Billy Davies: 'I hope Nigel does very well at Derby... but not on Friday'

Nottingham Forest's new manager Billy Davies travels to his old club in the FA Cup this week to try to outwit their new coach Nigel Clough, the son of the clubs' shared messiah
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Friday's fourth-round FA Cup tie between Derby County and Nottingham Forest – two grand old clubs only 14 miles apart and separated by just one point in the lower reaches of the Championship, with a shared messiah in the form of the late Brian Clough – would be a tantalising prospect even without the added dimension of brand new managers pitting their wits against one another. That those two men are Nigel Clough and Billy Davies makes it more tantalising still: Brian's lad in charge of Derby, and Derby's most successful manager of recent seasons now installed at Forest.

Even if Davies wanted to play down the significance of the occasion, which he doesn't, it would be hard. "I've been getting phone calls from Japan, China, Australia, wanting to talk about this game," he says, his broad Govan accent unadulterated by years plying his trade south of the border. "I remember watching the draw, praying we'd get Derby at Derby. The atmosphere will be outstanding. And, contrary to reports, I've got some great friends there."

The pugnacious little 44-year-old Scot was sacked by Derby in November 2007, despite having led them, six months earlier, into the Premier League by way of the play-off final. The manner of his departure still rankles. "They'd fought relegation in seven of the previous eight seasons. When I got there, they had a squad of 17 players and one recognised striker, Paul Peschisolido. I sat down with [chairman] Peter Gadsby and we set out our aims: stability in year one, top half year two, promotion year three. But we were promoted inside 11 months. We achieved miracles."

Many Derby supporters, he asserts, still recognise as much. "But even today you hear some of the fans moaning that [in the promotion season] we didn't play the best football, that we were only winning games one-nothing. Excuse me? I was astounded by their lack of intelligence. You first make a team hard to beat, then you develop fluent football. As the years went by I would have turned them into a good footballing side."

Even as he acknowledged the plaudits of euphoric townsfolk during the open-top bus parade following victory in the play-off final over West Bromwich Albion, he knew, he says, he would not get the chance, that he wouldn't be handed the funds needed to keep the club in the Premier League. His nemesis was the former Hull City owner Adam Pearson, who bought into the club and, in October 2007, succeeded Gadsby as chairman.

"I had to sit and smile through the words of Adam Pearson when he said I had done an outstanding job, and that if Derby County did go down, there wasn't a better man to bring them straight back up. I knew he didn't mean that." The following month, with six points from 14 Premier League games, Davies was sacked. "Adam Pearson had his own agenda, and that's fine, that's football, but the way my wife was treated ... at matches she was isolated, Pearson never looked after her, never introduced her to anyone..."

He tails off. I ask him whether, his "great" friends at Derby notwithstanding, he considers Friday's Cup tie a grudge match.

"No, I've no grudges. But I have more respect for some people there than for others, that's all I'll say."

And so up the A52 to Forest, where two weeks ago he found himself, for the second time in his career, following in the footsteps of Brian Clough. We are talking in the club's trophy room, where a replica of the European Cup, among many other glittering prizes, offers a reminder of the heritage that modern Forest managers can choose whether to ignore, treat as a burden, or use as inspiration.

Davies, in his idiosyncratic way, is doing all three. "It's nice seeing the pictures on the walls," he says. "What wonderful days they were. But my aim is to remove some of them and put up new pictures, of new success. You can't compare then and now, because even the great Brian Clough would have a difficult job today with Bosmans and whatever else. The Clough family were very supportive of me at Derby, you know. And I phoned Nigel when he got the job and wished him all the best. He's a great lad and it's a great appointment, and I hope he does a very good job there." A pause, and a chuckle. "Except for next weekend."

Whichever of these East Midlands rivals forges on to the fifth round, Davies knows his priorities: to keep Forest in the division, and strengthen during the summer, not least by bringing in some experienced players. "At Preston [where he succeeded Craig Brown as manager in 2004] I had a team full of experience. At Derby, the same. But here [Ian] Breckin is 35 or 34 [actually he's 33], the next oldest player is [Robert] Earnshaw at 27, and down below that we're looking at changing nappies. There's great potential here but the league table doesn't lie."

Davies can be forgiven the odd cliché, for he is the least clichéd of operators. When in 2001 he was sacked from his first managerial position, at Motherwell, he used his time out of a job to pay his way round Europe, studying continental coaching methods. "I wanted to re-educate myself," he says now. "I did every coaching course, went on every seminar, spent a week at Real Madrid. It was all about personal development."

For six months after leaving Derby he made his family his all-consuming priority, all-consuming except for a fact-finding visit to Houston Dynamo, where his old friend John Spencer is assistant coach. Then it was time to embark on another bout of overseas re-education, notably at Atletico Madrid and Juventus. And he took with him Julian Darby and Pete Williams, who'd been his assistants at Preston and Derby, confident that he'd soon be back in employment and be able to offer them work. Sure enough, they are with him at the City Ground.

"Juventus was incredible," he says. "There were bodyguards round every corner, walkie-talkies everywhere. If you stepped one foot where it shouldn't be there'd be someone telling you. But [Juve coach Claudio] Ranieri was first-class. He gave us a lot of time after training. And when we first got there he comes out and says, 'Billy, I'm pleased to meet you, it wasn't your fault.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'The Premier League [from which Derby, by then with Paul Jewell as manager, were eventually relegated with only one win all season]. It wasn't your fault.' I appreciated that. And it was great seeing how they do things at Juventus."

