to the game, the vital areas are the two penalty boxes. In the past, Clough's teams have always had a strong centre-back and a good goalkeeper. Now he's got a young man in goal who's making his way in the game. Mark Crossley's brave, and Clough is sticking with him. At the other end, Lee Glover and Nigel Clough, for all the football they play, are too similar. But a new forward would have to fit into the Forest pattern, and there aren't many players who could do it.'
That pattern is a straightforward one. 'The philosophy never changed,' Darren Wassall said, echoing every player who has ever tried to describe exactly what it is that Brian Clough does. 'Play the ball to feet, get it wide, get it in early. He kept it very simple. We didn't practise free-kicks or anything like that. It was always off the cuff. He likes short corners, to draw defenders out, but that's about it. And we were a near-post club - he thinks it's the hardest to defend against.'
Training, too, hasn't changed since Clough went to Forest. 'The principle is that rest is as important as training,' Wassall said. 'There was a good warm-up, a few shuttle sprints, then five-a-sides, which could end quickly or go on. If someone scored a brilliant goal after three minutes, that could be it - training was over. It was completely unpredictable. And in eight years, I don't remember more than four or five full-scale practice matches.'
In recent times, Wassall confirmed, Clough has reduced his appearances at the training ground. 'He'd usually leave it to Liam O'Kane and Archie Gemmill, his coaches. But we'd always see him on a Friday. He'd bring his dog and stand on the touchline, shouting and getting people on their toes.'
Clough has never believed in spending time analysing the opposition. 'On a Saturday,' Wassall went on, 'he'd waltz into the dressing room at twenty to three and and try to take the pressure off you by having an everyday sort of conversation. About anything . . . maybe he'd reminisce a bit. He didn't make it an intense thing because he knew you already knew what you were going out to do. Then he'd put a football down in the middle of the room and say, 'Right. This is your best friend. This is what we play with.' '
For Johnny Metgod, signed from Real Madrid, Clough's attitudes came as a shock. 'In Madrid, even for home games, we'd spend the night before the match in an hotel. But at Forest, before a home game on a Saturday, he'd just tell us to report to the ground at two o'clock. And one thing he was very clear about - there's no way you can play if you're not relaxed and enjoying the game. I totally agree. With all the tension and pressure - specially in England, where you have to play all the games at 100 per cent effort because 95 per cent isn't enough to get a win - what he says is absolutely true.'
WHEN Brian Clough arrived at Nottingham Forest, took them from the floor of the Second Division and gave them promotion, the League championship and the European Cup in consecutive seasons, it was like a dream for a club that had seemed to be in the early stages of terminal decline. In return, they gave him what he had always wanted and never had, particularly when he was at Derby County: complete control. With infinite indulgence, a succession of compliant Forest chairmen let him run the place.
'He is the club,' Darren Wassall said. 'When he finishes, it's obviously going to be the end of an era at Forest. They may never see the same success again. But, you know, no one man is bigger than a club.'
No? Not Brian Clough?
'Well . . . that's the football cliche, isn't it? But in this case . . . maybe this is different, yes.'
There's a whiff of impending tragedy here, which is partly why so many people will switch on to watch Forest play Southampton this afternoon in the third round of the FA Cup, having been reminded, for the umpteenth year, that this is the only domestic competition Clough hasn't won. All things must pass, but few great leaders are content to let them go gently, and we badly want to know how this old tyrant's saga will resolve itself. For 30 years, according to Lee Chapman in his recent autobiography, Clough has been driven by the 'overwhelming sense of unfulfilment' left by the knee injury, on Boxing Day 1962, that wrecked his brilliant playing career, and he is unlikely to find fulfilment now in the thought of leaving his team, his club, his monument, at the bottom of the table. But what are the voices telling him, and is he prepared to listen?
It was while meditating on the possible outcome of the story that David Pleat mentioned the Sportsnight interview, in which Clough said that while he might not have a lot of conventional qualifications - 'O levels, A levels, that type of thing' - he did have two European Cups, two League championships, and a bunch of other football trophies in their place. 'What he's saying,' Pleat observed, 'is, 'This is all I know, and without it I'm finished.' ' Forest's directors, who know that without him the past 18 years would have been very different, are likely to let him have the last word, as usual.
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