Memories of Brian Clough reveal just what English clubs in Europe are missing

It seems to have been overlooked that a common nationality has remained a hallmark of Champions League success

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There are so many joys in I Believe in Miracles – the film charting Nottingham Forest’s extraordinary rise to European supremacy, which premieres on Sunday – that you laugh, and long for just a little of what those unspun 1970s days gave. The City Ground laundry being raided to furnish Larry Lloyd’s wife with a washing machine to help persuade him to sign from Coventry. Fragments of Austin Mitchell’s legendary Yorkshire TV interview with Brian Clough and Don Revie, which really was one of a kind. Gary Newbon popping up with his microphone and big glasses wherever and whenever Clough seemed to be and asking the kind of questions we’d dare not contemplate. 

But it’s the team’s esprit de corps and Clough’s way of inculcating it which stay with you when the credits have rolled. 

It doesn’t feel modern to talk about a British football quality of heart and soul. Scour the Football Association’s DNA blueprint from top to bottom and you won’t find them. Nowhere in Uefa’s technical reports are such components mentioned, because modern elite sport is supposed to be about data, science and marginal gain. Didn’t that band of brothers have it, though?

Some of them were inherited by Clough; some drawn back into the light by him after meandering off football’s beaten path. They ran through nettles beside the Trent together, ate chip cobs together and had days off together, because he always had a huge belief in adequate rest. And against every conceivable expectation, they won the European Cup together, twice. 

Clough built that collective by knowing them and their interior minds. It very often meant identifying and working around their weaknesses too – a characteristic he shared with Bob Paisley and Alex Ferguson, the only two men whose records challenge the claim that he surpassed them all.

‘They gave me confidence in what I could do well and didn’t bother about what I couldn’t’

John Robertson

“What’s that on your face?” Clough demanded to know of Garry Birtles when he was last down to the hotel foyer, ahead of the coach journey to Munich’s Olympiastadion, for the 1979 European Cup Final against Malmo. 

“What do you mean?” said Birtles. 

“Around your chin…” replied Clough.

It was not an aversion to Birtles’ stubble that led him to cut short the player’s garbled explanation about skin soreness and order him upstairs to shave within five minutes or be dropped for the final, but the look of anxiety written across his face. Birtles has always known that the manager wanted to distract him and break the shackles of fear. This was the way he chose.

John Robertson was beset by more self-doubt than any of that team. “Couldn’t tackle my granny,” he says of himself. “They gave me confidence in what I could do well and didn’t bother so much about what I couldn’t do well.” 

And because Clough understood them, and because he said it was them against the world, and because the world refused to view them as anything more than interlopers whose “bubble” would burst, they would run to the end of the earth for each other and him. 

The 1979 semi-final against Cologne – Forest recovering to 3-3 from 2-0 behind in Nottingham and winning in the Müngersdorfer Stadion – illustrates the powers of recovery. Powers which have almost entirely vanished from the 21st-century landscape of English teams in Europe: a place where Arsenal lose to Olympiakos, Chelsea to Porto and Liverpool meekly draw with the fifth-best team in Switzerland at Anfield. 

The Independent columnist Danny Higginbotham discussed on these pages two days ago how English clubs have lost on 64 per cent of the times they have fallen behind in the Champions League in the past two years, compared with 14 per cent in the four seasons the trophy has been brought back to our shores in its modern incarnation. Our obsession with the technical and the tactical has seen us throw away the English qualities of heart, soul, spirit, and become a poor man’s Germany or Spain, he argued. 

He’ll tell you that spirit can be taught if the youth coaching environment is right – with fat salaries and soft-soap taken out; hard work and a little of the fear of God put in. Ferguson instilled that in him across the course of six years before telling him that United would be letting him go.

It was certainly easier in the 1970s to banish an entourage which might distract a player from the cause.  I Believe in Miracles retells the tale of Peter Shilton walking into a room at the City Ground with his two agents, ready to sign from Stoke, and Clough having the lights turned off and squash racquets laid on the floor literally to trip up the suited money men. “Get lost,” he told them. Alan Mullery gave Michael Robinson’s agents the same short shrift when they swanned in to Brighton. 

There was dissent. Archie Gemill tells the film-makers that there were “very harsh words said by both [sides]” when he was dropped by Clough for the Malmo final. He never played for Forest again. The look in his eyes and the crack in his voice when he relates this reveal that there was only one winner. “He got rid of me the following season… to Birmingham…” Gemmill says. It is the film’s moment of profound sadness.

It helped that every Forest player in that ’79 final was British. It meant they could read Clough and, much of the time, intuit the inflections of his voice and mood. 

It seems to have been overlooked that a common nationality – four players from a club’s own nation at least – has remained a hallmark of Champions League success. The little miracle of Dnipro, who ventured all the way to last season’s Europa League final, where they were defeated by Sevilla, reinforced the value of such a brotherhood. The team had to play their home games 245 miles away in Kiev because of the conflict in Ukraine. “They had a motivation to show all of Europe, ‘This is Ukraine’,” said Uefa’s technical observer, Dusan Fitzel.

 The boys of ’79 had something to say, too.  It wasn’t rocket science and it would not be known as sports science but it worked. “We were only under one pressure,” Ian Bowyer said of Clough’s expectations. “You gave your lot and that was it. He could live with people miscontrolling the ball. He could live with people shooting at goal and missing the target. He could handle all that. He couldn’t handle you not giving your lot.”

I Believe in Miracles will be in cinemas nationwide from 13 October and on DVD and Blu-ray from 16 November