Muhammad Ali, probably the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, was the self-proclaimed "Greatest". Brian Clough wanted to fight him. Clough was called a 'motormouth', and Ali took umbrage with Clough's claim that he was "The Greatest". It was an amazing, tongue-in-cheek spat played out on TV, on the Michael Parkinson chat show. It was incredible that a football manager from England was known by a global superstar and even more so that the great Ali felt compelled to engage with Clough. It was probably because in their different ways they were so alike. The two men were linguistically brilliant, were outspoken and larger than life and had massive egos. The main thing they had in common, though, was that they were both touched by genius.
Glory days on film
Ali is known throughout the world even today and even by the younger generations, but Clough passed away in 2004 and is probably not quite so well remembered outside of East Midlands and generally only within the football community. So it is fitting that a recent film called "I Believe in Miracles" has chronicled Clough's greatest achievements as manager of Nottingham Forest. He won two back to back European Cups, or Champions League's to the modern day fan, with Forest. There is no point in even trying to put it into perspective by saying it is the equivalent of the likes of Leicester City winning it these days because it was a one off and will never happen again. What Clough and his band of merry men did in 1979 and 1980 was indeed a miracle, and if this film returns him to people's memories and gives knowledge to those unaware, then it is fantastic.
"Old Big 'Ead", as he was affectionately known, was a one off himself. There is nobody that you can compare, before or after the great man. There was some Jose Mourinho in him, but whereas the Portuguese has a too much spite to endear him to everyone, you never got that with Clough. He was a reporter's dream and nightmare all in one. Quotes such as "I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business, but I am in the top one" made him irresistible for the media. Anyone asking a stupid question, though, would be put down in no uncertain terms - in the politest way, of course. He would always refer to people as "young man" and one of the things he commanded was respect. One of the things he instilled in his players was to have respect for others, and discipline. His players had to respect the referee, and never talked back. A yellow card for dissent meant disciplinary action.
His methods were random. Not in the sense that they differed from day to day, but random in the sense that they were completely bonkers! There are many anecdotes from a wide range of sources, but two from the great goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, really emphasise how mad and brilliant Clough could be. The first was when Forest were about to sign Shilton from Stoke City. Shilton turned up at the City Ground with his two agents. Agents were a rarity in those days, and Clough ruled the roost at Forest from top to bottom. So you can only imagine that two agents arriving for negotiations would not have sat well with the great man. He kept them waiting for around ten minutes before they were asked to go into Clough's office. Shilton recalls his disbelief when after they entered the office, they both ended up on the floor. Clough had been on all fours waiting for them to enter and tripped them both up with his famous squash racket. I suspect negotiations went better for Forest than they did for Shilton.
The second recollection is during the preparation for the 1980 European Cup final. Shilton had been concerned about the training facilities, as they were a hard surface and he did not want to dive around and get injured. After talking to Clough about it, he was told that there is grass out there if he looked. Again, Shilton was perplexed as they did not appear to be anywhere to train. Clough took Shilton out to the edge of the town they were staying and pointed to a roundabout in the middle of a busy road. There was a circle of grass in the middle of it and sure enough Shilton prepared for the game with traffic all around and horns blaring. Unique methods, and although madcap it was done with a purpose. Shilton would not have had his mind on the big game, and the agents would not have had their mind on negotiations.
His achievements are unbelievable, and Clough was always quick to blow his own trumpet. It is hardly surprising. Whilst he never had a chip on his shoulder, when he reminded people about his achievements, there was occasionally the odd barb at a rival. One of these digs came in his autobiography and he mentioned that Sir Alex Ferguson had never won the European Cup, let alone two. At the time, it was true. He was plain Alex Ferguson, and had only just began compiling his dazzling trophy haul as manager of Manchester United. It is very interesting to wonder what Clough would have thought about Sir Alex now. Would he have re-evaluated his stance on him, and grudgingly accepted that the Scot's achievements are equally as impressive as Clough's own? I would like to think so. In different circumstances, what Sir Alex achieved in his career was easily on par with Clough's, but in truth exceeded it in no short measure.
Success for Sir Alex at large and small clubs
It could be argued that Sir Alex would not be able to do what Clough did with both Derby County and Forest. Possibly not. The same could be said about Clough making Manchester United into a trophy-winning machine. Clough did manage a relatively big club when he took charge of Leeds United in their 70's pomp. He lasted 44 days as their manager. It says more about Leeds at the time than it did about Clough's ability because had the board backed Clough instead of the changing room full of egotistical players, then Leeds could be wearing two stars on their kits today, not Forest. Sir Alex has also managed at smaller clubs, and what he did at Aberdeen may not quite rival two European cups, but what he did there is unlikely to happen again either.
