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.