Clough and the simple game


As a manager, the late Brian Clough was concerned essentially with impact, with psychological effect. The mere fact that the players saw so little of him in the week made his impact when he turned up in the dressing room on a Saturday afternoon, or whenever the match was, all the greater.

One of the most significant interviews I have read for a long time was given by veteran goalkeeper Mark Crossley, 37, currently and successfully on loan from Fulham to Sheffield Wednesday, the club whose eternally large and loyal support shames the team's abysmal record. Long ago, Crossley kept goal for Nottingham Forest in the days when it was managed by the late and remarkable Brian Clough.

Both at Forest and previously with the other East Midlands club, Derby County, Clough and his invaluable sidekick Peter Taylor had transformed a mediocre second division (as it then was) club into a major first division power.

Indeed, at Forest, Clough and Taylor accomplished the astonishing feat not only of winning promotion to the top division but in double quick time even winning the European Cup for two seasons in a row.

This is what Crossley — his Forest career somewhat overshadowed by the prowess of the celebrated Peter Shilton — remembers of his days under Clough; prompted by the contrasting methods of the present Wednesday manager, Brian Laws, who was his right-back and team-mate at Nottingham Forest. "Brian is out on the pitch coaching; Cloughie never did that. Cloughie stood on the side of the pitch with his dog and a tennis racquet. He never had a lot to say but his man management was exceptional. He knew when to put his arm around you, but he also knew when you needed a kick up the backside.

"All we used to do was a little five-a-side. We never worked on team shape or corners against or corners for. Basically, we were told, `If it comes in your box, head it away and in their box attack it.' But every player knew his job. It was always 4-4-2. Cloughie used to say to the two wide men, `Get your heels on the line when we're in possession of the ball' and he told the strikers to hold it and turn. It was that simple."

And that, surely, is the key word: simple. As when Arthur Rowe, the pioneer of the exciting so-called Push and Run style, when he took over the managership of the club he once captained, Tottenham Hotspur, in 1949, told his players, "Make it simple, make it accurate, make it quick." Which they did to huge effect, winning the second and first division titles in successive seasons. They made rapid progress with a series of what you might call wall passes, or one-twos, and though Push and Run itself is no longer an aspect of English football there are still traces of it to be found in attacking play.

I remember Peter Shilton himself telling me that in his Forest days, Brian Clough seldom came to the training ground, but that when he did, it became something which Peter called "attitude training." The moral being that here too simplicity and clarity of vision were the keynotes. Clough and Taylor knew what they wanted. They were absolutely expert in discerning talent in the lower reaches of the game. Clough, for example, went to watch a young centre-forward Garry Birtles playing non-League football and pronounced that "even the Oxo (meat extract drink) was better than Garry." But he signed him just the same and was rewarded by a profusion of goals.

A major stratagem was to take an overweight left-winger in the young Scot, John Robertson, and not only to get him fit but to make him play a deep lying game, acting as a creative user of the ball and vacating the space into which the lively inside-left Tony Woodcock could run. Kenny Burns, a gifted and versatile Scottish player whose indiscipline had affected his career, was bought from Birmingham City as an attacking midfielder and turned into a highly mobile and effective centre-back.

Clough was concerned essentially with impact, with psychological effect. The mere fact that the players saw so little of him in the week made his impact when he turned up in the dressing room on a Saturday afternoon, or whenever the match was, all the greater. He once demanded of a young centre-forward, Nigel Jemson, whose performance had displeased him. "Have you ever been punched in the stomach, young man?" and when the confused youngster said he hadn't, Clough suited the action to the word remarking, "Now you have!"

Once, before a crucial European game on the Continent, he astonished his players by throwing a little drinks party for them the evening before the game. The plain intention being to relax them which it appears to have done.

The moral of all this, which one derives from the idea of simplicity, is that football today is far too complicated in terms of training, coaching and tactics, which elicits the celebrated Parkinson's Law, devised long since, but still all too valid, by Professor C. Northcote Parkinson: "Work expands to fill the time allotted to it."

The somewhat pathetic figure of the current England coach Steve McLaren bears embarrassing testimony to the theory. McLaren surrounds himself with an entourage of assistants, including a psychologist. Yet, any half-intelligent fan could have told him that the half-baked, lopsided, 3-5-2 system he deployed recently in Croatia was a recipe for disaster, the embarrassing 2-0 defeat being all too predictable. And let us draw a veil over the crazy, long ball theories, imposed for bleak years at the Football Association, by the ineffable Charlie Hughes, poisoning the wells of the English game with notions outmoded, even when they emerged in the 1950s.