This feature is part of The Masterminds series

The only way to simplify football is to make it complicated. As such, understanding who Brian Clough was and his impact on football seems appropriate for a man who embodied swagger, coolness, class, genius, insanity, arrogance, and brilliance; a man who whittled himself into one of the game’s sharpest thinkers with a winner’s edge. The great leaders in football master the ability to teeter that fine line between genius and madness, and Brian Clough took genius and madness to another level. Brian Clough was always ‘on the verge’.

Great football managers see the game differently. Clough saw the game in ways that channelled his stubborn, oftentimes angry, brilliance, which manifested in unprecedented heights of domestic and European success. From the outside looking in, it’s clear that when Clough, like all great managers, felt conflicted about something it’s because he was succeeding against the odds, with less resources and talent at his disposal and because he was seeing football from the necessary angles. Brian Clough showed that there are no aha! moments without delving deep into the complex.

Brian Clough grew up in Middlesbrough and experienced a humble upbringing. Like most young boys, he enjoyed playing football for hours at the local parks and in the streets. He wasn’t an academic; however, he was a genius. On the field, Clough was a lethal striker for hometown club Boro, where he scored over 200 goals in just over 200 league appearances between 1955 and 1961. It was his divisive and competitive attitude on the pitch that would mould Brian Clough the football manager.

The continual rifts with management as a player and the regularity with which he submitted transfer requests put Clough at odds with teammates and the coaching staff at Boro. It was also at Middlesbrough that Clough met Peter Taylor – a man who would play an enormous role in Clough’s evolution in football. Long before the post-match outbursts that create firestorms in the media today, Brian Clough would publicly criticise teammates and coaches for conceding goals, betting against the team, and altering match outcomes.

As a striker, Clough’s ability was only matched by his frustration and willingness to speak candidly about what was on his mind – an asset the world could come to know about Brian Clough. The competitive blood in his body continually oscillated between simmer and boil, and by 1961 he was sold to rivals Sunderland where he scored nearly a goal a game until 1964.

Internationally, Clough turned out twice for the Three Lions, but didn’t score. The Middlesbrough native’s playing days came to an abrupt end at Roker Park against Bury on Boxing Day in 1962, well before he knew it himself. A collision with goalkeeper Chris Harker resulted in a career-ending knee injury. A failed attempt at returning to football two years later forced Clough into retirement at the age of 29.

Forced out of playing the game, Clough entered the coaching ranks as Sunderland’s youth team manager in 1965. As a young coach coming to grips with his abrupt retirement, he was governed by the principles of discipline and establishing an authoritarian stance similar to that of his former manager, Alan Brown.

After a short stint coaching youth team football, he was offered the manager’s position at Hartlepool United. After accepting the position Clough reached out to Peter Taylor to be his assistant and the young managerial duo began working to improve the fortunes of Hartlepool United on and off the pitch. Continual run-ins with the chairman saw Clough and Taylor sacked, only to be reinstated by a boardroom coup. Under the direction of the brazen duo, the club gradually climbed the league table and finished in eighth place. The next year, the club was promoted.

Clough and Taylor’s reputation for building good footballing sides brought the attention, and eventually, the duo to Derby County, which for the previous 10 years had been trapped in the cellar of the Second Division. At Derby, Clough showed his ability to create teams in his vision by signing the core group of Alan Hinton, John O’Hare, Les Green, John McGovern and Roy McFarland.

The shrewdness of Clough also saw him chop the squad he inherited significantly along with firing the club secretary, ousting the ground staff and the chief scout. Clough’s purge continued as he fired two tea ladies he caught laughing after a Derby defeat. Further additions such as the bruising Dave Mackay and Willie Carlin completed the change in culture at Derby County and, in 1968, Clough’s Rams were crowned champions of the Second Division.

Clough’s impact, however, in his attitude and demeanour was unwavering to the point of brilliance. When he was wrong, he was right. His hardline approach to man-management allowed him to imprint his philosophy of play and conduct on his teams. The degree of his early success in club football management also played into his ego, but the football his teams played was the star.

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Clough was a visionary and his sides kept the ball on the deck and stayed disciplined with tactics and behaviour that brought more success. In Derby County’s first season back in Division One, the club finished in fourth position; however, the club was banned from Europe and fined for financial mismanagement. By the 1971-72 season, Derby tossed its weight around with England’s powerhouse clubs like Liverpool and Leeds United and were crowned league champions for the first time in their history.

