Brian Clough may be forever dubbed “the greatest manager England never had”, but he retained a close association with the national team. For the best part of two decades he could be heard offering – often controversial – thoughts on England and other international matches in his capacity as an ITV pundit.
Clough and television was a rather contradictory relationship. He would bang on in interviews about how there was too much football on the box and bemoaned an excessive amount of talking about the game. “I suggest you shut up and show more football,” he told John Motson at the height of Clough’s Nottingham Forest success. Yet Clough regularly supplemented his income by appearing as a pundit, proving pretty knowledgeable, unpredictable and outspoken. And his services were certainly in demand.
Clough was a man who plenty believed should be managing England, as he enjoyed widespread success at club level. For most of the 1970s and 1980s he had sections of the sporting press repeatedly calling for him to replace the serving England boss, although the role would elude him despite being interviewed for it (more on that in a future blog post). Analysing England matches would have to do as the next best thing and he wasn’t afraid to hold back. His distinct and often-imitated voice was heard a lot by TV viewers in the 1970s and 1980s, meaning he became well-known by people with limited interest in football. Even Muhammad Ali had a message for him!
Clough’s confidence in telling it as he saw it was his big selling point. There was no dodging the question or trying to be polite to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. And that made him an asset to ITV’s coverage. They liked employing straight-talking motormouths such as Malcolm Allison, but Clough was unique and things he said both on television and in newspaper columns would be quoted for years to come – his soundbite that Trevor Brooking “floats like a butterfly and he stings like one too” being one such example.
Clough during the 1982 World Cup with ITV.
Of course, there were also comments made that could be interpreted as xenophobic and would probably have left the FA convinced they did the right thing not appointing him as manager, fearing he would have lacked the necessary diplomacy. As West Germany reached the latter stages of the 1982 World Cup, Clough found it necessary to tell millions of viewers that “they’re murder the Germans” if you spend time on holiday with them – pointing out Peter Taylor had a German son-in-law as if it made his Basil Fawlty-esque view more justifiable. “Can you imagine spending three weeks with them in Palma if they win the World Cup? They’re bad enough as it is.” One wonders if he would have lasted as long in punditry in today’s more cosmopolitan and politically correct world.
But Old Big ‘Ead was a one-off and one particular punditry contribution from more than 40 years ago would never be forgotten and is still talked about today…
Clough, who won two England caps in his injury-curtailed career, was a BBC analyst during the 1970 World Cup – a tournament when their coverage was unusually overshadowed by ITV and their straight-talking panel. But in 1973 Clough switched channels, in an indirect station swap with the similarly opinionated Jimmy Hill, who moved to the BBC as Match of the Day presenter. Soon Clough was popping up regularly on The Big Match as a summariser. Two months into the season came arguably his most memorable contribution in many years of punditry.
England were in a do-or-die World Cup qualifier at home to Poland. If they won they would make the finals in West Germany, if they didn’t then the 1966 winners wouldn’t qualify. It was a major occasion, with ITV showing the match live. Clough – who had just left Derby County – was a studio panelist, beginning the show in rather odd fashion by saying he had a nail that would be going in either Poland’s coffin or England manager Sir Alf Ramsey’s. He seemed keen to allay the nation’s fears by branding Poland’s goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski a “clown” and giving strong assurances England would easily get the win they needed.
As everybody knows, Tomaszewski continually kept England at bay as chance after chance went begging and the Poles drew 1-1. Would Clough now be gracious enough to accept labelling the goalkeeper as a clown was unfair? In a word, no. During the post-match analysis, Clough still used the term to describe Tomaszewski (who would later carve out a Clough-style reputation in his homeland for making outspoken statements). Eventually, host Brian Moore snapped like a dad running out of patience with his kids making trumping noises in the back of the car. “You keep calling him a clown but that fellow has made some fantastic saves,” Moore told Clough, pointing his finger towards him. But this was a view Clough refused to go along with. Fellow pundit Derek Dougan also weighed in and defended the Polish goalkeeper, but Clough would have none of it. If anything, he seemed even more keen to show he had been right all along.
Clough wouldn’t let the matter drop, declaring on TV a few days later that Tomaszewski would be found out in the World Cup the following summer and saying he was the weak link in the Polish side. He was wrong on that, as the goalkeeper twice saved penalties in the tournament and helped them to an impressive third place. Clough spent the competition offering his thoughts in the ITV studio – a panel that basically followed the lead of 1970 in containing colourful football personalities with strong views.