Not only did Sir Alex break the 'Old Firm' grip on silverware, winning three League Titles (They had previously won one in their history and haven't won it since), and three Scottish FA Cups. His greatest achievement was winning the European Cup Winners Cup with the Dons in 1983. This was also fairytale stuff, as in the process of winning the trophy, they dispatched Bayern Munich in the semi-final and Real Madrid in the final. Those clubs were superpowers then as they are now. He also won the European Super Cup that year, beating the European Cup winners, Hamburg over two legs. In essence, he made Aberdeen the best team in Europe for a while.
Managing Manchester United is a different world to Forest or Aberdeen. Forest were not considered a big club, even after the European success, but, of course, were considered a fantastic team. Clough was not a pauper though, and was able to break the British transfer record when he made Trevor Francis the first £1 million player when he signed him in 1979. Francis repaid that investment with the winner against Malmo in the final that year. United's resources without success were far in excess of what Sir Alex was used to. However, having money is one thing, having an infrastructure is another and Sir Alex was shocked at what he perceived was the rebuilding job on his hands at Old Trafford when he arrived in 1986. The scouting system, the training facilities, the training methods and a drinking culture amongst players were some of the challenges he faced early on in addition to winning football matches.
History tells us he did this. Yet to have done this and won so much over so many years is the greatest achievement. Re-inventing teams, breaking them up and rebuilding another successful team, that is what sets him apart. Managing the changing face of football, the wonderful talent at his disposal. It is beyond many managers to do it for a short period, but over twenty years of continued success is unheard of. He faced continuous challenges, despite knocking Liverpool "off their perch", in the form of Arsenal, then Chelsea and finally Manchester City before he finally called it a day. The treble winning season in 1999 was probably the pinnacle of his managerial career and it is unlikely that feat will be repeated by an English team.
Sir Alex saw off all challenges
His biggest strength was being able to face the challenges that came his way and tackle them head on. Producing one great team is hard, but he created probably three during his time at United. The team that won the double in 1994 was vintage, but the following year he dismantled it and gave youth it's head. From a position of strength, having reached the Holy Grail, it was a huge gamble not to replace Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince after selling them. Had the kids not produced, then he could well have been once again under scrutiny.
When Arsene Wenger arrived in English football and took Arsenal to the double in 1998, Sir Alex went one better and did the treble, winning his first Champions League in the process. Roman Abramovich and Mourinho threw down the gauntlet, he saw them off with three consecutive titles and a Champions League in 2008. City and the Sheikh's came and threw cash around like confetti, but Ferguson would not be denied and finished on a high with United's 20th and record title in the bag. Overall he won 49 trophies in his career. Not much else to add to that.
Whilst Ferguson had the perfect send off, the same could not be said for Clough. He reached the FA Cup final in 1991, losing to Tottenham Hotspur and the League Cup final in 1992, this time runners up to United. They did win the Full Members Cup in 1992, but there were signs that his team were on the wane as an 8th place finish was below the standards he set. His teams carried on his principles of playing a good, fair and exciting passing game, but in his final season with Clough's health seemingly in decline there was to be no swan song and it ended with Forest being relegated rooted to the bottom of the League. The Premier League started with Ferguson riding the crest of a wave, and Clough bowing out with a whimper. Not that you would know, because the emotion at the City Ground was incredible and Clough was given a hero's send-off, despite the obvious heartbreak.
Clough the Greatest?
Peter Davenport, Neil Webb and Roy Keane had the rare pleasure of playing under both legends, and with a combined fourteen years of tutelage, Keane was probably best placed to decide who was the better of the two. In his recent autobiography, he plumped for Clough. You cannot argue with his judgement, but it is fair to say his public row with Sir Alex may well have clouded things somewhat. Considering Keane is driven on by winning, he considers Clough the better manager after three years that ultimately ended in failure as opposed to eleven trophy-laden ones at Old Trafford. Still, that probably shows the stature of Clough, who even at the bitter end had no detractors. He should have been England manager, but the suits at the FA did not have the minerals to employ him. As with Leeds, that was probably their loss. He considered himself the 'Greatest' and his achievements will stand the test of time, but even the great man would doff his cap at Sir Alex. He will always be the most successful. Of that, there is no debate.