Brian Clough and his effect on the Irish management team

On what would have been Clough’s 80th birthday, we examine the iconic manager’s influence on Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane.

Image: Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS Sport

This was first published in September last year but is reproduced today, on what would have been Brian Clough’s 80th birthday.

‘WHO’S THE BEST manager you played for?’ asks ITV’s Gabriel Clarke.

There’s the briefest of pauses.

‘Without a doubt, Brian Clough’.

Roy Keane never won a major trophy during his three years at Nottingham Forest. In his final season at the City Ground, the club were relegated. Still, with the TV cameras pressed close to his face for the filming of the ‘Keane and Vieira: Best of Enemies’ documentary, he was unflinching in his support of the man who gave him his first big opportunity.

Cynics will point to the disintegration of Keane’s relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson as the reason why the former Manchester United captain said what he did. After all, under Ferguson’s guidance, he won 17 trophies in a 12-year spell at Old Trafford. The words seemed so spiteful, so childish. Yet, behind it all, Keane owed plenty to Clough and his own management style has been heavily inspired by what he experienced first-hand at Forest. Above all else, there was a genuine appreciation for Clough having seen what so many didn’t: Keane’s desire, work ethic and boundless spirit.

All others had been put off by his size. As his Rockmount team-mates were brought to England for trials, Keane was ignored. Many feel this early rejection fuelled the anger, the focus and determination which would come to define his career. But after Noel McCabe spotted Keane playing for Cobh Ramblers youth team against Belvedere in Fairview Park, everything changed. Keane was soon at Forest and experienced Clough up close for the first time.

Soccer - Barclays League Division One - Nottingham Forest v Coventry City Roy Keane always felt hugely grateful to Brian Clough for handing him his first big opportunity. Source: Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS Sport

Shortly after signing, Keane was in Holland with the Forest Under-21 side and impressed in a variety of positions. Once the squad got back to Nottingham, he was thrown into the reserves. One night, Clough headed along to see how his latest recruit was progressing. But, much to Clough’s annoyance, Keane was named on the bench. At half-time, Clough approached the reserve-team manager Archie Gemmill and asked him to replace his son Scot with Keane. But as the second half resumed, Gemmill dug in his heels. Clough grew increasingly angry and with twenty minutes left, he bounded towards the dugout, hopped over the hoardings and snapped at Gemmill: ‘Get your son off and put the Irishman on’.

Keane’s subsequent senior debut at Anfield has been heavily-documented elsewhere but it’s worth remembering the circumstances. He had barely featured for Forest at any level and thought he was being brought along to the game for experience. The night before, he stayed out drinking until the early hours and was only told he was travelling with the squad on the morning of the game. Worse for wear, Keane was driven to Liverpool by assistant manager Ronnie Fenton but Clough needed to be picked up too. As the car pulled up outside Clough’s house, Fenton told Keane to ring the bell. As he approached the front-door, Clough emerged with a pint of milk and instructed Keane to drink it. It what as a surreal episode, Keane did as he was told. It proved a smart move.

Later in the dressing room, as he helped put out the jerseys, Clough told him to pull on the number six shirt because he was playing. But the next day, Clough pulled a managerial master-stroke. Sidling up to Keane at the training ground after a brisk walk with his dog, he asked him his name. Keane told him. Clough took off his shoes, handed them to Keane and said Give those a clean for me, will you, Roy? ‘

ENGLISH SOCCER RUMBELOWS LEAGUE CUP Keane celebrates during a League Cup semi-final against Tottenham in 1992. Source: Neal Simpson/EMPICS Sport

Clough would later come to blows with Keane – an under-hit back-pass in a FA Cup game against Crystal Palace resulted in John Salako scoring. In the dressing-room after the game, Clough punched him in the face, knocking him to the floor. But it was a once-off. As Clough struggled to deal with the death of his once-inseparable deputy and friend Peter Taylor in 1990, he became increasingly erratic and was a rare visitor to training. As Jonathan Wilson recounts in his excellent biography of Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You, there was a violent outburst at the training ground on one occasion when he insulted every player. When he got to Keane, he simply blurted out, I love you, Irishman’.

When Keane entered management, there was an initial swell of enjoyment at Sunderland. Like Clough, he believed in tradition and history though in an anti-Clough way, he had photos of successful Sunderland teams from the past placed around the training ground. It was clear he always kept the memories of Clough’s impact on his own career close to his heart and his mind. Before a game against Manchester United at the Stadium of Light in December 2007, Keane gave a first-team debut to seventeen year-old striker Marvyn Waghorn.

But, like Clough, dealing with a rapidly-changing culture began to bother Keane. The way players behaved and carried themselves, what he felt was a lack of basic hard work and effort and the relentless demands that took him away from his family. There were reports, especially while at Ipswich, of run-ins with players. He began to stay away from the training ground. His behaviour became erratic. At press-conferences, the atmosphere was tense. His replies to questions terse. Disinterest and a lack of direction – two things that effected Clough in his final years – only accelerated Keane’s managerial death knell.

Clough always struggled with Martin O’Neill. The Northern Irishman had been at university and studied law. He was intelligent, articulate and eloquent. He had opinions and could articulate them with ease – in stark contrast to his peers. O’Neill was an outsider, a different breed and Clough always found it difficult to relate to such personalities. Duncan Hamilton, author of Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, a memoir about his close relationship with Clough, tells of how after a particularly taxing conversation with the midfielder, Clough would ask Hamilton about the meanings of all the long words O’Neill had used. Memorably, after some help from Hamilton, he likened O’Neill to James Joyce – as he saw it, two Irish men no-one could understand.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Nottingham Forest v Birmingham City Martin O'Neill, far left, spent a decade at Nottingham Forest but Brian Clough was intimidated by his education and intelligence. Source: PA Photos/PA Archive/Press Association Images

But, O’Neill also borrowed heavily from Clough and his own managerial career seemed to mirror that of his former boss. The initial lower-level success at Wycombe that drew admiring glances, the trophies won with an unfashionable side like Leicester and the subsequent high-profile jobs at Celtic and Aston Villa.

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Like Clough, it’s O’Neill’s man-management that sets him apart. His ability to read players is legendary, seemingly having a sixth-sense in knowing when to give someone a verbal dusting down or a comforting arm around the shoulder. Whether instinctively or not, O’Neill absorbed such behaviour from Clough.

Going against type somewhat, O’Neill is a remarkably engaging storyteller and his sharp wit is thoroughly under-rated. So too is his ability to offer a withering one-liner. During one appearances for ITV during the channel’s World Cup coverage, he offered up a Clough-like retort to fellow-pundits Patrick Vieira and Fabio Cannavaro who he feared were underestimating his playing career:

Despite the fact that there are two World Cup winners [here], actually when it comes to the Champions League, which used to be the European Cup, I’ve won two of them. I’d just like to know, how many have you lads won?”

During a radio interview in July, the Irish management duo of O’Neill and Keane spoke freely on a variety of topics. With the crowd in the palm of their hands, the pair put on a show. O’Neill spoke of his time at the World Cup in Brazil and going to visit the Chris the Redeemer statue only to find Keane’s head on it. Later, Keane himself joined in. Asked if he would work for Irish television, he responded:

“Ah, I don’t know. It would depend on the money.”

But, it was left to O’Neill, unsurprisingly, to conjure a Clough-esque clincher. On coaching Robbie Savage at Leicester, he said:

“I once told Robbie, your game is missing just one thing and that’s ability”.

Clough would’ve been proud. For many reasons.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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