More Thoughts on Nigel Clough at Derby County

Derby’s victory over Manchester United at Pride Park last night was probably the most cheerful thing to have happened in any field in 2009. How dumb, dull and depressing if United had put on an expensive show and humiliated an already low County side in front of their new manager, the man with the magic name. Instead, his reign began with Kriss Commons’ magnificent candidate for goal of the season. That, and not the Clough legend, is what the match will be remembered for.

My concerns about Clough’s decision took two forms: the state of the club – poor; and the weight of history – heavy. I felt that Clough’s achievements at Burton were real and deserving of a better sequel than seemed likely to me at the time his move became news.

Here’s what I was forgetting.

Nigel Clough is his father’s son, but not in the tabloid sense. We’ve all experienced Brian Clough, but only from the stands or through the medium of newspapers, television and Youtube. Recent biographies have rounded out the picture, although only through the inevitable sycophantic fog. Nigel Clough knew his father at home. While there is no sense that Brian was anything other than a devoted parent, there is equally little sense that the son looks up to the father either as hero or as one who must be emulated. And, remember, he was there for the heavy drinking years. Rightly, there’s a lot he knows about that that we don’t. Graham Taylor, who knows Nigel and knew Brian, describes Nigel as taking after his mother rather than his father, as a strong, intelligent man who – above all – knows his own mind.

In short, taking over his father’s old job is different for Nigel than it is for the press, for television, or for bloggers. It will look, feel, seem to him in a way we won’t have access to from the outside.

Then there’s the question of Derby County itself. One comment on a football website exulted in the emotions Nigel would be feeling, taking over the club after living locally for forty years. Well, I don’t know about that. But it did remind me that the Cloughs have kept up close links with the club since Brian’s death. Nigel will indeed know the place inside out – furthermore, that will be as the club is now, not as it might be through a nostalgiascope pointed towards the ghost of the Baseball Ground. He’ll know what the problems are, and his chances of turning them around.

I get the feeling, now, that the idea of succession is far enough away from his mind for it not to be his problem, and that he has the strength of mind to ignore the press on the subject. He is joining a club, now, that he knows as it is, now, and does not appear to feel any weight of history upon his shoulders. All the better for him. Everything that has come from the mouth of Nigel Clough since his appointment has been down to earth, unromantic, realistic and mature.

There was a period towards the end of his father’s career at Forest when he entered, press-wise, his romantic period. No one doubted him anymore; everyone wanted him, as they’d once wanted Stan Matthews, to end his career with the FA Cup on his “humble” mantlepiece. Or, perhaps, to find one last reserve of the old energy and fire, and ride with it to England’s rescue. Or to go into Parliament. Or take over the FA and kick out the “blazer brigade.” All through this period, Brian Clough was on his bottle a day. A real man, living a real life and not finding it an easy or comfortable place, never incapacitated but, his son would have known, not the figure from the tabloids.

The figure from the tabloids might have been heavy on his shoulders. But the real father was family, used the same roll of toilet paper, the same bottle of milk. Brian always came home: that was him in front of the telly, or grumbling about the bathroom. I would guess that old big ‘ead, the man who’d tried to get a bridge four together in the England dressing room under Winterbottom, with his clever wife and academically-able children, wasn’t old big ‘ead at home. Whoever he was, at home, is the man Nigel Clough sees himself as succeeding. And he ain’t heavy.

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11 responses to “More Thoughts on Nigel Clough at Derby County

  1. What position would Nigel Clough play if he were a Premiership footballer today? Would he have to be a “holding” midfielder? An “advanced” midfielder in a 4-5-1 formation?

  2. On a slightly similar point, today’s Daily Mail there are paparazzi pictures of Gary Lineker with the strapline:

    ‘the BBC footy host was marking his lover very extremely tightly in Dubai’

    Clearly he’s changed positions since he retired.

  3. Igor Belanov

    In answer to Dearieme, I think he could have done either role. I saw him playing as player-manager for Burton at Scarborough and, without breaking into much of a run at any point, just sat in front of the back four rarely taking more than two touches, keeping possession simply and injecting some much needed calmness into proceedings. Granted, this was Conference level, but he’d hardly played for a few years and still looked a class apart, unlike other former top flight players I saw at Scarborough over the years.

  4. Another point James- I’d say its much easier to work at the bottom of the Championship than at the bottom of the Premiership because the distance between the top and bottom of the Championship is less than between the top and bottom of the Premiership. To give two examples- my brother likes Crystal Palace and in the year they were promoted to the Premiership they were actually in a worse position at this point league wise than Derby are now. The second example going the other way is Leeds when we were relegated from the Championship- the season before we finished third or fourth (can’t remember which) and in the playoff final- we then sold a crucial player (our centre forward Mr Hulse) and tumbled down to finish third from bottom (bottom with a points deduction). Whereas say you can’t see a club like Sunderland finishing in the European places for a couple of years- it might just be possible for Derby to finish in the playoff places in a couple of years time or even higher- if that is Clough can get them going.

    An interesting issue I think rising out of all of this is what it will do the esteem of non-league football in England- obviously Clough has been successful at that level and it would be fascinating to see if he is successful at the Championship level, whether other lower league chairmen start thinking about non-league managers or whether they just believe Clough is successful because of his genes. Dispiritingly I beleive they will take the latter approach- whereas personally I would take the former.

  5. Nigel is a very good boy ,always has been ,he is a credit to his parents and his family ..I wish him every success at Derby ……

  6. Gracchi – The examples that spring to mind at the moment are: Martin O’Neill, Paul Ince, Tony Adams?

    i.e. All the managers who I remember serving a non-league apprenticeship and went on to big things seem to have been high profile ex-players…

  7. I mean recently, of course.

  8. Metatone- you are right O’Neill managed Wycombe well in non league football. Ince has managed Swindon, Macclesfield and Milton Keynes none of which were non-league and Adams managed Wycombe when they were in the league and Adams was a failure at Wycombe- I’d say he was more of an assistant moving up.

  9. Really just commenting so you know that I’ve taken up blogging again… But my guess is that Derby themselves went for a populist option which would also be low-cost (can’t take much to buy a non-league manager up to the Championship, which is in the Top 10 of Football Leagues for cash, if I recall correctly). And Gracchi’s point about the compressed nature of the Championship is bang-on.

  10. I concur with the point about the skillset of the teams populating the championship being a far more even one than the lofty league above them, but I don’t for one moment think the club has taken the populist line in appointing Nigel Clough. I believe history, and results, will show this to be a most judicious appointment.

  11. Thomas Rooney

    I find it bizarre that the board at Derby claimed it wasn’t a sentimental appointment! Would he have got the job if he was Nigel Smith? I don’t think so!

    Anyway, top site you have here. Would you be able to email me when you get the chance?