Not many managers in the history of English football have taken a relatively small club from Second Division obscurity to the First Division title but Brian Clough managed it twice in a decade. Very few managers in English football have won the European Cup but, again, Brian Clough did it twice, in successive years. It would be fair to say that English football had never seen a manager quite like Brian Clough and fairer still to assume that it is unlikely to see another like him again. Clough became a legend in the Midlands, first at Derby County, then at Nottingham Forest, raising both clubs to a level that they could scarcely have dreamed of let alone have expected.
Clough began his extraordinary managerial career at Hartlepool United at the tender age of 30, making him the youngest manager in the Football League. As a player he was a natural goalscorer and played in the North East for Middlesbrough and Sunderland but was forced to retire from the game early due to injury. Having taken Hartlepool from a lowly position in Division Four to a respectable eighth in two years he left Victoria Park and joined Derby County. Clough led The Rams to promotion as Champions of Division Two in 1968-69, returning them to the First Division for the first time since 1953. In their first season back in the top flight Derby finished fourth, their highest finish for twenty years. Two seasons later they won the First Division Championship, beating Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City by one point to the title. In the European Cup, Clough's team reached the semi-finals but in 1973 he left the Baseball Ground after a dispute with the club.
He took up the manager's post at Brighton a fortnight later but left the club after eight months to become the new boss at Leeds United following Don Revie's call up to the national post, with his assistant Peter Taylor staying on to take charge of The Seagulls for another two years. Famously, Clough was at Elland Road for just 44 days before walking out due to difficulties with the players but he was not out of management for long as he returned to the Midlands to manage Derby's local rivals Nottingham Forest.
Once again Clough achieved promotion to the First Division within two years and in 1977-78, Nottingham Forest won their only ever League Championship, in their first year back in the top division, preventing Liverpool from claiming their third successive title under Bob Paisley. Players like Viv Anderson, Tony Woodcock, Peter Withe, Martin O'Neill and John Robertson were all instrumental in Clough's excellent side. Liverpool were going for another hat-trick the following season, in the European Cup, but again it was Forest who lifted the trophy, putting Liverpool out in the First Round and beating Malmo in the final thanks to a solitary goal from Trevor Francis. Ironically Clough went on to repeat Paisley's feat, leading The Reds of Nottingham to a successful defence of European football's biggest prize the year after, again courtesy of a single goal, this time from John Robertson, against Hamburg. Along with his legendary counterpart at Anfield, Clough is the only manager in English football to win successive European Cups. 1979 also saw Clough win the second of four League Cups with Forest, the first coming the previous year and the other two coming after a ten-year gap, in 1989 and 1990. During that period Clough's team finished third in Division One on three occasions and reached the semi-final of the UEFA Cup where they controversially lost 3-2 over two legs to Anderlecht thanks to an inexplicable penalty decision.
Having witnessed the Hillsborough disaster first hand in 1989, Clough led Forest out at Wembley for the third year in a row in 1991, this time in the final of the FA Cup, the one trophy that he had always strived for but never won. Unfortunately for Clough, his side lost and he was not to reach another final. He resigned as manager of Nottingham Forest after 16 years in charge when the team were relegated from the Premier League in 1993.
As a manager, Brian Clough was renowned for his philosophy that football should be played in a particular way, which was best summed up by his famous quote: "If God had meant football to be played in the air he would have put grass on the clouds."
His unique style and forthright approach, by his own admission, may have kept him from managing England, a job that he openly coveted, but his achievements were remarkable, especially considering the quality of the opposition at the time. He took on and beat the big boys of English football, at two separate clubs, and took Europe by storm, in his own inimitable fashion.