Skip to content

When Brian Clough missed out on the England job

This week in 1977 saw Brian Clough interviewed for the England manager’s job following the departure of his great rival Don Revie a few months earlier. Today we look back at the episode, as Clough saw the job he craved elude him and he would never come as close again…

In June 1977, England were on tour of South America. They were in grave danger of failing to qualify for a second successive World Cup finals and had suffered poor home defeats in the Home International Championship to Wales and Scotland. Manager Don Revie disappeared from the tour to secretly take up the offer of a lucrative deal managing Saudi Arabia, later claiming he feared he would face the axe with England anyway. The following month Revie sensationally announced in a newspaper exclusive that he was leaving and immediately there was talk of Nottingham Forest boss Brian Clough becoming his permanent successor.

Brian Clough on the day of his England job interview.

The public showed it wanted Clough in newspaper polls, but that didn’t automatically count for much. What they hoped for was likely to differ from what the Football Association hierarchy sought. Ron Greenwood was in caretaker charge of England and a rousing 2-0 win over Italy – while not enough to take them to the World Cup – did the 56-year-old’s chances of getting the job full-time no harm at all. But Clough was to be afforded an interview, along with others including Lawrie McMenemy and Bobby Robson. FA coaching men Allen Wade and Charles Hughes were also candidates, Clough later dismissing their credentials for the job. But the FA wanted to revamp its coaching structure with the new manager helping oversee it, which meant the appointment was likely to be about more than simply being able to win football matches.

Several interviews for the job – including Clough’s – took place on December 5, 1977, two days after England’s failure to qualify for the World Cup was confirmed when Italy unsurprisingly beat Luxembourg. It had been a turbulent 1970s for England, continually missing out on major tournaments just a few years after the glory of 1966. Revie’s appointment off the back of winning the First Division with Leeds United in 1974 had promised much but been a disappointment  – and was ending with an unpleasant legal battle over his resignation – and now the FA had to find a successor who could deliver.

The interview day

Clough had at least this time been given the chance to audition for the role, which as he pointed out to the media outside Lancaster Gate was further than he had got three years earlier when Revie was given the job. McMenemy would recount how, as they waited to be interviewed, Clough caught sight of a gentleman of advancing years and was patronising about him trying to climb the stairs – telling him he should get the lift instead. However well meant, McMenemy believed this was a bit of an own goal as the man turned out to be on the interviewing panel. And the panel, chaired by Sir Harold Thompson – a man often described as ‘autocratic’ – and including Bert Millichip, Peter Swales and Dick Wragg, was something Clough found hard to identify with besides former Manchester United boss Sir Matt Busby. Clough also probably did not help his cause by making scathing criticisms of England’s new kit to FA secretary Ted Croker while he waited.

“I wasn’t comfortable with most of the company at that interview,” wrote Clough in his 2002 autobiography. “I had nothing in common with any of them so you can imagine how grateful I was to see Sir Matt Busby sitting there. He knew my business; he knew what made me a manager.” But despite feeling a limited rapport with the interviewers, he maintained 25 years later that had the appointment been based on the interviews only then it would have been his as he felt he did very well. With typical modesty, he wrote: “I was not only ready for the job. I was perfect for it because I would have been good at it.” That will forever remain one of the great ‘what ifs?’ in English football.

Greenwood gets it

After the interviews it was announced there would be a seven-day wait until the new manager was appointed. But even the following morning speculation was mounting that Greenwood would get the role. That duly became the case as Greenwood was announced as manager on December 12. The FA could not get hold of him but still went ahead with the announcement anyway. He learnt of his appointment on the radio while going out for lunch.

Jack Charlton claimed he did not receive a reply to his application.

Indeed, even accounting for the relatively limited technology of the time the process did not cover the FA in glory so far as communication was concerned. Two of England’s 1966 heroes, Bobby Moore and Jack Charlton, claimed they did not receive a response to their applications (the Daily Mirror reported at the time that Charlton had been interviewed but several sources contradict this). Charlton, who like Clough had a straight-talking reputation, would later speculate if his association with Revie counted against him.

