Most managers made this list because of sustained success over many decades (read: silverware) or some kind of tactical innovation that changed the game. Brian Clough isn't known for either.
Viewed from outside English football and via a purely statistical lens, you'll notice that he has a good record but not necessarily a great one. He won two league titles, two European Cups and four League cups over a career that stretched into four decades.
Sure, he's one of only four managers to have won English titles with two clubs, which puts him in exalted company. (Two of the other three are undisputed legends, Kenny Dalglish and Herbert Chapman. The third, Tom Watson, did it before World War I and was more of a handlebar mustache and top hat type.)
And yes, the fact that he led Nottingham Forest -- a club from a city of 300,000 -- to become European champions back-to-back (a feat achieved only by Europe's elite: Benfica, Real Madrid, Inter, Liverpool, Milan, Ajax and Bayern) is remarkable, though again number wonks will talk about probability, chance and knockout competition and how it was more achievable in the pre-Champions League era.
But if you understand the English game in the post-war era, you start to see Clough in a different light. He was representative of English football in his time because he embodied the qualities fans admired. Strong, omnipotent, outspoken, distrustful of authority and a left-wing maverick, Clough perfectly fit the "people's game" ethos of the time. He was "a character" -- from the hard drinking to the public arguments and right down to his green sweatshirt -- that was both easy for the media to narrate and for fans to admire.
It's no coincidence that there are more than a dozen Clough biographies out there; such is the sheer breadth of his life and times. One of the more recent, by Jonathan Wilson, goes to great pains to separate those Clough anecdotes that actually occurred from those that are apocryphal but nevertheless fuel his legend and that, perhaps, he did little to disavow: the oft-cited tale of the Football Association refusing to make him England manager is one such example. After all, Clough, like most giants, could be so many different things to so many different people.
It took tremendous intelligence and charisma to pull off, and Clough had plenty of both. In this he was helped by the fact that he generally worked at smaller clubs, ones that the bulk of supporters could admire and even root for as a second team. We'll never know, but Clough at an Arsenal, Manchester United or Liverpool might have been a very different proposition.
Indeed, his reputation was built on taking traditionally smaller clubs to unimaginable heights. He did it at Derby, where in the space of a few seasons they went from perennial second-tier club to champions of England and, a year later, European Cup semifinalists. He replicated the feat at Nottingham Forest, a second-division club that within a couple of years won a domestic title and two European Cups. (His one experience at a "big club," Leeds United, famously lasted 44 days, was a failure and, unsurprisingly given that it was Clough, was the subject of mythology, novelizations and a feature film.)
While his detractors pointed out that the ascent of Derby and Forest under Clough was made possible by some hefty spending -- he broke the English transfer record a number of times -- it's equally true that persuading provincial clubs to spend and act like bigger ones can be a skill unto itself and one at which he excelled.
Clough was rightly praised for his ability to get the players to buy in to what he wanted to do, both in terms of motivation and understanding. It's the crucial "other half" to great coaching. You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can't transmit them to your players, it won't do much good. Which is why, often, lesser tactical minds that excel at the buy in part succeed.
Yet Clough is often placed in this latter category, and he himself spoke disdainfully of "tactics" and "overcomplicating." In this, typically, he was being somewhat disingenuous. The Forest side that won the two European Cups was well-drilled, organized and modern, with an asymmetric formation that catered to the characteristics of the players rather than shoehorning them into a rigid setup. Much praise for this often went to his assistant Peter Taylor, who was more of a training-ground coach, another example of the disconnect between the image of the omnipotent Clough and the Clough who was humble enough to delegate to a trusted assistant.
Despite his achievements and stature, he leaves you wondering what might have been. What if his drinking problems hadn't effectively derailed him by the mid-1980s, when he still had a lot to give? What if he had exercised better judgment, both in his relationships with people and his handling of money, which ultimately cost him his job at Derby and risked blighting his reputation? What if a big club had believed in him and him in it?
But then you realize Brian Clough was brilliant as an outlier, a man who did things his way and faced the consequences head on. And that -- coupled with a genuine football brain and tremendous appeal and charisma -- was at the basis of his success. Though some have tried, nobody has succeeded using the Cloughie script. And that doesn't make him any less special. Quite the opposite, in fact.
ESPN FC's Top 20 Greatest Managers was determined by a polling process of more than 20 regular columnists, contributors and editors at ESPN FC.