When the FA snubbed Old Big ’Ead
England are yet again on the hunt for a new manager. The England team is at one of its lowest ebbs and needs a radical new approach to regain its pride. Inevitably, the FA’s initial answer was to go for the inoffensive yes man, Gareth Southgate. Although on this occasion, even Southgate saw the job as a poisoned chalice.
The FA has been making the same mistakes for decades. But back in the 1970s and ’80s, it made possibly its biggest error – Brian Clough was overlooked for the job both in 1977 and 1982.
It deprived the England team of the greatest manager the nation has ever produced. How different history might have been. In Clough’s absence and under the stewardship of several uninspiring managers, England has been consigned to endless years of hurt.
Clough’s first big chance at the England job came in 1977. Already highly esteemed after winning the League with Derby shortly after promotion, Clough was now working wonders at Forest. Gaining promotion to the First Division, Forest were mounting a strong title challenge and playing attractive football.
Meanwhile, England were going through a torrid spell under Clough’s bitter rival Don Revie. They performed poorly at the 1976 European Championships. In qualifying for the 1978 World Cup England had capitulated and looked likely not to qualify.
Revie was under constant pressure and criticism. In 1977 he resigned from the hot seat, taking up a management job in the UAE.
Brian Clough now seemed one of the ideal candidates to take over.
The FA invited Clough to interview for the position. However, they already had their doubts. Clough was extremely outspoken, known for airing controversial opinions on television. Furthermore, he had a history of ruffling feathers. He had famously fallen out with the Derby County chairman, leading to his dismissal. His fraught time at Leeds was also fresh in the mind. Clough had allegedly offended stalwarts of the squad such as Billy Bremner, and was ill-suited to the club’s established culture. He was sacked after just 44 days in charge.
Neither did Clough’s mischievous sense of humour help his cause in the interview. Coming into the FA headquarters, he made a joking comment to an old man struggling to climb the stairs. This man turned out to be on the interview panel.
Sat in front of a panel of tight-buttoned old FA grandees, Clough felt ill at ease and struggled to hit it off. He commented in his autobiography: “I wasn’t comfortable with most of the company at that … I had nothing in common with any of them.”
In the end, the panel went for former West Ham manager Ron Greenwood. An accomplished figure in the game himself, Ron had a less combative personality than Clough’s.
Clough expressed disappointment at the decision. Forest vice chairman Richard Dryden was more forthright: “I am delighted for Nottingham Forest but I can’t understand the FA making a mistake of such gigantic proportions in not choosing Brian Clough,”
Snubbed for a second time
Ron Greenwood’s time in charge was steady if unspectacular. He could not save England’s doomed qualification campaign for the 1978 World Cup. He did, however, qualify for the 1980 European Championships. England were uninspiring in the finals, though, and went out in the first round.
Greenwood also guided England to their first World Cup in 12 years in 1982. They were unbeaten in the finals, but could not progress past the second group stage. Greenwood departed after the tournament.
Meanwhile, England’s loss was Forest’s gain. He had won the league with Forest, and two consecutive European Cups. It was one of the greatest ever achievements by an English manager. Clough’s stock had never been higher, and the media touted him as the natural successor to Greenwood.
The FA had other ideas, though. They gave the job to Bobby Robson. Robson himself felt uncomfortable with the situation, commenting to the FA chairman: “I’m having a rough time and everybody wants Brian – give the job to him. If he’s successful, everybody’s happy. If he fails, that’s the end of the clamour for Brian Clough to be England manager.”
Not to be
Clough was again mentioned in 1990 after Booby Robson resigned. But it was starkly apparent by this time that the FA simply did not fancy Clough. Graham Taylor got the job instead.
The FA, an old -fashioned and lumbering organisation, just weren’t prepared to put up with the charismatic and outspoken Clough. The great man reflected: “I’m sure the England selectors thought, if they took me on and gave me the job, I’d want to run the show. They were shrewd because that’s exactly what I would have done.”
It is one of the great tragedies of English football. Clough could have brought the touch of genius that the national side desperately needed.
Forest fans won’t be complaining though. Clough spent his finest years at the City Ground and took the club to unimaginable heights.