When Brian Clough was appointed Derby County manager in the summer of 1967, the club had just finished 17th in the Second Division. They had survived relegation to the third tier of English football by a mere six points, having won only 12 games all season. Only Bury, who ended the campaign rock bottom, registered fewer victories.
Clough was not taking on a sleeping giant either. Granted, Derby were one of the 12 founder members of the Football League. They had a rich history and a proud fan base. But this was not a case of a new manager arriving to restore former glories. Derby had never won the First Division title before. They had a solitary FA Cup to their name having triumphed in 1945/46, the first peacetime season after the Second World War that was carried out in a state of flux. After promotion back to the Second Division in 1957, Derby spent most of the subsequent decade toiling in the bottom half of the league.
Clough, working in tandem with his assistant Peter Taylor, made an instant impact. The duo immediately set about reshaping the squad. Derby signed Roy McFarland, John O’Hare, John McGovern and Alan Hinton among others, and released 11 of the 15 first-teamers they inherited. It was all change at the Baseball Ground.
Within a couple of years Derby were back in the First Division – and not just to make up the numbers. The Rams finished fourth in 1969/70 and ninth in 1970/71, before winning the title the following year.
Clough departed in 1973 after falling out with the board of directors, but that was not the end of his success in the East Midlands. Determined to rebuild his reputation after a curious spell at Brighton & Hove Albion and an ill-fated one at Leeds United, Clough arrived at Nottingham Forest in January 1975. Like Derby, they were in the Second Division when he arrived. After reuniting with Taylor in the summer of 1976, Clough led Forest to promotion to the top flight – and then won the title in their very first season back.
The best was yet to come. Remarkably, Clough and Taylor led the unfashionable side to back-to-back European Cups. It was a phenomenal feat that has only been managed by a handful of clubs: Ajax, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Inter, Liverpool, AC Milan and Nottingham Forest. Spot the odd one out.
The second of those successes came in 1980, after which Clough would spend another 13 years at the City Ground. His final season ended in heartbreak as Forest suffered relegation, but Clough’s achievements in the 1980s are often overlooked. Yes, he did not win another league title or European Cup, but his Forest side continued to punch above its weight given the increasing financial disparities that had crept into the English game. There were three third-place finishes in the First Division and two League Cup triumphs, all achieved while playing positive, attack-minded football.
Playing positive football and having good sportsmanship was important to Brian Clough. According to Jonathan Wilson’s biography about Clough, he once finished a match versus Crystal Palace playing 10 against 11 with none of his players sent off, because he hated Palace’s muscular approach and wanted to ‘take the piss’ out of them by playing with 10.
Those aforementioned financial disparities have only grown larger in the 28 years since Clough’s retirement. In the modern game it is simply impossible to imagine a newly promoted team winning the Premier League. True, Leicester City did so in 2015/16 in their second campaign back in the top tier – a stupendous accomplishment from Claudio Ranieri and his players. But Ranieri’s Leicester, quite naturally, did not go on to win two Champions Leagues in a row. Clough’s sensational achievements will never be repeated.