A demagogue runs out of diesel

Simon Garfield
Friday 25 September 1992 23:02

'THE THING you want to know about Clough,' says the landlord of the Stage Door pub in the centre of Nottingham, 'is that he'll never be sacked and he'll never quit. His pride won't let him. Not in this position.'

This position . . . well, it can't get much worse. Nottingham Forest Football Club, once the pride of the city, former champions of the First Division, twice winners of the European Cup, and of the League Cup many times - those mighty, glorious Reds - now find themselves at the bottom of the Premier League. Played 8, won 1, drawn 1, lost 6; and so the rumours start, terrible rumours, that Brian Clough may be leaving town after 17 years as manager.

At most other clubs, in most other cities, a manager's anticipated departure would not be the prime topic of conversation at street corners and in bars. But here, even if you support Notts County, even if you don't like football at all, crises Clough overshadow crises global. Here they know how to boost the economy - get Brian to return his empties. And here they link our European economic problems directly to Clough's sale of Des Walker, their outstanding defender, to an Italian club.

But there is also fear in the air, a fear that if their manager leaves they will be plunged back into the dark ages one season BC (Before Clough), a time when only Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United stalked the land - and what could be worse than that?

When Clough arrived, Nottingham Forest were sulking near the foot of the Second Division. They looked a lost cause. Clough understood the Second Division from his days as a player, but it was his earlier management stints, for Hartlepool and the loathed local rivals, Derby County, that the Forest board valued most (they tried to ignore his turbulent spell at Leeds United, which lasted only 44 days).

He came on as the salty demagogue on diesel, a plain-speaking disciplinarian who had many an emetic habit: he was never wrong about anything; he referred to his team as 'pansies'; he thumped pitch invaders and kissed policemen; he called everyone 'young man', even media folk far older than himself. But he possessed one talent above all others: he made young players play above themselves. The tricky football he produced was a delight to watch.

'What's happening now is very sad,' says the landlord at the Stage Door. A huge man named Larry Lloyd, he won several cup-winners' medals with Clough as a defender at Forest in the late Seventies. Clough once fined him pounds 500 and dropped him for not wearing his blazer on a return trip from a game in Athens. 'He hasn't changed much,' Lloyd reckons. 'Clough is still, um, unique in many ways.'

Last week it was announced that Clough, 57, would be made an Honorary Freeman of the City. The reason? He is such an institution, does such good charity work. But the timing? 'We had heard a rumour that Brian would not be in charge at Forest for that much longer,' explains Betty Higgins, leader of the city council. 'I don't know whether it's true or not, but we wanted to do it while he was still in charge.'

At the Nottingham Evening Post, photographers are given special instructions. 'At the last home game we told our man to make sure he took pictures of Cloughie as he came on at the very start,' says the special projects manager, Ian Manning, 'just in case the crowd got at him and he said: 'Sod it, that's it, I'm off'.'

'His unpredictability is one of the things that keeps him on the front pages as well as the back,' says John Lucy, the paper's sports editor. Lucy has detected a growing cloud over the city as the run of defeats continues. 'People walking with their heads down a bit, you know, 'Oh no, Forest have lost again.' You don't see so many red football shirts in the streets.'

Both Manning and Lucy lament Clough's often terrible transfer decisions. The best players go, and the worst come. Once Clough even signed a man called Raimondo Ponte, one of the few Swiss internationals to play in the English league. Ponte didn't last long, but the fans got the chance to write some pretty ugly songs about him.

On the letters page of the Football Post there is a right Clough ding-dong. One week the fans say: 'Send him packing', the next they say: 'Give the guy more time.' Some talk of their grandfathers, such as one last Saturday from Bob Smedley, a diehard from Blackpool: 'Oh . . . that day in 1959 when my grandad got two tickets to Wembley . . . Let's at least give him until the new year before we judge. I think we might just be able to say, 'Well, he's got a funny way of achieving it, but once again he's doing it'.'

The club's unofficial fanzine, called Brian, runs rather more acerbic commentary. 'Clough demands conformity and discipline from those around him,' writes Rich McKenzie in the latest issue, 'yet rejects himself those very things he requires from others.' McKenzie explains why Clough would not make a good England manager, as many have insisted he would: 'For B C to be a winner, a certain formula is required.' He may only be able to work his magic on struggling clubs in need of radical upheaval; he needs the directors to leave him alone and accommodate his idiosyncrasies; and the club has to be rich enough to afford his services.

McKenzie reckons that in five years' time Brian Clough will be retired, enjoying his gardening, campaigning for the Socialist Workers Party and writing for the Sun. He'll still come to watch his favourite team - which McKenzie

believes to be Derby County.

This afternoon Forest are away to Chelsea. Clough will be aware that a win, and a couple of subsequent victories, will be enough to take the pressure off. He has money to buy new players and probably enough goodwill to let him take time in their selection.

But for Tom Feely, the game is up. On Thursday night Tom was at the Odeon in Angel Row and the local despair had got to him. 'He has to go. He's been here too long.' Tom knows about loyalty - he has been a fan for 15 years, and known no other manager - but he thinks enough is enough; Clough is too old, too mad. He's at the Odeon to see A League of Their Own, a film about a women's baseball team managed by a man who likes a drink or two.

'I know who we should get]' Tom says.

'Kenny Dalglish?'

'Geena Davis. Geena Davis in shorts. We might not win many games, but frankly who would care?'

(Photograph omitted)

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