Brian Clough and the 32-game spell at Brighton that helped shape his future success

Brian Clough and the 32-game spell at Brighton that helped shape his future success

There are two television interviews with Brian Clough that take part not much more than 12 months apart, spanning the autumns of 1973 and 1974, which paint two very different pictures of the iconic football manager. The classic double-sided coin effect is in full view.

The first of these interviews was conducted by Michael Parkinson, who was in conversation with the PT Barnum version of Clough. This interview took place on 20 October 20 1973, after Derby had beaten Leicester at the Baseball Ground. Seven days earlier, Clough had led Derby to a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford against a faltering Manchester United, but at the East Midlands derby encounter with Leicester, Brian Clough was no longer in charge of the team.

The escalating game of brinksmanship between Clough and his chairman, Sam Longson, a game that had seen Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor resign on a regular basis, only to be cajoled into staying, had taken an unexpected turn as far as Clough was concerned. Longson, growing tired of Clough’s outspoken ways and also feeling his own part in Derby’s rise to prominence had been silenced, finally accepted Clough and Taylor’s resignations.

Longson went further, as he swiftly appointed Dave MacKay as his new manager. Despite MacKay being a former player of the club and having been brought in from rivals Nottingham Forest, it didn’t do anything to quell the anger of not just a vociferous and sizeable section of the Derby fans, but also the players too.

With protests taking place outside the ground and rumours of player mutiny inside the dressing room, plus a new manager taking charge for the first time and the Clough-Longson row continuing in a very public manner, it made for a volatile backdrop to the visit of Leicester. When Longson took his seat in the directors’ box, there were audible cheers and jeers.

What came next was extraordinary, as just a short few yards to Longson’s right, while the chairman was still on his feet and waving to the crowd, Clough himself appeared into view and was met by noticeably louder cheers and also louder jeers. The footage of the incident makes for a remarkable piece of football-sociological theatre.

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Derby went on to win the match 2-1. Clough didn’t stick around to watch this, however, as he was heading to London and his interview with Parkinson.

The interview with Parkinson didn’t disappoint an expectant nation, which had tuned in for the next round of a feud Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier would have been proud of. There is a stage of the interview where the point of no return was clearly breached, so much so that Parkinson shifted uncomfortably in his swivel chair, not through any physical issue but due to the words tumbling from Clough’s open mouth.

Clough didn’t specifically name his now-former chairman, but when he suggested that 85, perhaps 90 percent of chairmen bring the game into disrepute there was exaggerated laughter from Parkinson, in that way all people will politely laugh a couple of notches higher than necessary at a mildly amusing one-liner. By this gesture from Parkinson, Clough was encouraged to push the notion further when he went on to say, “Every time they open their mouth, it kills it.” It, of course, being football.

In a snapshot, Clough found himself in a position where he could play down the comments and backtrack, or he could plough on regardless of the personal damage he might sustain. That Clough chose to plough on meant that not just the door at Derby, but also many other clubs, would slam shut in his face, despite the talent and success he might possibly bring.

Twelve days later, with the cream of the English game not having beat a heavy trail to his front door with offers of employment, Clough, a man who could not live without football for extended periods, reappeared at the Goldstone Ground, home of Division Three strugglers Brighton and Hove Albion.

In a little over a season and a half, Clough would travel the distance from champions of England with Derby to a chastening week in charge of Brighton and Hove Albion that embraced an 8-2 league loss at the Goldstone to Bristol Rovers, preceded just three days earlier by a 4-0 defeat once again on home soil in an FA Cup first-round replay against non-league Walton and Hersham.

Even for a man who cut his managerial teeth in the lower divisions at Hartlepools United, prior to being recommended for the Derby job by the legendary Len Shackleton, this was a seismic culture shock to Clough’s system and it was one which he never saw coming.

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Brighton had spent most of their Football League history in the third tier of the English game up to Clough’s unexpected arrival on the south coast. They had, however, been relegated from Division Two back to Division Three at the end of the previous season at the first time of asking after promotion in 1972. From the outside looking in, Clough possibly saw a greater potential than reality delivered him.

A month into the job and Clough was left under no illusions about the size of the reconstruction his new team required. The day after the cataclysmic loss against Bristol Rovers, Clough didn’t flinch when it came to his on-screen duties for ITV’s ‘The Big Match’ when the TV cameras had been in attendance at the Goldstone. Clough sat in a London studio and dissected the way his own defence had conceded each and every one of the eight goals Rovers had put past them.

