They Could Have Been One Of Football’s Greatest: Brian Clough

Part five of this series looks at the man affectionately known to many as “old big head”. Brian Clough’s inclusion in this series may come as a big surprise to many, and who could argue? So many already think of Brian Clough as a great within the game, even a legend, and rightly so. But what if his career-ending injury hadn’t happened? Could a playing career that, though short, was brilliant have been even better and reached greater heights? Could a longer playing career effected his outstanding managerial career about which many books have been written and a film made?

For parts one to four please click on the links below.

Robin Friday     Dean Ashton     Kieron Brady     Jason Koumas

They Could Have Been One Of Football’s Greatest Part Five – Brian Clough

Brian Clough was undoubtedly one of the greatest football managers of all time. He took clubs that were seen as unfashionable at the time, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, to the top of English and European football in a style which is still talked about today. But what about his playing career: a career which, though prolific, was spent largely in the second tier of English football with Middlesbrough and Sunderland? Could the injury that eventually retired him have stopped him from being even greater than he was or was it a blessing in disguise?

In his autobiography ‘Walking On Water’ he admitted that cricket was in actual fact his first love when he was younger, not football, and that he’d have rather scored a century at Lord’s that a hat-trick at Wembley. Cricket’s loss was definitely football’s gain.

After completing national service he signed for his hometown club Middlesbrough. In six years he scored a staggering 204 goals in just 222 matches. This included scoring 40 or more goals in four consecutive seasons. Even though he was scoring goals for fun he was unhappy at the progress being made by the club. Several transfer requests were made and after a 6-6 draw he sarcastically remarked to his team-mates: “How many goals do I have to score to win a match?”. It was also while at Middlesbrough that Clough got to know a certain Peter Taylor who was their goalkeeper. The rest, as they say, is history.

While at Middlesbrough, he won his two caps for England, but failed to score for his country. He believed that his goal scoring exploits at club level should have made him a regular starter for the national team. He was up against the likes of the lethal Jimmy Greaves.

In the summer of 1961, one of his transfer requests was finally accepted and he joined Sunderland for a fee of around £45,000. In 74 appearances, he scored a remarkable 63 goals. In his first season he netted five hat-tricks and became a firm crowd favourite at Roker Park. The following season he had scored twenty eight league and cup goals by December. These goals were helping Sunderland push for promotion to the top flight of English football, a place both Clough and club deserved to be.

On Boxing Day 1962 Brian Clough’s career and life would change. Roker Park was having one its icy, unforgiving days that sometimes only the North East of England can produce. The opposition that day was Bury in what was a top of the table clash. Clough, looking for goals as per usual, chased a loose ball into the opposition box and collided with the Bury goalkeeper. Witnesses have since described hearing a sickening crunch. He was unable to get up and was injured badly. He had suffered cruciate ligament damage. The injury would keep him out for almost two years. He was 27 years old at the time of his injury.

After 20 months out and much physiotherapy, he attempted his comeback. Sunderland were now in the first division and if he could get back to playing as he had done almost two years ago then surely a successful career in the top flight of English football and beyond was on the horizon. Sadly, he managed only three games in the first division, scoring one goal. The injury had taken its toll, his brave comeback had failed. He retired from playing football at the age of 29, having scored 267 goals in just 296 appearances. Nowadays with medical science having evolved as much as it has done, players who suffer a similar type of injury to Brian Clough’s can be back playing within months.

Clough described himself as “the finest goal-scorer in the country and one of the best the game has ever seen” and looking at his stats its hard to argue but without that injury his stats would surely have been even more impressive. He would have played at a higher level on a regular basis and who knows, perhaps his international career may have come good too, especially if his goals to games ratio had remained similar. Len Shackleton said: “He was the greatest centre forward I ever saw. He scored goals more consistently than anybody else did. He would have shattered the record of Dixie Dean had he played against similar style defences”. (Sunderland Official History Book)

Even if his playing career had lasted longer, few would argue that his managerial career would still have been a success — he was that type of man. Brian Clough was simply a ‘one off’. If there is one saving grace from the cruelty of his injury it is that it led to Clough entering the world of management earlier than expected and giving the game one of the most successful mangers and loved characters its history.


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  1. Except that Clough was one of the greatest. As far as I’m aware he still has the record for most goals per game of any English player that has scored over two hundred goals. It’s just that he was even greater as a manager…

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