Clough misses out

Clough declared himself “slightly disappointed” about not getting the job, which appears to have been a major understatement going by subsequent comments on the subject. A more damning response on his behalf at the time came from Forest vice-chairman Richard Dryden, who was both pleased the club was keeping hold of Clough but disgusted on his behalf that he had been turned down. “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,” he said.

Clough believed his last contribution to the interview, saying he would be willing to work in any role if offered, dented his chances of landing the big job. He ended up instead having a short-lived stint running the England Youth team. It was merely a consolation prize and a long way below what he really wanted.

The job specification for the new England manager was perhaps not to Clough’s advantage during the process, the FA wanting a man to “supervise integration of coaching at all levels” which Greenwood fitted the bill for. As Norman Fox in TheTimes wrote: “If the Football Association select committee had wanted no more than a manager to restore the team’s status, they would probably have been tempted by a different candidate.”

Taking it out on United

After the rejection, Clough was left to focus on his club again, with Manchester United possibly feeling the full wrath of his disappointment as Forest won 4-0 at Old Trafford shortly before Christmas. It was a day that they sent out a message they could seriously win the title, which they duly did. And the trophies kept on coming under Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor, which served to leave many still believing they should have been at the English helm.

All told, Clough was like an outspoken and unpredictable candidate on The Apprentice who might pull off some great deals along the way, but you just know Lord Sugar won’t take a chance on them come the final reckoning. The FA seemingly felt like that about him and unfortunately for Clough, the organisation’s hierarchy in the 1970s was still old school and at odds with his way of operating. Even years later a man like Clough might have been turned down, but one feels he may have stood more of a chance.

After losing out on the England job, Brian Clough twice led Nottingham Forest to European Cup glory. 

A bit of a myth has built up surrounding Clough over the years, that turning him down in 1977 was inconceivable. There is no question he did a superb job at Derby County and he ticked a lot of the boxes as a winning manager. But really it wasn’t a major surprise he was rejected, as if the FA were looking for faults they wouldn’t have to search too far. Although he had widespread public support, there would have been plenty of concern from the FA too. His fallouts with chairman such as Sam Longson at Derby would have not gone unnoticed, while his infamous stint at Leeds United did not provide many positive endorsements (particularly when it came to managing star names). Five years had passed since his only major honour – albeit an achievement that shouldn’t be underestimated – and he had spent the majority of the last four years managing beneath the top-flight. Forest, who had unconvincingly won promotion the previous season, were now off to a strong start in the First Division – but there was no guarantee it would last.

Clough was a bit unlucky with the timing here. Had the job instead come up in the summer of 1980, by which point he had inspired Forest to a league title, two European Cups and two League Cups and now managed to twice transform clubs into champions, it would have been far harder to dismiss him.

Brian Clough would have sought for his sidekick Peter Taylor to work alongside him with England.

But it wasn’t just about his capability to win matches that he would be judged on. The FA would have been understandably concerned about his nature for attracting controversy, particularly given he would be an ambassador for the nation as England manager. Even if meant in jest, some comments he made could be interpreted as xenophobic and the FA would have been uneasy about this. Greenwood fitted the ambassador bill more and also as someone who could help oversee the desired revamp of the coaching structure.

There was also the question of Peter Taylor. Clough made it clear to the media that Taylor would assist him with England, but several years later Bobby Robson was knocked back when he wanted to appoint Don Howe as his full-time assistant. Had Clough suffered the same fate in trying to appoint his own sidekick full-time, it could have led to a fraught relationship with the FA from the word go.

In later years Clough would make jokes along the lines of: “They thought I was going to take over the FA and they were right.” He may not have seen eye-to-eye with Revie on many things, but the way the organisation operated would surely have been one of them (by all accounts, Revie and Sir Harold’s working relationship was not an easy one).

A futile exercise?

There has been a feeling over the years that whatever Clough and everyone else did at the interviews would count for nothing, believing the job was already Greenwood’s. The FA’s press officer at the time, Glen Kirton, said Greenwood – who was interviewed on the same day as Clough – wasn’t even on the candidate list and hinted it may have been a futile exercise in the excellent 2009 ITV documentary Clough. “The chairman would have said ‘I want to appoint Ron Greenwood’ and they would have agreed,” he recalled, as one of the few survivors from the process.

