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On that day: Football mourns Brian Clough

Saturday September 20 will mark the fourth anniversary of the passing of British football's biggest managerial character. And Brian Howard Clough would have told you he was also its best ever manager. He once expressed, in that typically immodest and wry style: "I certainly wouldn't say I'm the best manager in the business, but I'm in the top one."

Though Clough had been out of the game for 11 years in 2004, the memory of his quips, cracks and footballing achievements with a pair of unfashionable clubs in Derby County and Nottingham Forest still burned brightly in the memory. His appearances in the media may have been rare since his last season at Forest had ended in the ignominy of relegation but they remained compulsive viewing, reading and listening.

At 69, Clough was still relatively young but a hard-drinking lifestyle he had led throughout the golden years and beyond caught up with him in the end. It was stomach cancer that claimed him but his health had been poor for years. Two years before, the alcohol abuse had eventually resulted in a life-saving liver transplant. In his later years, only trusted friends like the BBC's Patrick Murphy were able to tempt Clough to open his "big gob" in public.

On a day when Europe was celebrating Ryder Cup victory in America, it was Murphy, who ghostwrote for his friend on his rare sorties back into the media, who delivered BBC Radio's obituary. It was a night when the footballing world had been expecting to be focused on the return of Rio Ferdinand to action. Ferdinand was set to play for Manchester United against Liverpool after serving an eight-month ban for evading a drugs test. Clough would surely have enjoyed his overshadowing of the biggest rivalry in English football.

He was not granted a minute's silence at Old Trafford, because, in truth, his relationship with Liverpool's fans had long been testy. Apart from any rivalries that may have arisen from the days when Forest and Derby were going toe-to-toe with Liverpool for the continent's biggest honours, Clough had committed what he later admitted was a serious error of judgement when he said in his autobiography of the Hillsborough disaster that "I will always remain convinced that those Liverpool fans who died were killed by Liverpool people".

And Clough had always had a rocky relationship with Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson. Forest were long a bogey side for United and their manager. The Forest that won the 1977-8 league title had announced their prominence with a 4-0 win at Old Trafford in the December of that season. Ferguson may well have lost his job in 1990 if Mark Robins had not scored at the City Ground to keep United in the FA Cup and Clough later took great pleasure in derailing yet another doomed title bid in 1992 as United suffered amid a 25-year championship drought.

On the subject of Ferguson, Clough had always been chiding about United's repeated failure on the European stage, saying: "For all his horses, knighthoods and championships, he hasn't got two of what I've got. And I don't mean balls!" Time would allow Ferguson to equal Clough's twin European Cups but many would see Clough's winning of them in consecutive years with as provincial a club as Forest as great an achievement as any of the Scot's many titles and cups.

Clough's passing came just after Arsene Wenger's Arsenal team had robbed Clough of one of his most jealously guarded accolades; Forest's record of 42 consecutive league matches unbeaten during that 1977-8 heyday. August 25 had seen Wenger's 'Invincibles' equal that achievement. The Gunners continued on from there with a win three days later at Norwich. When Clough departed, his former record was still ebbing away into history as Arsenal made it to 49 matches before their hopes of a half-century were derailed at Old Trafford. Clough, in one of his last interviews, had been happy to praise Wenger's team for the quality of their passing game, a philosophy he always installed in his teams. However, he was less complimentary about Arsenal's disciplinary problems, being a long-time advocate of respect for referees.

To the players who shared in his successes his loss was profound. Garry Birtles, the striker Clough long-time partner and closest friend Peter Taylor had discovered playing for non-league Long Eaton United, echoed the thoughts of many when he said: "It's like a member of your own family dying. We thought he was indestructible, but he's not. He's probably the greatest manager of all time and it's so sad, not just for Forest supporters, ex-players, but for football in general."

Duncan McKenzie, bought by Clough during his infamous 44 days at Leeds United also said: "We thought he was immortal." To not have Clough around, even in the reduced circumstances of his dotage, came as a shock to the football family.

But in a way, McKenzie and Birtles have been proven correct in their citing of 'Ol Big 'ead' and his immortality. Four years later, Clough's legacy is stronger than ever, his glory days and decline at Forest being brought to lucid light by Duncan Hamilton, a Nottingham beat reporter who was a sometime drinking partner and friend of the great man, in his superb memoir Provided You Don't Kiss Me: 20 Years with Brian Clough.

That spell at Leeds, the darkest time in his career until that wreck of a final season yet the moment he became financially independent as a result of his healthy pay-off, has been dramatised in wonderful literary style by David Peace's The Damned United. Peace's masterpiece is a fictional account written through in the first person of Clough that almost, almost brings him back to life.

The Damned United is currently being adapted into a film, Clough being played by Michael Sheen, an actor most famous for twice playing Tony Blair. Despite it being the story of a dark chapter in his life you get the feeling that Clough, the man who once said of Frank Sinatra "he met me once", would really rather enjoy being the focus of a major motion picture.


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