The success of Clough’s managerial career is the stuff of legend and nobody knew it more than Brian Clough himself. Success in Europe reaffirmed his ability to coach “continental” football while competing with powerful Italian giants Juventus. His audacious approach to football management at Derby County launched him into a maelstrom of controversy as his ego began writing cheques the club could not cash. Clashes with the board, the fans, and the FA saw Clough catapult himself into the British sporting spotlight in ways nobody knew how to handle at the time. Outbursts and denigration seemed to worry people that the club’s success would be diminished. Clough, however, revelled in the controversy.

What few seemed to grasp was Clough’s persona was not a character he was playing – it was who he was as a football man. He continued to push the envelop of conduct through countless and timeless quotes that not only challenged the media, the fans, his employers and his players – but also his best friend and working partner.

Brian Clough was touched by genius but he was also touched by hubris, and what was best for Clough was not always best for Peter Taylor. Public spats and criticisms showed the world Clough’s willingness to put himself before others and as brilliant and quotable as Clough was, the world simply wasn’t prepared for such a personality to challenge the status quo and establishment. In 1973, after six years mixed with success, rebuilding, and some of the most vitriolic interviews British football had ever seen, Clough and Taylor resigned from Derby County, much to the dismay of the Midlands club’s supporters and community.

Perhaps what makes Clough such a legendary manager was his self-belief. One of his most famous quotes was also revealing in that it was what Clough believed himself: “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.”

After falling out with the board and chairman at Derby County, Clough and Taylor along with their staff found a brief home in the English Third Division with Brighton & Hove Albion. Here was arguably the best young manager in the British game taking his staff and duties down the football pyramid. Life on England’s south coast wasn’t easy, even for a managerial duo like Clough and Taylor, as the club won only 12 of the 32 games in which he was in charge.

The ambition of Brian Clough can be aptly defined as “chasing the dragon” – searching for that feeling and yearning to be heard and respected. In July 1974, Clough left Brighton for the vaunted Leeds United job – an episode that would either make or break Brian Clough, who was now managing a side without his right-hand man and that was constructed in the image of Don Revie – a man whom Brian Clough seemed to loathe over time.

Revie’s Leeds United played the type of football that championed the hard man and over-the-top tackles that defined British football for so long. Clough wanted to play attractive, possession football and didn’t buy into what Revie’s Leeds United sides played and how they conducted themselves on the pitch. His criticism of Leeds United and its team of bullies was not well received by the backbone of the side, which included Johnny Giles, Billy Bremner and Norman Hunter. The war of egos was on; Clough lost and was out of the Leeds job in 44 days. His sizeable payout gave him ample time to recalibrate and reassess his future in football management. 

The break-off from Leeds United was the best thing that could’ve happened to Clough, who made his return to coaching with Nottingham Forest and ushered in what is considered one of the most remarkable footballing eras of all time. At Forest, Clough focused more on the football and less on his celebrity status. Subsequently, he was re-joined by Peter Taylor and the two began to work their magic with the provincial club.

Promotion led to attention and speculation that Clough could and should be appointed England manager – a saga that still remains one of the more ridiculous non-appointments to date. The success of Clough at Forest saw him evolve from an ambitious manager with the guile to handle the press and players to a footballing genius. Clough’s sides beat the likes of Liverpool, Hamburg and Malmö to capture two European Cups in 1979 and 1980. In addition to conquering Europe, Forest also went unbeaten for a run of 42 games.

Clough’s run at the City Ground is perhaps evidence of what football does to a manager. Images of a weathered man, shackled by success and stress in a green sweater with a red undershirt remain iconic. Falling out with Peter Taylor proved to take its toll on Clough in the wake of Taylor’s death. The bronze statue of Clough at Pride Park freezes the image of arguably football’s best partnership.

Clough’s final days as a manager also showed the cruel nature of football’s evolution. Desperate to win, struggling with alcoholism, and worn down by his time on the sideline, Clough’s once great Nottingham Forest side was relegated in his final game. A man who was defined and worked through football’s old First Division simply couldn’t maintain what was required to succeed in the newly-created Premier League. Clough made the ordinary feel extraordinary and privileged feel rather average – a quality and skill honed by a lifetime of self-competition, critical analysis and unrelenting ambition.

In one of his most iconic interviews, Clough described himself perfectly: “That might be aiming for utopia. And that might mean being a little bit stupid. But that is the way I am. I am a little bit stupid regarding this type of thing. I am a bit of an idealist. I do believe in fairies. And that is my outlook.”

Brian Clough was polarizing in ways that make today’s most outspoken football managers look like choir boy conformists. With a comic’s wit and a watchmaker’s ability to grind gears and make time tick at his pace, his biggest asset was his ability to play the roles of footballer, manager, critic, comic, husband, father, psychologist, hero, and villain. As much as the man from Middlesbrough is considered a football man, perhaps it is best to simply consider Brian Clough as football itself.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3