Clough took his place on ITV’s 1974 World Cup panel – sadly without England matches to analyse.
He fitted in perfectly on the panel, which couldn’t be said of his infamous brief spell at Leeds United in the weeks that followed. It ended after just 44 days with an often-recalled TV head-to-head with his great rival Don Revie, who was now in charge of England. The mutual dislike couldn’t have been more obvious.
The two Brians
While Clough and Peter Taylor may be the partnership most frequently recalled, there was another enduring double act Cloughie enjoyed. Brian Moore would regularly be alongside him as presenter of The Big Match or as lead commentator on occasions when Clough was deployed as co-commentator. It was an unlikely friendship between two men who appeared to have contrasting personalities, but they complemented each other well and appeared genuinely fond of each other.
Brian Moore and Brian Clough preparing for an episode of The Big Match.
But the aforementioned Poland game was probably not the only time Moore grew irritated with Clough and his rather unpredictable nature. In September 1983 England hosted Denmark in a vital qualifier for Euro ’84 that was live on ITV. With the game less than a minute old, teenager Michael Laudrup missed a chance to put the Danes ahead. “The wonderboy is human after all,” exclaimed Moore. Co-commentator Clough pedantically shot back: “I’ve never seen a 19-year-old wonderboy in my life.”
Moore did see the funny side during the 1986 World Cup, when Clough again joined him in the London studio. During a discussion with Clough’s new punditry sparring partner Mike Channon, the former Southampton star said: “The Irish have done it, the French do it, the West Germans do it…” Clough seized his moment. “Even educated bees do it,” he quipped, to raucous laughter from Moore.
McCarthy has the last laugh
Clough was one of ITV’s leading pundits during Euro ’88 in West Germany. This tournament really represented his last hurrah in terms of international punditry, as he was absent from their Italia ’90 coverage (his choice according to newspaper reports of the time) and the BBC had exclusive terrestrial rights to most England matches for several years after this. In a warm-up for Euro ’88 Clough was in the studio with Nick Owen for England’s trip to Hungary – oddly calling Gary Pallister “McAllister” – and he cast doubt upon captain Bryan Robson’s position in the side after “an indifferent season”. Again, Clough certainly wasn’t going to sit on the fence or just go along with what the nation at large may have thought about their footballing heroes.
Fifteen years on from the Poland game, it seemed Clough still wasn’t afraid to make controversial statements that had the potential to backfire – and duly did. Prior to England’s tournament opener against the Republic of Ireland, Clough decided to dismiss the credentials of Irish defender Mick McCarthy who had passed a fitness test to play. “I’m glad from an English point of view that the Irish centre half’s fit… because I don’t think he’s international class for a start and I would have thought [Peter] Beardsley and [Gary] Lineker will be rubbing their hands. In fact if they could have got him a few Deutschmarks to get him even fitter still so there’d be no doubt I think they would have slipped him a few.”
Clough knew he was being witty with the last bit but he was also pretty damning about a player who was about to appear against England. But McCarthy would have the last laugh as the Irish won 1-0 and England crashed out with three successive defeats. If Clough hoped this might at last give him he chance to manage his country, then it wouldn’t happen for him as Bobby Robson kept his job and – despite still having his fans in the media – Clough was realistically never in the running when Robson did leave in 1990.
Not being a pundit on England matches in this period was perhaps for the best, given Clough’s son Nigel was first capped in 1989 and deserved his chance without having his father being constantly asked about him in the studio (it was difficult enough a few years later when Ian Wright was on the BBC panel when Shaun Wright-Phillips was playing for England). Some later appearances as a pundit such as when Derby County met Tottenham Hotspur in 1991 sadly did not go particularly well, Clough almost seeming like a parody of his past self and lacking the insight he once had. But after retiring from football management in 1993 he still remained in demand for his views, continuing to write opinion columns in the media until shortly before he died in 2004. And his death opened the floodgates to a never-ending steam of documentaries, films and books about the man, ensuring the many views he shared at his peak are still heard today.
When he reached that peak, Clough was revered like no other TV football pundit. He was witty, very opinionated, knowledgeable (if not always on the money with his predictions) and entertaining, certainly not a nodding dog who didn’t really want to be sat in front of the cameras. In such respects he was quite like the Formula One world champion turned co-commentator James Hunt – minus the playboy lifestyle – as you could never be sure just what he would say next. Clough was made for both football management and television and he relished both roles, it’s fair to say.