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On This Day (20 Sep 2004): Football world loses a true legend as Brian Clough passes away

On this day 17 years ago, the world of football mourns as Brian Clough passes away at the age of 69.

Photo by Steve Mitchell/EMPICS via Getty Images

For a man who all but retired as a player 59 years ago, finished his managerial career 28 years ago and passed away 17 years ago, it should tell you everything that the mere mention of his name can still trigger hours of conversation and debate.

I could have probably just filled a piece with quotes from the great man - maybe I will at some point. He was brash, cocky, arrogant, compelling, kind-hearted, brutal, funny, and probably had many more characteristics that people who knew him best could assign to him.

But he was kind of character that doesn’t come along too often. Especially one who was a star of his age, but in an age where people were people:

I used to cycle down to Seaburn with a sack and a rake to collect coal that had been washed in by the tide. It was a cold job when the east wind blew through to your bones, and hard graft. But the coal was free and available and the knowledge that when it was dry it would keep my mam and dad warm was incentive and reward enough, never mind the image or reputation.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - Fulham v Middlesbrough
Brian Clough as a young player at Middlesbrough
Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

It’s amazing to think of Brian Clough as someone who required the help of a reserve team goalkeeper to force his way into the Middlesbrough side in the mid-1950s, but it was Peter Taylor who championed his talents, which began a long, fruitful, tempestuous and ultimately tragic relationship.

What followed was a playing career that only lasted around 7 years, but it was one in which the numbers were incredible. For his home town club Middlesbrough, he scored 204 goals in 222 appearances. Statistics, that amazingly didn’t propel Boro into the First Division, but obviously attracted interest from other clubs.

It would be the summer of 1961 when Clough and his wife Barbara set off on a cruise around the Mediterranean, and on their return to Southampton, then Sunderland manager Alan Brown was awaiting their arrival as Clough picks up the story:

I’m known as the one who speaks his mind, who gets to the point without fuss, but Browny was the master at it. He tipped the porter a couple of bob, heaved our luggage on to a trolley, looked me straight between the eyes in a way that made lesser men freeze on the spot, and asked, “Would you sign for Sunderland?”.

Would I sign for Sunderland? Done! “Yes” I blurted out without the need to be asked again.

Sunderland v Cardiff 1962/63. Sunderland’s Brian Clough in action against Cardiff at Roker Park. Sunderland won the matc
Brian Clough in action for Sunderland at Roker Park against Cardiff City only a few weeks before suffering the injury that ended his career
Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Also, in Clough’s own words, “the best goalscorer in England had been sold for £42,000”.

It was the beginning of Sunderland’s fourth season outside the top flight after being relegated for the first time in our history in 1957-58, and after our highest final league position since relegation of 6th the previous year, Clough picked where he left off at Middlesbrough, and scored goals.

He opened his account on his debut at Walsall on the opening day of the season in a 4-4 draw and never looked back - ending up with 29 league goals in his first season, 19 ahead of our next top scorer George Herd.

Agonisingly, we missed out on promotion on the final day of the season when Swansea Town equalised with just under half an hour on the clock. Had we held on to our lead, that Clough had given us after 20 minutes, or regained it, Clough would have been a top flight footballer for the first time.

The following season we had another crack at it, and by our Boxing Day fixture, it was looking good. We were sitting in a promotion spot as Bury were visitors to Roker Park, on a game that was played on a pitch that can only be described as frozen solid. As Clough described himself, it was “the kind of day when seagulls flew backwards to stop their eyes watering”.

Before this fixture, Sunderland had played 24 league games - Brian Clough had scored 24 league goals.

Soccer - Friendly - England v Sweden - England Training
Brian Clough and Jimmy Greaves in conversation during a training session with England
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

Just before the half hour, Clough stretched to get to the ball ahead of the Bury goalkeeper Chris Harker, but was clattered which left him crumpled in a heap - it was clear something was seriously wrong.

Our leading scorer was attempting to crawl, at times raising his hand in the air, and ultimately unable to get to his feet.

It would be a torn cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Even 30 years later when Paul Gascoigne suffered the same injury it was a serious diagnosis that would have a lasting impact on a player - and 30 years further on, in the current day, things have progressed further still, but in the early 1960s it could only mean one thing.

Clough did attempt a comeback but it was always a long shot. It resulted in three more games, but hope was fading and thoughts were turning to what was next:

Everybody else was convinced I’d be fine but, deep inside, I felt vulnerable. Suddenly that world out there seemed a hell of a lot bigger. For weeks I wished the injury hadn’t happened; every time I was nodding off to sleep I wished that something magical might cure it during the night.

By that time Alan Brown had left Sunderland and was replaced by George Hardwick. who offered Clough a chance to work with the youth team, where he worked with the likes of Colin Todd and John O’Hare who served under him so well later in their careers.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Derby County
Brian Clough and Peter Taylor with the League Championship trophy with Derby County
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Ian McColl was next in charge at Roker Park which meant Clough needed a new job, but it had given him the chance to become one of the youngest qualified coaches in England, despite his efforts to undermine Charlie Hughes at the FA. With a bit of nudge from Len Shackleton he then became the youngest manager in the Football League at Hartlepool United.

He quickly got his friend from his Middlesbrough days, Peter Taylor to join him and the began to forge their path to greatness. Two years at Pools, and another whisper or two in the right direction from Len Shackleton, and he was off to Second Division Derby County who were languishing at the foot of the table.

That was 1967, and by 1972 they were First Division Champions.

Trouble with the board led to Clough leaving just over a year later with protests from the fans to get him to return, but instead, strange and ultimately brief episodes with Brighton and Hove Albion and Leeds United followed.

In January 1975, he was appointed manager of Nottingham Forest as they were mid-table in the second tier, and floundering in a similar way to Derby County were ahead of Clough’s arrival.

Sport. Football. England. 1980. Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough with the European Cup trophy.
Brian Clough after winning the European Cup for a second successive season
Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

A year later, Peter Taylor joined him at the City Ground and by 1980, they were not only First Division champions, but had won successive European Cups - a feat that we’re unlikely to ever see repeated in the modern game by a club that size.

Rumours and links to other clubs were a constant, such as links at various points that would bring back to Roker, but just as the same rumours linking him with the national job, they never seemed to come close.

League Cup wins would follow and relative success with the resources available was achieved in the First Division, but a battle with alcoholism later in life hampered his judgement and after the conclusion of the inaugural Premier League season where Nottingham Forest were relegated, Brian Clough retired.

Just over 11 years later, on this day 17 years ago, Brian Clough died at the age of 69 from stomach cancer.

A statue of Clough stands in Middlesbrough, Derby and Nottingham, with the A52 linking the two East Midland cities named the ‘Brian Clough Way’.

We will simply never have another like Brian Clough.

Coventry City v Nottingham Forest - Football League Division One
A well earned cuppa after winning the First Division with Nottingham Forest
Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

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