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There’s a road in the East Midlands that links the town of Derby and the City of Nottingham. Nothing special in that you might think but this isn’t just any thoroughfare between two great English footballing hotbeds; it represents a connection, not just geographically, but in football terms also between two fierce rivals. That road, known officially as the A52, is Called Brian Clough Way.
In an era of fierce tribalism and online hatred, it’s unthinkable now that a manager could bring success to two teams only separated by just 15 miles. When Brendan Rogers was asked, somewhat tongue in cheek, recently about taking over at United, his response was: “I think when you manage Liverpool that Manchester United job is gone.”
Of course this hasn’t always been the way. Matt Busby captained Liverpool and managed Manchester United and George Graham, who won the title twice for Arsenal would make the short journey down the Seven Sisters Road to manage their bitter rivals Spurs. But the tale of Derby County and Nottingham Forest and the manager who brought them both periods of unprecedented success is almost unique.
It was July 1967 when Brian Clough breezed into Derby County’s cramped old stadium the Baseball Ground with sidekick Peter Taylor, having revitalised Hartlepool United. The previous season Derby had finished 17th in the old Second Division.
Derby County had been stuck in the Second Division for ten years before Clough's arrival, their last success being the FA Cup in 1946 and he was hardly an instant hit with the club finishing one place lower than in the previous campaign in Clough’s first season in charge. However, what he had done was build for a period of success that nobody could have ever foreseen for these perennial under performers.
By signing the likes of Roy McFarland, John O'Hare, John McGovern and Alan Hinton, Clough now had a spine to his team but it was some significant departures which would also make a huge difference when it came to the future of the Rams as “Old Big ‘ed” also got rid of the club secretary, as well as several of the ground staff; he also gave two ladies from the canteen the sack after he apparently found them laughing after a defeat.
His somewhat drastic measures would end up working wonders though as Derby were soon promoted back to Division One. Clough was was seen as a manager who was firm-but-fair and one who always insisted on the very best behaviour from his players all of the time, he would also insist that his staff and players called him “Mr Clough” as he earned great respect from those around him, which, more often than not, turned games to his advantage.
In Derby's first season back in Division One they would come fourth, their highest position for over 20 years, but even that could not prepare the club and their long-suffering fans for what was to come next.
Prior to the 1971-72 season Clough had strengthened his squad by signing Colin Todd for £175,000, a British transfer record at the time, and he was just the type of re-enforcement County needed as they tussled with Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester City for the First Division title having been a second flight club just a matter of years previously.
Derby were a point clear at the top of the table after playing their final match and headed off on an end of season holiday with their fate in the hands of those elsewhere, so when Leeds were defeated by Wolves and Liverpool could only draw at Arsenal just days later, it meant Derby had done the unthinkable and were league champions for the first time in their history.
Clough’s arrogance came at something of a cost and though now a firm fan favourite, his actions were far from appreciated by those in authority, even those at his own club.
They finished 7th the following season, but did reach the semi-finals of the European Cup, where they were knocked out by Juventus. After the game Clough emerged from the dressing room and told the expectant Italian reporters, “No cheating bastards do I talk to. I will not talk to any cheating bastards,” before questioning the Italian nation's courage in the Second World War.
Ultimately it was these kinds of outspoken comments, particularly against football's establishment, that would signal the end of Clough’s relationship with the club. He had wrote an article for the Sunday Express in which he savaged Leeds United's disciplinary record, stating that Don Revie should: “be fined for encouraging his players in their unsporting behaviour and Leeds relegated to the Second Division.” He also appeared on a number of controversial TV interviews where he complained about some key figures in the games’ hierarchy.
Even Derby Chairman Sam Longson called for the pair’s sacking at a board meeting, but did not gain the support that was needed to do so and they both stayed in their roles. But the final straw came after a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford against Manchester United, when Clough allegedly made a V-sign gesture to then United boss Matt Busby.
One club official questioned their role at the club and both immediately resigned from their positions, fully expecting that the board would not accept their offer to quit, but this time they did. And despite a player-lead protest against the board, whose resignation was demanded by furious supporters, and even a march on the streets of Derby in support of the pair, there was to be no way back this time and the duo finally left the Baseball Ground under something of a cloud.
Even so, his six years at Derby County, including a promotion, League title and European Cup semi-final had brought Clough to the attention of the nation as well as the football community.
So when the manager’s job at Derby’s near neighbours Nottingham Forest became available Clough and Taylor would once again be reunited to create another rags-to-riches tale that has gone down in football folklore as one of the greatest achievements the game has ever seen.
The two men completely transformed Forest’s fortunes almost over night: the first success at the club came in 1977 when they won promotion to Division One by finishing third. And incredibly in their first season in the top-flight they won the Division One championship, finishing seven points clear of second place Liverpool, who they also beat to win the League Cup that same season. Clough was now the first manager since Herbert Chapman, more than 40 years previously, to win the English league title with two different clubs.
Keen to cement Forest’s place as genuine title contenders Clough broke the bank to sign the 24-year-old Birmingham City striker Trevor Francis, Britain's first £1 million footballer, but Forest narrowly failed to retain their Championship the following year, finishing runners-up to Liverpool.
There was something of a consolation that season though as Forest would incredibly be crowned European Champions for the first time in their history, beating Malmo in the final with their million pound man scoring the winner. They would also retain the League Cup they had won 12 months before when they defeated Southampton 3-2 at Wembley.
A year later Forest won a second successive European Cup success, when they defeated Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg 1–0. They also narrowly failed to make it three League Cup wins in succession when they lost to Wolves at Wembley.
It would be another decade or so before Forest lifted more silverware under their enigmatic manager but it was to be his reign in the late 1970s that heralded by far the most successful period in the club’s history as once again Brian Clough had taken what could be described as a provincial club in England’s east midlands and made them the greatest in the land.
Clough himself retired from football in 1993 and died in 2004 but his legacy lives on among the two sets of supporters. So much so that when the two meet this weekend, they won’t just be battling for three points and bragging rights between friends, family and work colleagues, they will also be contesting the Brian Clough trophy, an honour introduced by fans of both clubs and Clough’s family and a true testament, if any were needed, of just how much one man brought to two clubs.