Phil Shaw: How Clough put the East Midlands at the centre of Europe

Soon after John McGovern began playing for Brian Clough, which he would do at no fewer than four clubs, he was summoned to see the manager at the start of training after a mundane performance.

Soon after John McGovern began playing for Brian Clough, which he would do at no fewer than four clubs, he was summoned to see the manager at the start of training after a mundane performance.

"McGovern," snarled the man in the pale green sweatshirt. "Get a ball and dribble it round the corner flag and back here as fast as you can." Perplexed, but not daring to question Clough, the midfielder obliged, only to be instructed: "Now run to the flag and back without the ball."

Clough then asked: "Which was easier, with or without the ball?" McGovern, relieved because he knew he had the right answer, gushed: "Without." The response was a glare that could melt rock and a put-down in the famous nasal drawl. "Well why not try passing it on a Saturday?"

McGovern, who won championships under Clough at Nottingham Forest and Derby County, tells the story in a television documentary to be screened tomorrow. Local Heroes charts Forest's rapid rise from the gloomy depths of the old Second Division to the first of two back-to-back European Cup triumphs 25 years ago in May.

Its timing is doubly poignant. Tomorrow, Clough turns 69. Today, he will accompany his 14-year-old grandson Stephen to Pride Park for a match that will underline how far they have fallen, the East Midlands rivals with whom he conjured such magic. Forest visit Derby, with each fighting relegation to English football's third tier.

For the regional audience to which the programme is surprisingly restricted - Clough is a national icon and the interview finds him in reassuringly lucid and mischievous form - one striking aspect will be the number of people who played a prominent role with both clubs.

Apart from Clough, there was the late Peter Taylor, the right-hand man who thought and talked like him until his solo return to Derby sparked the rift of the gab. John Robertson, Archie Gemmill, Kenny Burns, Peter Shilton, John O'Hare and McGovern: all are major figures in the story of the Baseball Ground and the City Ground.

Clough did, of course, take Derby to the last four of the European Cup in 1973. To repeat the feat with another provincial club, and actually win the trophy as many times in 12 months as Manchester United have in nearly 50 years of trying, was a measure of his greatness.

"One of the secrets of [Forest's] success," Clough asserts, "was that everybody under-estimated us." Such an error would be understandable now, with both Forest and Derby back where he found them. However, it is a surprising view given the talent around him.

Some of it he inherited, though he and Taylor had to reinvent the player who created Trevor Francis's winner in the 1979 final against Malmo and scored the only goal against Hamburg when Forest retained the trophy. "When we arrived, John Robertson was playing in midfield," Clough says. "He couldn't run at outside-left, never mind in midfield. Poor lad couldn't run. But he had this unbelievable skill.

"There's no point having a diamond buried 40 feet down if nobody knows it's there. When you dig them up, they're covered in dirt. They've got to be polished and shaped. Then they glimmer. John was in that category. Martin O'Neill was, too."

Others he bought. Gemmill recollects that Clough arrived at his house and announced to the then Derby player: "I ain't moving till you sign. In fact, I'll go and sleep in the car outside." Gemmill continues: "He stayed the night. In the morning he just started again. I gave in. He had his breakfast, I signed and he dried the dishes."

Of Burns, the humdrum Birmingham centre-forward he turned into a top-class centre-half, Clough recalls: "He was an absolute villain. I'm sure his car wasn't taxed and it certainly wasn't insured. But he was one of the most charming men I've met."

On Shilton and his ongoing struggle to convince the England manager, Ron Greenwood, that he was a superior goalkeeper to Ray Clemence, he reflects with all his old television pundit's trademark certainty: "If he [Greenwood] didn't know that Shilton was better, God help us all."

Clough being Clough, he is eager to blow his own trumpet. He has argued, after all, that he, not Greenwood, would have had the England job had the Football Association not been cowed by his tendency to speak his mind. While he takes a paternal pride in how O'Neill and Robertson have built their own partnership, he is not averse to embarrassing the Celtic manager with an anecdote from the pair's playing days.

"Martin said to John: 'Why does he keep shouting at me to stop the cross?' John said: 'He wants us to stop the ball getting to our keeper where the danger's going to be. If we stop it out there, there's no danger.' It eventually dawned on Martin, with all his A and O Levels, that I knew what I was talking about."

Yet it was Clough's less conventional methods that set him apart. We see him turning up late, wielding a squash racket, for the signing ceremony after Francis's record-breaking £1m arrival from Birmingham. He often used Francis as a tea boy in order to keep him in his place.

Sometimes he was idiosyncratic to the point of cruelty. The day before the Malmo final he let O'Neill and Gemmill enthusiastically declare themselves fit after minor ailments. Now he boasts that he told them: "I'm absolutely thrilled for you because neither of you is playing."

He and Taylor - a classic "bad cop, good cop" duo according to Burns - went in for "bonding" sessions before anyone used the term in a football context. "We were the only team that got fined if we didn't go out for a drink on a Friday evening," remembers the striker Garry Birtles, a boyhood Trent Ender.

"The night before the 1979 League Cup final we were absolutely blotto. We went to bed at midnight, drunk. I crawled up the stairs on all fours." Forest came from behind to defeat Southampton at Wembley.

They amassed so many trophies that O'Neill told a colleague, in all seriousness: "It'll be a terrible season if we only win the European Cup." Derby supporters, their club increasingly gripped by financial crisis, looked on in envy and wondered what might have been.

For both clubs, thoughts of conquering a continent have long since given way to more parochial concerns. Today's heroes will be local in the narrowest sense. Tomorrow? Happy Birthday, Mr Clough.

Local Heroes: Nottingham Forest 1977-80 will be shown on BBC1 East Midlands at 1.25pm tomorrow. Digital viewers can watch the programme on channel 950.

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