"We love Brian": The Story of the Brian Clough's last season with Nottingham Forest
Clough's fall from grace at Nottingham Forest was sudden, and it left a huge gap in the hearts of fans and a particular player, Roy Keane
Very soon, Nottingham Forest could be back to Premier League for the first time in 23 years. But their fall from grace started some 6 years earlier, during their last season under Brian Clough. When we look back into the dying embers of a manager's long tenure, we often look into where the root causes could be. Clough's fall from grace at Nottingham was so sudden it might even feel like one of those shows that fail to meet rating quotas and are brought to a sudden wrap-up by producers, leaving more questions than answers.
The after-Taylor part of his reign started decently well. A run to the semifinals of the 1984 UEFA Cup brought memories of their European Cup miracle-working and successive third-place finishes in 1987/88 and 1988/89 put Nottingham Forest as a contender (or thereabouts) once again. They even lifted some silverware, claiming the 1988/89 League Cup and successfully defending it the following season. However, the slide slowly settled in.
As alcoholism dulled one of English football's sharpest minds, Clough's behaviour became ever more erratic and unpredictable. After the end of the 1991/92 season, several players and family members, led by his son Nigel, had asked the manager to step down to take better care of himself. Old Big ‘ead wasn't having any of it, but things were stirring behind his back.
For starters, Forest's dealings in the summer of 1992 were nothing short of a disaster. Des Walker, their main defensive stalwart, was sold to Sampdoria for 1.5 million pounds. Darren Wassall, the man who was supposed to take over from the England international, soon departed for Derby County for £600,000 after clashing with Clough, the team's defensive woes throughout the season were easy to predict. Forest had the honour of playing in the first-ever live televised Premier League game, winning 1-0 against Liverpool, Sheringham with the only goal of the game. It would be, however, his last for the Reds; he'd be sold to Tottenham for £2.1m just a week later.
It wouldn't be the only problem they faced. Nigel Clough was underperforming, being constantly pressed by the press for news about his father's problems. Stuart Pearce, with injury problems throughout the season, would also clash often with Clough. Later that season, Nottingham Forest suspended director Chris Wootton, who had publicly said Cloug's drinking undermined his capacities as manager.
Amid all that chaos, there was one redeeming light during the season, Roy Keane. As Clough himself put it in his autobiography, "Roy Keane shone like a beacon through all the gloom of that desolate season... the confidence of the young players dipped. [...] Only Roy Keane was doing his stuff regularly".
Keane had arrived at Nottingham as a 19-year-old from Cobh Ramblers in the summer of 1990. for a fee of just £47,000. He'd struggle initially, not being used to spending so much time away from his family and would often ask the club for leave to visit them. Clough showed a generous side, allowing for it, and that helped the young Keane settle in and eventually break into the first team. It wasn't all roses, however; as Danny Lewis recounts in his article for These Football Times, "Theirs was a relationship based on mutual respect, though this was put on hold after an FA Cup third-round game against Crystal Palace. Keane had under-hit a back pass and gifted Palace the goal which took the game to a replay. When the Irishman returned to the dressing room, he was greeted with a punch in the face from Clough which knocked him to the floor".
By the 1992/93 season, the Irishman was one of the team's best players, able to perform across the pitch. Desperate to close the gap left by Des Walker, Clough used Keane as a centreback early during the season, and the Cork native excelled, although it wasn't to his liking. "It was almost that it was too easy for him [at the back]," Liam O'Kane, a head coach for that Forest side, told FourFourTwo. "He wanted to be more involved in midfield. He was a great header of the ball, had a great spring, so he could have played centre-half all season. But it was a bit easy for him, so we put him back into midfield".
With Keane drawing interest from the likes of Blackburn, Arsenal, Aston Villa, and even AC Milan, the delay during contract renewal talks unsettled the players, the fans and the board. The constant incidents with Keane's pub-going didn't help the situation. In the end, it took intervention by Clough himself with the two time European Cup winner reportedly telling his assistant (and lead contract negotiator) Ron Fenton to just "give him what he wants". Crucially, Keane had a clause added to his contract that allowed him to leave the club in case of relegation, a valuable liberty in the pre-Bosman ruling world.
It proved smart business, as on May 1, 1993, Forest's relegation was mathematically sealed after a home 2-0 defeat to Sheffield United. Just a week earlier, Clough had announced his retirement, surrounded by claims that it had been forced on him. The fans weren't happy, as Mike Anstead recollects in an article for the Daily Mail: ‘I think it's disgraceful', said a man flipping burgers in his van parked outside the City Ground. ‘It's the first bad season we've had in five or six years and suddenly everyone is calling for Clough to be resigning. I think we should stick with him, give the man a chance and hope they do well next year.'
After the match, the Nottingham Forest fans let the man that led them to the cusp of the world that they loved him, no matter what. Interviewed by Barry Davies and Martin Tyler, Clough made it clear he didn't have all that many regrets. "I'm delighted. I'm sorry to have lost today obviously but I am happy. I'm a happy man. Happiness comes from within. I'm a good socialist, I'm a good dad, I'm a good granddad; I'm happy. [...] I'm a Football League manager by trade. That's my trade. I do it well. I do it good. It could be argued I'm the best in the business". He made it clear, however, he wouldn't return to the game: "I'm going to walk around and look after my grandchildren. I might even come to a football match, actually.'
Keane would go on to become one of the best in the world at Manchester United. And yet, for the success he would achieve at Old Trafford, he would never quite gel with Sir Alex Ferguson as he did with Clough. Years later, he would claim he considered Old Big ‘ead to be the best manager he ever had. As O'Kane recalls, "When all's said and done they admired each other." Once, with Clough berating his team after a terrible performance, he stopped in front of Keane. "I love you, Irishman", was all he could say.
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