Clough certainly maintained that what he did in the interview counted for nothing, writing in his final autobiography in 2002 that: “I remain unshakeable in my belief that the whole interviewing process was a charade. It wouldn’t have made the slightest difference one way or another… It was done and dusted, decided near as damn it before the FA lot got down to talking to Bobby, Lawrie and the candidate who was best qualified of all – me.”

Just a day after he was interviewed, the Daily Mirror said Clough had been through “what looked a charade of an interview” as it declared ‘Ron’s the one’ in its back page headline. Clough, like the others, was left hoping he still had a chance but deep down he must have known what was coming.

Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy was among the unsuccessful candidates.

Clough wasn’t the only man left disappointed, of course. Bobby Robson missed out, but must have impressed sufficiently to be offered the job when it next came up in 1982. Robson would reflect it had been “the right decision” to appoint Greenwood. He later wrote: “Between 1977 and 1982 I believe I became a better manager, more fully equipped to tackle the daunting task ahead.” At Ipswich Town he won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup during this period and they were unlucky not to win the First Division. McMenemy got on with life at Southampton, where he led them to a club record position of second in the First Division in 1983-84. He would later get his chance to serve his country when he assisted Graham Taylor from 1990-93.

In 1988 Charlton would get his own back on his national football team for rejecting him, as he led the Republic of Ireland to a famous win over England at the European Championship. And there were plenty of others too who didn’t get the desired job. There was little doubt back then that it was very much THE job in English football, one seemingly every English manager aspired to. Only one man was lucky enough to get it and that was Greenwood.

‘The right man at the right time’

Greenwood is sometimes rather unfairly dismissed as nothing more than a ‘safe’ choice for the job. He certainly was someone the FA would have felt more at ease with than Clough, trusting him as a diplomat who would stay out of trouble. His strong status as a coach would have certainly helped him, while he took some indirect credit for England’s 1966 triumph as three key players – Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters – played under him at West Ham. Trevor Brooking would be a later youth product to establish himself with England and Greenwood won both the FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup with the Hammers.  He had also previously coached England at youth and under-23 level.

Greenwood’s experience of managing in Europe was to his advantage, coupled with the progress made since becoming caretaker manager of England. “Ron was the right man for the job at the right time,” wrote Brooking in his autobiography. He added: “Even today, England players of that era will tell you how much they thought of him.” Greenwood had moved upstairs at West Ham in recent years with John Lyall taking over team affairs, but now he was happily getting on his tracksuit and heading for his natural habitat of the training ground again.

Ron Greenwood managed England from 1977 to 1982.

The Football League secretary Alan Hardaker, on learning of Greenwood’s appointment, made an interesting quote. He said of Greenwood: “He is not a ‘yes’ man and he has the character to disagree with someone without falling out with them.” This perhaps emphasises a key difference between Clough and Greenwood. The former had a reputation for shouting and bawling at people he disagreed with, sometimes really putting them down in the process. Greenwood would be seen as simply offering a thoughtful viewpoint, not belittling someone else in disagreeing with them. And this perhaps sums up one key reason why Greenwood appealed to the FA more than Clough. Having enjoyed his caretaker reign, Greenwood now got on with the job full-time and duly led England to the 1980 European Championship.

But the process by which he got the job will forever be remembered for one man who didn’t – Brian Clough. It was seen as much as a case of Clough missing out on the job as Greenwood landing the role. It is hard to recall another instance of someone being unsuccessful in a football manager’s job interview being so frequently recalled. But there is no doubt that Clough, for all his misgivings about the FA hierarchy, genuinely wanted to manage his country. Through both the Greenwood and Robson years there were frequent calls for Clough to get the role instead, but it never happened. “The greatest manager England never had” has become a frequently applied phrase. Would Old Big ‘Ead have been a success? Well we’ll save that one for another day…

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

6 thoughts on “When Brian Clough missed out on the England job Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: