When they mattered: Derby under Brian Clough

In June 1971, the presenters of that great institution of British children’s TV, Blue Peter, buried a time capsule containing some of the treasures of the era – a Blue Peter annual, a set of decimal coins, and photographs of the show’s three presenters. The capsule was dug up, amid wild excitement, in 2000.

The unearthing of the capsule’s soccer equivalent might make a rather more interesting experiment. A look at the Division 1 table from that year reveals Arsenal as champions and double winners, followed by Leeds, Spurs, and Wolves. Leeds beat Juventus on away goals to win the Fairs Cup, that distant ancestor of the Europa League, while Chelsea won the European Cup Winners Cup by beating Real Madrid in Athens.

Lurking quietly in 9th was a team from a small East Midlands city that was in the process of leaving an indelible mark on the English game. Derby County’s brief spell of glory, which brought league title wins in 1972 and 1975, may have been fleeting, but the career, and legacy, of the club’s manager, a certain Brian Clough, would last well into the current century.

Close your eyes and try to imagine Britain in the 1970s, a place far removed from the dazzling heat of Mexico City, where Brazil’s samba boys of Pelé, Tostão, Carlos Alberto Torres and the rest had just won the World Cup. In January 1971, 66 fans died in a crush at Ibrox at the end of the Old Firm clash between Rangers and Celtic, while a year later, on what became known as Bloody Sunday, British soldiers shot 14 civilian protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, in one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles. Inflation, wage disputes, and electricity restrictions made the Isles even gloomier.

But two men had escaped all that, albeit temporarily. Brian Clough was on holiday with his family in the Scilly Isles, and Peter Taylor went to Mallorca with the Derby players, who had just completed the 1971-72 season. Both men were glued to their radios, however, listening as Leeds – managed by Clough’s nemesis, the great Don Revie – lost to Wolves, and Liverpool drew with Arsenal. The title was Derby’s.

Just five years before, Clough and Taylor had left little Hartlepool to take over at Derby County – a club which, as Jonathan Wilson writes in his biography of Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You, was “something of a backwater…the club had stagnated, largely because of a lack of investment.” Derby had had moments of glory in the past, namely an FA Cup win in 1946, but before Clough and Taylor came along, this was a club that had barely even dreamed of success.

But for a few short years, Clough and Taylor changed all that, taking on the established order in a way that hardly seem possible today, where managers can only ever be as good as the financial resources of their clubs allow them to be. While a Pochettino or a Koeman may take a club like Southampton to the edge of glory – Champions League qualification, perhaps – the ceiling, formerly of glass but now papered over with the dollars of the billionaire owners of their richer rivals – sits just above their heads.

In 1967, before Clough, the irascible, troubled dreamer and motivator, and Taylor, the more sanguine expert spotter of talent, took over, Derby finished 17th in Division 2. While there was little improvement in the duo’s first season at the cramped, atmospheric Baseball Ground, a mixture of inspired signings and Clough’s indomitable man-management techniques meant better times were on the way.

And what signings they were. “The kid never lost his composure,” Taylor had written of central defender Roy McFarland, then a 19-year-old at Tranmere. “I noted again his cultured left foot and his ruthlessness.” Not long after he arrived at Derby, Clough would be praising McFarland as “the finest center-half in the country.”

Clough’s first three signings, McFarland, striker John O’Hare, and winger Alan Hinton, would make a total of 1,154 appearances for the club, but what would really change the culture at Derby was the arrival of Dave Mackay, a 33-year-old wing half from Spurs who, before Clough sabotaged the deal, had been on the verge of becoming player-manager of Edinburgh club Hearts.

“Of all Clough’s signings, perhaps none was as significant,” writes Wilson, noting that the great Eusébio had described Mackay as “the finest wing-half I ever played against.” Clough turned the aging Mackay into a sweeper and Derby never looked back. “We felt unbeatable and it all stemmed from Dave,” Clough said. “He brought a swagger to the team, to the whole club.”

Derby’s transfer dealings were based on a unique partnership. Taylor found the rough diamonds, Clough pursued them relentlessly, and both men polished them until they shone. One such raw talent was midfielder John McGovern, who followed the duo from Hartlepool (and would later play for Clough at Nottingham Forest, where he won two European Cups), but hardly looked like a world beater when he arrived at Derby. As Mackay described it “that afternoon a boy with fair hair and a neat side-parting arrived at the ground on a push-bike. As he approached us, I guessed he was a rather bold, adolescent autograph hunter.”

Clough’s dogged pursuit of his targets was legendary. One such chosen one was Scottish midfielder Archie Gemmill. “Clough didn’t like the idea of leaving his quarry overnight, particularly not as Everton were known to be hovering,” writes Wilson, “and so said that he’d sleep, in his account, on the sofa or, in Gemmill’s (version of events), in his car…Gemmill’s wife took pity on him and, as she made up the spare room, Clough washed up the dinner plates. He signed Gemmill over bacon and eggs the following morning.”

The team that Derby was assembling, coupled with Clough’s towering self-confidence – “there is a sense with Clough’s early period of management that the self-belief he radiated was so absolute that the players regarded anything he did as an act of eccentric brilliance and were inspired accordingly” writes Wilson – would produce spectacular results. The manager’s methods of transmitting that belief to his players were not always orthodox, however. As Mackay put it, “Clough introduced me to a world of four-letter insults, slamming doors and even an underlying hint of physical violence.”

And it is difficult imagine Arsène Wenger or José Mourinho playing the Clough role in this particular story: Colin Todd tells of having retired to his room before the customary after-dinner socializing only to receive a phone call from the boss. “Hey young man, get your arse down here, would you?” Clough told him. “I went down,” remembers Todd, “and he said, ‘You know the format, you’ve got to get some beers down you, because you’re going to sweat tomorrow.’”

Clough and Taylor’s vision of fast-paced passing soccer began to come into fruition, producing memorable games such as the one in autumn of 1968, when County took on first division Chelsea in the League Cup. After a 0-0 draw in the first game, the Londoners were beaten 3-1 at the rowdy Baseball Ground.

“Imagine a boxer staggering around the ring,” George Edwards wrote of Chelsea in the Derby Evening Telegraph, “battered, bewildered, not knowing which way to turn and finally sinking to the floor.” Mackay would later say that the night of the Chelsea game was when “I realized Brian Clough was not a complete fantasist and that this team I had joined was becoming a bit special.”

Sure enough, Derby won promotion at the end of the season, and Clough and Taylor’s thoughts turned immediately to the biggest prize in English soccer – the league title. Today, the prospect of a promoted team challenging Manchester City and Chelsea at the top of the league is unthinkable. Even in the early 1970s, it was seen as a long shot.

Derby, inspired by the likes of Hinton, graceful striker Kevin Hector and attacking midfielder Alan Durban, managed a rather impressive 4th in 1969-70, qualifying for Europe. Again autumn brought a performance forever seared into fans’ minds, when Spurs were dismantled 5-0 at a pulsating Baseball Ground.

“(Spurs) were destroyed by some of the most exciting and ruthlessly brilliant football that one has seen in a long time…their defense, revolving around the massive command of McFarland and the authority of Mackay, seems capable of containing the best,” wrote Paul Fitzpatrick in The Guardian. Spurs manager Bill Nicholson was rather more succinct: “They humiliated us.”

But the cracks were beginning to appear, both in the club’s infrastructure, and in Clough and Taylor’s dealings with the board. The uncovering of a series of internal financial irregularities meant Derby was banned from taking part in the Fairs Cup in 1970-71, and Clough’s relationship with the club directors – for the most part, parsimonious local businessmen – was deteriorating fast.

The 1972 title showed that the behind-the-scenes drama had yet to reach the pitch. Indeed, many believed Derby were capable of creating a dynasty. “Clough had done at Derby what Shankly had done at Liverpool – and what Revie had done at Leeds – in taking a provincial club from the Second Division to the title. In the summer of 1972, there seemed no reason it should be Liverpool rather than either Leeds or Derby who would go on to dominate the decade,” writes Wilson.

However, the club reached such heady heights only once more, in 1975 – now managed by Mackay. Clough and Taylor left in 1973, after taking Derby to the European Cup semi-finals. Frustrations at the lack of ambition of the club’s board, a breakdown in personal relations with chairman Sam Longson, and Clough’s own erratic behavior, which included problems with alcoholism, were all factors in the split.

Clough would go on to manage Leeds for a fateful 44-day period in 1974, before taking Nottingham Forest, like Derby a provincial East Midlands club, to the league title and two European Cups. Derby, meanwhile, settled into the inevitable decline that became so common among middle-sized clubs as the soccer money machine grew, with the profits from such growth concentrated among a lucky few.

Derby tried its best to seize on such profits. After being relegated to Division 3 in 1984, the club brought in Arthur Cox, and his shrewd management, combined with Robert Maxwell’s money and experienced internationals, saw Derby finishing 5th in 1988-89.

Another relegation came shortly after, but a six-year stretch in the Premier League – including an unforgettable goal from Paulo Wanchope to seize a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford in 1997 — must’ve had Derby feeling rather stable.

Instead another relegation ushered in serious financial crisis (the club went into receivership in 2003), and the beginning of a 12-year spell outside the top flight – with the exception of the 2007-8 season, when a newly promoted Derby side finished bottom of the Premier League with the division’s lowest ever points total.

Last season, a late Bobby Zamora goal sent QPR to the Premier League while condemning Derby to another year in The Championship. But with former player and ex-England manager Steve McClaren at the helm, the Rams are in the thick of the promotion dogfight once again this year. Sadly, however, in today’s more corporate, globalized soccer landscape, if the club was to repeat its title winning exploits of the early 1970s now, it would be as surprising a turn of events as the late, great Mr. Clough returning from the grave to dole out a few motivational team talks


All quotes referenced in this article are taken from Jonathan Wilson’s marvelous biography of Brian Clough, “Nobody Ever Says Thank You”.


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