There can't be many managers, I venture, quite as keen as he is to absorb new coaching ideas. He smiles, taking this as the compliment it is intended to be, although the word keen might just as easily be obsessed.

"I have about 50 A4 folders with training programmes all the way back to my first pre-season in 1979 with Rangers, on the sand dunes with Jock Wallace," he says. "As a player, even in my early twenties, I coached boys' clubs, community teams, did my badges, learnt to deal with different types of people. I played for 22 different managers at eight clubs in three countries, and I learnt lots of positives and lots of negatives from people like Jock Wallace, John Greig, David Pleat, Tommy McLean, Alex McLeish. I watched them, thinking, 'I would do that but I wouldn't do that'. Ultimately, you've got to be your own man."

It is my turn to smile, for he is unequivocally that. "I read lots and lots of sports autobiographies," he continues. "Jose Mourinho's was the last one, but I read about snooker players, golfers, basketball players, baseball coaches. I'm very keen on basketball coaching, because it's very similar to football with the movement off the ball, the interchange of play, how they defend, how they counter-attack." I risk a reference to his diminutive stature, suggesting he wouldn't have made much of a basketball player himself. "No," he says, with a chortle. "I'd be the water boy."

As improbable as finding a Scottish football man of 5ft 5in in thrall to basketball is finding a Scottish football man studying women's soccer in America for inspiration. Davies has done that, too. "I read about Mia Hamm, who's a top striker. That's a great book."

I ask him whether there is a danger that all these thoughts will clutter his mind. "Well, the time to do it is when you're having time out. Once you're in this job there ain't no time, it's 24 hours a day. That's why I gave six months to the family because before, even when we went on holiday I'd be walking up and down a beach in Dubai on the phone all the time."

The Spanish way of doing business, he adds, is different. "The most interesting thing at Real Madrid was watching [then Real manager Vicente] del Bosque arrive at 9.45 for a 10.30 training session and walk out the door at 1.20 to go home to his family. There, coaches coach. They don't stay on talking about the commercial department, the media department, the pies, the wall coverings, the carpets." Meaning what, that Davies would like to see more continental-style directors of football, as introduced with conspicuous lack of success at clubs such as Tottenham, relieving managers of some of their onerous responsibilities? "No, because we don't get the balance right here. General managers, directors of football, there are too many jumping out their boxes. In Spain, in Italy, they know who's doing what. Like Ranieri and Del Bosque said, 'I do the football'."

Both those illustrious men have achieved great things in football, but it is to a fellow son of Govan, indeed another son of a Govan shipyard worker, that Davies looks when he wants confirmation that his feisty, uncompromising manner, forged on the banks of the Clyde, will yield rewards. Unfortunately, he was sacked by Derby less than a month before he was due to do battle with his friend Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, and he yearns for another chance.

"I have unfinished business in the Premier League," he says. "I want to get back there and be able to compete financially, because you can't succeed on the field unless you bring in players with the arrogance to compete at that level. I'm going to get back there, hopefully with this club. I want to walk out at Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool..." He looks at me fiercely, as if daring me to tell him that he'll never pull it off. Actually, I fancy he might. Then I invite him to tell me more about his childhood, and his eyes crinkle, lifting the characterful bags that sit beneath them. "My father was a welder," he says. "It is because of him and my mother, and the upbringing they gave me, that I don't speak to anyone on my staff any different, from the cleaner to the groundsman. My parents gave me morals and integrity."

And he has given me enough of his valuable time. We shake hands, and he hurries away to plot the defeat of Plymouth Argyle, in his first home match in charge. This was duly and comfortably achieved on Saturday, 2-0, although I don't suppose it was the three points that the Forest faithful went home thinking about, but the form and confidence that the players will take later this week up the A52, otherwise known as Brian Clough Way, to Pride Park. Where the ghost of Old Big 'Ead will doubtless be the most interested spectator of all.

For the story behind the picture, click here.

The Clough years at Forest

*On 28 December 1974, Forest, languishing in the Second Division, were beaten by neighbours Notts County. Nine days later: enter Brian Clough, to be joined 18 months after that by Peter Taylor. At the end of 1976-77, they were back in the First Division.

*Forest storm to the league championship in their first season back in the top flight, finishing seven points clear of Liverpool. They also beat the European champions to win the League Cup, after a replay.

*Next season they are kings of Europe, knocking out the holders Liverpool in the first round and lifting the European Cup in Munich, a diving header by the £1m signing Trevor Francis seeing off Malmo in the final.

*Forest retain their European crown in 1980 with a 1-0 win over Kevin Keegan's Hamburg in Madrid. In less than four years Forest had won the league title, two European Cups, one European Super Cup and two League Cups.

*Clough then endures several fallow seasons, not helped by costly transfer mistakes, such as Justin Fashanu. However, he builds a new side around players such as Neil Webb, Des Walker, Stuart Pearce and his son Nigel that win the League Cup in 1989 and 1990, and reach the final of the FA Cup in 1991.

*Clough becomes more and more erratic, key players are allowed to leave and are not replaced, and Forest are relegated in 1993. Thanks to the goals of Stan Collymore, they bounce back under Frank Clark a year later but go down again in 1997. Apart from a brief return with Dave Bassett, they have spent the best part of a decade outside the top flight.

After taking Preston North End to two successive Championship play-offs, Billy Davies was interviewed to become Charlton Athletic manager in May 2006, after Alan Curbishley's departure. The job was eventually given to Iain Dowie.