Friday, 20 March 2009

"Brian Clough - football genius!"

Yes, I'm still thinking about Brian Clough, but this time I've been recalling the second occasion I met him, in 1994. For me, the events later that same evening, following our brief handshake, demonstrate once again why Mr. Clough had 'it' in spades, whatever 'it' may be. More of that below.

Brian Clough (who would have turned 74 yesterday) left Leeds United in September 1974 and four months later took up residence down the M1 at unfashionable Nottingham Forest (at the time sitting 13th in the second tier of English football). By May 1980, Forest had won two League Cups, the English League Championship and, most famously, two successive European Cups. I’m a Forest fan so I am biased, but I think it’s the most remarkable story in club football.

Of course, Brian Clough is the reason I am a Forest fan. Growing up in Sedgefield, County Durham, the vast majority of my friends followed one of the North East clubs, but at a young age I was seduced by Mr. Clough’s Nottingham Forest. And it was my support of Forest that eventually led to me choosing to study at the University of Nottingham.

I ended up living in Nottingham for almost five years. It seemed that most people from the city at that time had a Brian Clough story of their own. I am sure that most of these were apocryphal, exaggerated or plain fiction. I have one and it’s absolutely true (I would say that of course, but it really is!).

By early 1994, I was an elected sabbatical officer of the University of Nottingham Union (now called University of Nottingham Students’ Union). A big part of the organisation was the Athletic Union (AU) and each year they held a black tie/posh frocks ball. Many hundreds of students attended this event, representing all sorts of sports and outdoor activities. On this occasion, the AU decided to invite Brian Clough as guest of honour. Mr. Clough had retired at the end of the previous season and it was widely believed (if not confirmed) that he was drinking heavily and not a well man. Therefore, the guest of honour invitation was very deliberately not a speaking engagement.

I briefly met the guest of honour at the pre-dinner reception and I have to say he did indeed not look or sound well. Then everyone sat down for their meal. During the subsequent coffee and mints, the AU president got up on his hind legs and went through the formalities. He welcomed Brian Clough OBE, at which point Mr. Clough rose to his feet to say a few words. No-one was about to stop him, but equally no-one relished the prospect. The microphone was passed along the top table to Mr. Clough and he started to speak. He stated that he was happy that he had retired, as that meant he could spend more time with his grandchildren (a standard Brian Clough soundbite at the time).

Before he could utter anything else, a voice at the back of room called out: “Brian Clough – football genius!” Within seconds, the whole room had taken up the chant. This continued for what seemed like five minutes. Throughout, students were standing up at the various tables dotted around the room, but at the top table, only one figure was upright – Brian Clough.

Eventually, the chanting subsided, the students sat down and the room was completely quiet. Brian Clough slowly raised his head, looked around at the hundreds of expectant faces and said: “Tell me something I don’t know.”

The man was not perfect (who is?), but he was indeed “Brian Clough – football genius” – though that doesn’t tell the half of it.

I often wonder where I would be now if I hadn’t fallen for Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s. I possibly wouldn’t have gravitated towards Nottingham University, or got involved in student politics and communications, or met Ed Fordham (now Godfather to my oldest son), or ended up working for Lynne Franks PR in London, or so on and so forth. And had the Leeds United hierarchy stuck with Mr. Clough, would I now be dreaming of my next pilgrimage to Elland Road rather than the City Ground? That last thought really makes me shudder!

I’ll sign off with another Brian Clough gem: “They say Rome wasn't built in a day, but I wasn't on that particular job." Which reminds me, I’d better get back to work.

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