Unless you happened to be called Alex Neil and had engineered Norwich City’s route back to the Premier League, Monday 25th May wasn’t a good day to be a football manager.
Carlo Ancelotti’s reward for delivering La Decima and the Copa del Rey this time last year was a brown box in which to place the yucca plant and family picture that sat atop his office desk. Closer to home, Steve McClaren and Derby County parted ways after enjoying each others’ company for two generally successful years.
A similar tale was also playing out at Bramall Lane where Sheffield United asked Nigel Clough to come up to the boardroom for a chat, resulting in the publication of this tweet:
Since his departure from Nottingham Forest in 1993 (notwithstanding a brief return on loan in the winter of 1996-97), Nigel Clough hasn’t always been afforded a warm welcome at the City Ground. Despite scoring 102 goals in 324 games for the club and the identity of his father, Clough’s return to Trentside has generally been greeted with apathy at best and antagonistic taunting at worst. More often than not, the chant of ‘Non-League Nigel’ to the chimes of ‘Play up Pompey’ has accompanied any appearance in the opposition managerial dug out.
Of course, there is a simple explanation for this: Nigel happened to be the manager of Derby County and no matter who you are, such a role tends to stimulate opprobrium and anger amongst Nottingham Forest fans. Furthermore, being manager of a Derby County team that more often than not beat Forest certainly didn’t help relations. Also, taking such pleasure in doing so and deliberately or not, presenting such a frosty attitude to the club which he served so bravely as a player, made most Forest fans forget about his pivotal role in his father’s second great Forest team.
The rivalry between Nigel and Billy Davies when they locked horns in any A52 derby was downright nasty, culminating in the bizarre touchline confrontation at Pride Park when Davies accused Clough of kicking him in the back:
Their enmity continued after Nigel left Derby and took the reins at Sheffield United, surfacing in Forest’s defeat in the FA Cup in February 2014 at Bramall Lane.
"We shake hands, so that's peace. Is that peace? We shook hands at the City Ground earlier in the season so we will do the same again. Well, I will offer my hand anyway …"
All of this seems a huge shame and one can only assume that such antipathy between the Nottingham Forest and Nigel Clough is simply the result of the identity of the clubs with which Nigel gained employment as a manager.
It is worth noting that despite his sacking from Derby County and Sheffield United, he has arguably left both clubs in a healthier state than that which he inherited. He was the driving force in dragging Burton Albion to the lofty heights, which they now occupy in the football league pyramid:
"When Clough joined the Brewers, the club were near the foot of the Dr Martens League Premier Division but he soon made them promotion contenders, finishing runners-up twice.
"Burton then switched to the UniBond League in 2001 following a Football Association restructure and the club took the division by storm, scoring over 100 goals on the way to winning a place in the Conference.
"Since then, Clough has turned Burton into a club capable of challenging for promotion to the Football League. Last season, Burton reached the Conference play-offs for the first time, losing 4-3 on aggregate to Cambridge United."
Bob Williams 22nd October 2008 The Telegraph
Steve McClaren was also happy to acknowledge the foundations already in place on his arrival at Pride Park:
"Nigel’s done a terrific job: I’ve got full respect for Nigel and his staff for what he’s done with the young players coming through, the style of football that they play here. In the last four or five years, he’s stabilized and developed this club and got it on a sound footing."
13 October 2013 speaking to East Midlands Today
And this wasn’t just one manager’s empty platitude for a fellow comrade – praise came from other quarters too:
"For while McClaren has undoubtedly brought purpose and direction to a young and energetic collection of players, there is no escaping the fact this is ultimately Nigel Clough’s squad – one that he patiently assembled under very trying circumstances.
"Nine of the 11 players likely to start at Wembley were either bought or nurtured by Clough, and the two great hallmarks of the team – a tight spirit built on humility and an attractive passing style – were very deliberately promoted by the previous regime."
Harcharan Chandhoke 23rd May 2014 – Daily Mail
So everyone seems in agreement about Nigel’s ability to get a club all facing the right direction and marching forward together. That’s all well and good but results are king and as Nigel knows more than anyone, a manager stands or falls on how many wins he delivers.
Here’s something to mull over – at which club does Nigel boast his best win %?
Derby County 33%
Burton Albion 44%
Sheffield United 47%
Incidentally, Neil Warnock’s win ratio was 42%.
Blades fans would argue that a lot of those wins came in cup competitions, which although delightful, didn’t help in getting the club out of the godforsaken thing that is League One. Fair point. But again, David Weir left one hell of an unholy mess in his short time at the Lane and Clough’s team was only a bizarre play-off game away from earning a real chance of slugging it out with Preston North End in the final for the right to play Championship football.
But Nigel’s achievements as a manager are not the crux of the issue from a Nottingham Forest perspective. Should Dougie Freedman be summoned to London for an inauspicious chat with Fawaz, Nigel’s name will be bandied around as a potential replacement (that’s if he hasn’t already bagged himself another job by then). Let’s not go there again – the Stuart Pearce thing is still very raw.
Some may say that Nigel’s spiky attitude toward the club he and his family served so gloriously is borne out of how the club treated his father. The undignified manner in which Chris Wootton (a club director in 1993) broke the news of Brian’s resignation before the great man himself seemingly angered the Clough family. The way the club dragged it’s heels in naming the previously monikered Executive Stand the Brian Clough Stand didn’t exactly smooth things over either.
But now that Nigel isn’t the manager of either Derby County or Sheffield United, it would be nice to think that we could all start loving him again. It’s high time that the ‘Non-League Nigel’ chant reverted back to the original and best – simply, ‘Nigel Nigel, Nigel, Nigel.’
It’s not complicated. It’s not especially fast paced either (arguably like the recipient of the chant) but it expresses a genuine love and thanks towards Our Nigel.