How to get a good press: the secrets of Clough's inner circle

Football aside, the Forest manager also knew how to work the media, writes Trevor Frecknall
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The Independent Online

My first audience with Brian Clough ended with him easing me out of the City Ground with his foot, accompanied by a growled "F*** off". My final match as the Nottingham Forest correspondent of the local paper ended with the manager insisting that I carry the League Cup out of Wembley.

My first audience with Brian Clough ended with him easing me out of the City Ground with his foot, accompanied by a growled "F*** off". My final match as the Nottingham Forest correspondent of the local paper ended with the manager insisting that I carry the League Cup out of Wembley.

It goes without saying that I obeyed both instructions. Anyone required to remain in regular contact with the most mercurial manager football has ever known knew there was a simple rule: Cloughie gets what Cloughie wants.

And so when I, as the newly appointed sports editor of the Nottingham Evening Post, went to tell him in December 1978 that his favourite journalist had just been sacked for joining a strike, he listened carefully to why, asked a few questions that highlighted the ideological differences between his socialist beliefs and my employers' Thatcherite tendencies, then escorted me to the exit, saying: "You're banned. Don't take it personally. I think me and you could have got on. Hey - all life's a game."

"I'll be playing to win as well," I retorted.

"Good lad," he replied. "Now f*** off!" And his boot on my backside propelled me into the car park of the City Ground.

So the rest of the 1978-79 season was spent covering Forest matches without ever talking to the manager. The task was made easier by the club's committee members - the equivalent of today's directors - smuggling me into the ground for home matches and by the Post owner having a six-seater jet that propelled a photographer and myself around the Continent to European Cup ties, culminating in Forest's victory over Malmo in the final in Munich.

Come the following season, the plane could not take us to Sweden for a tie against Oester Vaxjoe. We were not going to be able to fly pictures back for the following day's paper - until Cloughie ended his ban by coming to our rescue.

"I'm not having any mates of mine stuck in a cold hole like this another night," he said, insisting he pack us on to the club's charter plane back to East Midlands Airport.

Mates of his? It had been nine months since he had spoken to either myself or our photographer. Apparently we had won him over by the way in which we had overcome the difficulties. He always appreciated wholehearted effort.

From that point on, Clough allowed me into his inner circle. Although he was only too aware of his status as Britain's most famous manager, he made a point of being available to the local paper and talking directly to the Forest fans. We would talk most days, after training, often with him in his famous green sweatshirt and his incongruous flat cap.

Of course, he knew the value of a story, but frequently preferred to give the big ones to me for free. In 1989, when he lashed out at a couple of supporters who invaded the pitch after Forest had beaten Queen's Park Rangers in the League Cup, we found the fans and engineered a reconciliation. Our view was that the louts had headed his hand, but the FA fined him a record £5,000.

The morning after the disciplinary hearing, the whole world wanted to know his reaction, but Cloughie grabbed me by the ear and led me past his first-team squad, took me into his office, poured me a huge whiskey and ginger (it was 10.10am), sat behind his desk wearing his trademark flat cap, waited for me to sup it and then gave me the story that the whole football world was begging for.

"The FA did me proud," he said, and as I waited, pen poised, for the next quote, he picked up his phone and dialled my office. "You make up the rest," he said. "Twelve pars - and if I don't like it, I can always cut you off."

After I had dictated the copy, Cloughie's digit closed on the telephone rest. "Now let me get to work," he said. "And if I hear any of that on the radio before I see it in the Post, I'll know you can't be trusted."

Clough knew all our deadline times and edition times, and he also knew how newspapers worked. For long periods he banned most of the nationals from the City Ground, allowing just myself and John Sadler (who wrote his column in The Sun) into the inner sanctum.

He rarely took umbrage at criticism of his team, so long as it was constructive. Criticism of him was more difficult, but also very rare. As the local paper, we knew all too well what he had done for the team and the area, and we knew how popular he was with our readers.

I was banned once, when I reported (with perfect accuracy) his quotes casting doubt over Peter Shilton's continuing suitability as the England goalkeeper. Shilton was by then a Southampton player, and Clough's assistant, Ronnie Fenton, pointed out that my quotes would provide the perfect incentive for him to play a blinder against Forest when the two teams met in a fortnight's time. Clough decided to deny the story completely, and back it up by refusing to talk to me.

We soon got over it and resumed our relationship. In 1990, I was trying to give up my 30-a-day smoking habit and he promised me a story every day so long as I succeeded. He was as good as his word - and even let me sit on the front seat of the coach with the League Cup when they retained it at Wembley.

Trevor Frecknall was sports editor of the Nottingham Evening Post from 1979-92.

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