Matters didn’t improve swiftly: Brighton won just one of Clough’s first ten games in charge and even the belated arrival of his assistant Peter Taylor failed to bring about the anticipated magic formula for success at the Goldstone. A very real relegation battle was beginning to unfold and Division Four football became a realistic possibility for a man who, just a few short months earlier, had led Derby into a European Cup semi-final against Juventus.

After two months of toil, the final game of 1973 brought Brighton a narrow 1-0 win at home to Plymouth. It was just Clough’s second win at the helm of the club, but it started a 12-game run where they lost only once.

By mid-March Brighton were sat in a healthier-looking mid-table position and a comfortable top-half finish wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility. Clough’s man-management and Taylor’s eye for fine detail were slowly beginning to yield rewards. On 16 March, Brighton travelled to Shrewsbury on the back of four successive victories, their best run of form all season. With Shrewsbury struggling and Brighton arguably the form team in the division, two more points were expected to be gained.

Brighton slipped to a 1-0 defeat. The club would go on to lose three of the next four games and while the blanket disarray of November and December wasn’t quite repeated, the confidence that was built throughout the early months of 1974 certainly vanished, as goals became hard to come by.

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An early April bounce of three straight wins alleviated fears that Brighton might topple back into the relegation battle, but picking up only one point over the course of the last four games of the campaign saw the club finish the season down in 19th, just two positions above the relegation zone, yet still a comfortable eight points clear of the drop.

Clough was in charge at Brighton on a match-playing basis for six months, from the beginning of November 1973 to the end of April 1974. It’s fair to say that those six months had three very definitive sections: the painful and embarrassing months of November and December; the promise and hopefulness of January and February; and the inconsistencies of March and April.

Clough’s time at Brighton has remained a footballing mirage over the last four decades. A simple textbook glance towards a 19th-place finish during his one and only season on the south coast doesn’t really scratch the surface of what remains one of the great ‘what might have been’ concepts in the history of English football. In fact, in a congested bottom half of the table, Brighton finished just four points behind tenth-placed Huddersfield that season.

Clough was left frustrated, however. Not necessarily by Brighton and Hove Albion, who were a club with an ambitious chairman and essentially a blank canvass to work with, but by the fact that at Derby he had already been in possession of the near-finished article. His Rams had been champions in 1972, European Cup semi-finalists in 1973, and had begun 1973/74 with designs on challenging for the title once again.

To find himself back where he’d started, down in the lower divisions and with a long road back to the big time, all proved too much when Leeds came calling for his services in July. All too suddenly, Clough was gone.

Long before his infamous 44 days in charge at Elland Road had come to an end, Clough had come to realise as much as Leeds were the wrong club in the right place, Brighton and Hove Albion were just as conversely the right club in the wrong place. He perhaps came to simultaneously regret both joining and leaving the Goldstone Ground club in varying degrees.

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When he left Brighton he walked away from not only his footballing soul mate in Peter Taylor, but also Mike Bamber, the man Clough classed as the best chairman he ever worked for. Clough would forever believe that he could have achieved all he did with Nottingham Forest at Brighton and Hove Albion instead.

While Clough chose to take up the offer from Leeds, Taylor turned the opportunity down. Just what kind of difference his presence would have made at Elland Road is open to debate, but Taylor felt Brighton were owed his loyalty. He led the club for two seasons before joining up once again with Clough at the City Ground in the summer of 1976, after the disappointment of a near miss on promotion from Division Three. Within a year, both clubs won promotion from their respective divisions. By 1979, Brighton had made it to the top flight for the first time in their history.

That second television interview in the autumn of 1974 was conducted by David Frost. Whereas Michael Parkinson had been interviewing a Brian Clough who was at war with Sam Longson and his Derby board, Frost was faced with a more philosophical Clough. Deep introspection and the inner-mechanics of Clough’s mind were laid bare in possibly the most open interview of his career.

All of Clough’s confidence is offset by his fears: the pain of his failures and the disappointments of the previous 12 months temper his burning ambition. He is between jobs and still a month or so away from taking over at Nottingham Forest; his future is financially secure yet also aesthetically uncertain. There is almost an adolescent innocence to his demeanour. He wants to return to football, but football has wounded him. He is restraining himself from jumping straight back in with both feet raised as he had when resurfacing at Brighton after his Derby days had ended abruptly.

Frost was in conversation with a man who hadn’t necessarily changed, but one who had noticeably recalibrated. Clough had grown as an individual, matured to an extent. His 44 days at Leeds did much of that to him, but his nine months at Brighton and Hove Albion should also take greater credit than it does for the remodelling of the Clough persona.

While his time at the Goldstone Ground is the period of his career that is the most glossed over – often plainly ignored – it was arguably a bigger learning curve than his time at Elland Road. It also stands the test of time as one of the sports great what-ifs.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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