Anatomy of a footballing genius: loved, hated, feared and revered

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A thousand tributes poured over the fallen head of Brian Clough yesterday but none of them carried the impact of the one that exploded in the corridors of Derby County Football Club 31 years ago.

A thousand tributes poured over the fallen head of Brian Clough yesterday but none of them carried the impact of the one that exploded in the corridors of Derby County Football Club 31 years ago.

It was delivered by a group of his players angry that his relations with the directors had deteriorated to the point of his resignation. They couldn't stand the idea of losing their messiah, the Mercedes-driving, champagne-quaffing socialist who had arrived at the top of English football with a raw but brilliant force.

"We're going to doing something about this," announced the goalkeeper Colin Boulton. It was a statement that was utterly compelling not because of the obvious strength of his emotion but the fact that he was carrying a large axe at the time.

The axe was to smash down the door of the boardroom, where the directors had gathered after refusing to meet the deputation of players. Clough moved on and no blood was spilled, but you saw so much of the effect of him in that tumultuous incident. You saw the fierce loyalty he engendered in one group, his players, and the resistance of the establishment, represented by the boardroom. There was little in between hate and love in response to Brian Clough. He was bitter and brilliant, outrageous and tender, self-destructive and inspiring, and that could be in the time it took to down a couple of brandies.

Clough was a genius in the matter of driving certain football teams into levels of over-achievement so staggering it defied logical analysis. One of his finest players, Archie Gemmill, the Scottish midfielder, once said: "Don't ask me how he does it, I can't tell you why we play for him as we do. It is not always affection, I can tell you. Maybe it's a bit of fear and a lot of admiration for the way he can produce the right mood in a dressing-room. The fact is it happens - and it's phenomenal."

The outline of Clough's career is enshrined in football history - promotion and titles for Derby County, promotion and European Cups for Nottingham Forest, clubs now anchored in the have-not anonymity of life outside the Premiership - but the nuances of his character will probably always remain a mystery, and perhaps in some ways as much to his beloved wife, Barbara, who from time to time was obliged to pick up bottles littering his Derbyshire garden when it seemed that he was committed to drinking himself to death, as those who tried to chart the erratic course of his life in and out of football.

When I first spoke to him I was on the routine chore of a footballer reporter. I wanted to know if his fast-rising Derby team was clear of a rash of injuries before an important match. "Aye, lad," he said, "but get your notebook open and take down this. I've just had Dave Mackay [the legend of the game he had signed from Tottenham Hotspur] in my office and told him he's a bloody disgrace. I told him I signed him because he was supposed to represent all that is best in a great professional and he would give a lead to my young lads. Well, in last night's match he didn't do that. He let me down, and I've just told him that if he does it again he's on his bike." Soon enough such a rebuke to one of the greatest players ever to grace the fields of English football would seem relatively mild.

In his 44-day implosion at Leeds United, where he inherited the reigning champions after Don Revie moved to take over the England job, he notoriously told the superb but injury-hampered winger Eddie Gray, "If you'd been a horse you would have been shot long ago." He said that as far he was concerned the Leeds players could throw all their medals in the nearest bin. He said they were cheats.

Earlier he had told a dinner thrown by Yorkshire TV to present the Leeds player Peter Lorimer with an award, that he had no respect for Leeds and, if they would excuse him, he needed to "take a piss".

What made Clough the astonishing force he was before he submitted to the ravages of drink which eventually led, two years ago and some considerable time after he had put away the bottle, to a liver transplant? Those who know him best say there was an substantial element of anger. He never quite forgave the fate that brought his brilliant career as a striker for his home town, Middlesbrough, and then Sunderland, to end through injury at the age of 29. He felt he should have played for England more than twice and much later he was incensed that the Football Association never saw him as a potential manager of the national team.

"Brian was right to feel that way, though it probably never did him any good," said one of his fiercest rivals in the Sixties and Seventies, the Manchester City coach, Malcolm Allison. "He was a superb player - I remember when I was West Ham centre-half going out against this scrawny kid from Middlesbrough. He was playing one of his first games and I told my team-mates: 'Don't worry, I'll put the kid in my pocket.' In the first minute he left me for dead and cracked the ball against the bar. Brian Clough was an original, and when it came to getting a team to play he was amazing."

Amazing, troubled, quirkish, he was all of those things. He was suspended for slapping around young fans who ran on to the City Ground at Nottingham. He fined players for the most minor infractions of the club dress code while at the same time pouring drinks down their throats before important games. In the hiatus between Derby County and Nottingham Forest, and the madness of Leeds, he had a brief stint at Brighton. He treated the project with supreme indifference.

In the middle of negotiations with a bright young player and his parents he said there wasn't a lot of money in the club kitty, but did they not like sprouts? He produce a bag of the vegetables and invited them to consider them a signing-on bonus. He said that sprouts were wonderful for youth health.

Less so, hard spirits of course, and by the end of his time at Nottingham Forest his face was a latticework of fiery blotches. In 1998 when the Football Association had vowed to clean up the game in the wake of the George Graham bung affair, they came up empty but for one convenient scapegoat.

Clough was charged with misconduct for allegedly accepting an unauthorised payment in the course of a player transfer. There was an an almost exquisite irony here. They had rejected the best of Clough, the roaring genius that saw him deploy the tubby Scottish winger John Robertson deep on the left and confuse both domestic and European football for years, and then singled him out for disrepute long after his time had gone.

Maybe it was no surprise that for several years he was close to his idol Geoff Boycott, the great batsman-curmudgeon of Yorkshire and England. Egocentric Yorkshireman, they lived lives entirely on their own terms. They broke rules of convention, and basic politeness, in the belief that the world would perhaps never quite understand what they had to offer.

Clough signed England's first million-pound player, the teenaged Trevor Francis, and he was first to recognise the potential of Roy Keane. He conquered England and Europe. He was a raging anarchist who believed in discipline. He was a football man who understood, most of the time, how to make players give their best, yet in half of his time he was hell-bent to destroy that in himself.

He was a huge presence in the game and in the life of the country and for those who knew him, loved him, even endured him, yesterday's news was like the turning-off of a light. In the gloom they were required to drink a toast. A pretty stiff one.