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A Love Supreme: Not Clough, But The 'Next Best Thing'

As we're taking the summer off from The Durham Times and writing for A Love Supreme, we thought we'd bring you a taste of what you've been missing out on in the latter of those two fine publications.

So each weekend for the next seven weeks we'll be bringing you our columns which have appeared in A Love Supreme. You can get yourself subscribed to A Love Supreme by clicking here, and pop to their shop just outside the Stadium Of Light for back issues and that. They're a lovely bunch.

This is the first one we did from ALS 206 way back when Martin O'Neill was just cutting his teeth at Sunderland, and everything was pretty damn peachy...


When I was growing up and taking my first tentative steps into the life-long obsession that football would become for me, it soon became apparent that I was living with parents who completely revered someone called Brian Clough. By that time, Clough was little more than a rouge-cheeked weary looking mid-table manager whose best days were very much behind him. Yet whenever he appeared on TV or his name cropped up in conversation, I would have happily bet every penny of my pocket money that I was about to be told, and with scant regard for the monotony of repetition, all about what a disgrace it was that he had never managed Sunderland and about how he apparently said he'd 'crawl up the A19 over broken glass' for the job. 'Really, mam? Wow', was my standard reply after a while, seeped in the kind of subversive sarcasm that rarely goes noticed by those disinterested in establishing discourse.

It wasn't until a chance rainy afternoon of typical adolescent boredom that my indifference to Clough changed. My mam swatted away my complaints with a suggestion to read something, and a biography about a man in a green sweater just so happened to be the first thing I picked up. I was captivated immediately and, for the second time in my football-following life, my parents' obsession had become by own.

As the years progressed I fed my new-found fascination by throwing myself into just about every Brian Clough resource I could find. I even found the resolve to endure The Damned United from cover to cover, although I felt dirty doing so. By the time Clough had released his own autobiography at the turn of the century, two things had become abundantly clear - he found Martin O'Neill to be a barely tolerable and highly conceited irritant as a player at Nottingham Forest, and that he had the absolute utmost respect and admiration, and a considerable amount of pride to, for the manager that O'Neill had become, citing him as 'the next best thing' to himself.

When Brian Clough arrived at the City Ground in January 1975, Martin O'Neill was a disillusioned young player languishing on the transfer list, almost certainly refusing to even dare dream of the trophy-laden future that lay ahead of him. Yet whilst many submitted to Clough and conformed, O'Neill often actively sought confrontation.

"We had a little disagreement over my ability", O'Neill recalls. "I thought I was brilliant - and he didn't".

That clash of egos would form the basis of their relationship but, tellingly, would never end it as it did so often with the bullish and domineering Clough. "If there was one player I clashed with more than any other during my time in management, it was Martin O'Neill", he claimed in his autobiography Walking on Water. That the Northern Irishman was able to survive such clashes at the club, let alone go on to play such an important role in Clough's team is perhaps the greatest testament to what he brings to the table at a football club because, despite what he thought, it wouldn't have taken Peter Taylor long to unearth a player of comparable quality to replace him.

In fact, there always seemed an element of carefully considered one-upmanship to their relationship. Clough recounts, 'he had been clever enough to go to university and he repeatedly hung this over me like the sword of Damocles. That made me furious on two counts - I wasn't on his level academically and I didn't want it ramming down my throat every time he didn't appear on the teamsheet'. Clough often reacted and reciprocated, famously leaving him out of the team that won the 1979 European Cup Final despite O'Neill being adamant he was over a troublesome hamstring injury, and substituting him when he was on a Wembley hat trick in the 1978 Charity Shield against Ipswich.

What made Brian Clough embrace O'Neill throughout though and always persevere was almost certainly the fact that he saw so much of himself in his opinionated little midfielder.

"He had an opinion on almost anything and was never slow to express it, not unlike the young Clough, I suppose, in the dressing room and on the training field at Middlesbrough all those years ago. I always thought Martin O'Neill was cut out for a future in management because he was bright and sharp, a right smart arse who was fully prepared to stand his ground and answer back when he believed he was right."

It isn't hard to see merit in the comparison. The nature of football has changed so much that the environment in which O'Neill has forged a career in management is near enough unrecognisable to that in which his mentor did. The kinds of achievements that were attainable to promising young managers at a modest club in Clough's day are simply out of reach for their successors today.

There is a certain striking symmetry to their respective careers, however. Both men started at the bottom and learned their trade. Both men elevated provincial clubs to a standing in the game that were far beyond their previous, or at least more recent, traditions. Both men became popular media figures and TV analysts along the way too as they knew exactly how to charm and endear themselves to all around them. Both men even endured ill-fated short spells at clubs who must have looked at the subsequent achievements of the managers they failed to appreciate and rue the day they allowed them to leave.

Comparing the two men as managers is nothing new or ground breaking. Ever since Martin O'Neill was transforming the fortunes of Wycombe Wanderers 20 years ago it has been an easy comparison to make. Whenever an iconic and mercurial managerial figure is facing the end of his career, the media are always looking to fill the void by desperately and prematurely hailing a host of his former players as his potential natural heir. You need look no further than the precession of 'next Alex Ferguson's' that have been paraded around football in the modern era, a couple of them at Sunderland, to see evidence of that. But Brian Clough himself making the comparison so vehemently certainly adds a real sense of credibility to the argument:

"Martin O'Neill and (his long-time assistant) John Robertson might not be carbon copies of Clough and Taylor but they are pretty similar and the next best thing. They spot talent others seem to be unaware of; they know what the team needs and how and where to buy replacements without always having to pay a fortune; and they get the best out of the squad they have assembled. That's management". Heady praise indeed, one might say. Remember we are talking about the original special one here. Ole Big 'Ed himself. The man who believed he had no peers or ever would and never tired of telling us.

They have another thing in common, of course - they both were widely reported to covet the Sunderland job due to emotional ties. Fortunately, that is where that particular comparison has ended, and the generations of Sunderland fans who were left with nothing but unfulfilled dreams and a touch of resentment that they were never able to benefit from Clough's management can finally welcome the man that he himself identified as his modern day equivalent to the club. I must remember to ask my mam if that fills a little empty hollow in her heart. I suspect it just might.



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