Brian Clough’s reign saw two clubs from the east midlands reach for the stars, then slump. Simon Tyers looks for the reasons why success didn’t last
It is not even as if the area can boast a great stadium with lots of history. While other English regions have grounds dripping with prestige and memories – Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury, even Deepdale – the best the east midlands’ top three clubs can come up with are the City Ground, whose only real distinguishing feature is that the Trent runs alongside it; Filbert Street, which looks as though it has stolen its stands from clubs in four different divisions; and Pride Park, where the floodlight failure during its first League match couldn’t even be put down to sabotage by Malaysian gambling syndicates.
The area even had to bring in a son of Middlesbrough in order to gain any major success and, like the national team since 1966, has been unable to live up to it since. Brian Clough’s achievements at Derby and Nottingham Forest are well documented, but they are worth reiterating in part to show what sort of a legacy the clubs have had to cope with since. Derby finished 18th in the Second Division in 1967-68, yet under Clough’s stewardship the following season a mixed cast of youngsters and journeymen, with the quality of Dave Mackay thrown in, were champions by seven points.
Once in the top flight, Clough’s four full seasons ended with Derby in fourth, ninth, first and seventh, the latter season also seeing a European Cup run only ended, controversially, in the semi-finals by Juventus. In January 1975, Clough turned up in Nottingham. His Forest side, then mid-table in the Second Division, went to Tottenham and won 1-0 in an FA Cup third round replay in his first game. Within two years the team that finished that season 16th was promoted, and everyone knows the trail of League and European glory that followed.
Yet neither Derby nor Forest have been able to use those successes to build something more permanent. In 1975-76 Derby, under Dave Mackay, finished fourth, the club’s worst League performance in the three seasons he was manager, a time which included the 1974-75 championship. However, while Liverpool and Leeds followed their periods of domestic dominance with similar assaults on Europe, Derby just didn’t have the resources to follow suit.
At the turn of the Nineties, Arthur Cox’s side featuring Dean Saunders and Mark Wright finished sixth but a succession of poor managers brought Derby fans back down to earth. Lionel Pickering injected millions on becoming owner in the midle of the decade but Roy McFarland seemed to use the new income to buy players at inflated prices until Pickering was forced to admit that he had run out of money.
Forest’s trophies have come in the much more recent past. But although they won the League Cup as recently as 1989 and 1990, and reached the FA Cup final the following year, it seemed even then that Clough was becoming more outspoken in order to make up for fading managerial powers. The bubble eventually burst and Clough got out, but the sales of Des Walker and Teddy Sheringham would continue to hang over the club virtually to the present day.
Despite mounting debts and a botched buyout attempt, a high level of expectation still lingers at the City Ground, as David Platt has discovered to his cost. Former commercial manager George Waterhouse once described Forest as “a multi-million-pound business run like a corner shop... if that’s not libellous against corner shops”. The club only became a limited company in 1982, having previously been run by a loosely defined committee of local businessmen. The formation of the Premier League seemed to take them by surprise, and a failure to find a sugar daddy meant that Forest failed to keep up with more ambitious and better organised outfits.
It would have been too much to ask for either Derby or Forest to keep winning things in the Clough style for very long, but neither can have expected to sink to such a low ebb so quickly after he left. Ambition and expectancy have been repeatedly hamstrung by a lack of forward planning that leads to a drop in standards.
Bryan Roy may have overstated the case when he said “the only good thing about Nottingham is Robin Hood, and he’s dead”, but the east midlands is not a glamorous area. Its economic specialities such as textiles and fabrics are smaller scale and more dispersed concerns than the heavy industry and manufacturing of the west midlands (with the exception of Derby’s Rolls-Royce) which may help to explain a weaker identification between the local population and its clubs.
Most of the big west midlands clubs have stronger fan bases and a greater sense of history than their neighbours to the east. Wolves fans, for example, have stayed loyal to the club through thin and thinner, while the gaps in the stands of the eastern clubs tend to widen alarmingly when they drop down the divisions.
There is a theory that the area suffers from too much sport – for evidence, note that all three cities also host County Championship sides. Leicester city centre has a statue commemorating 1997, the year City won the League Cup and Leicestershire CCC and Leicester Tigers RUFC both won their respective championships. This argument, though, assumes county cricket attracts large crowds. Even if it did, both cricket and rugby tend to draw fans from across the county, while you are as likely to find Forest, Derby, Coventry or even Northampton fans in the outer reaches of Leicestershire.
However, the heightened sense of local rivalry that exists between the west midlands clubs is not replicated further east. Both Derby and Leicester regard Forest as public enemy No 1, but there isn’t the geographical closeness between the three fan bases that can be found with, say, Wolves and West Brom.
You could argue that, for their size, the three major east midlands clubs should logically be at about the level that Derby are now – basically hovering between the top two divisions. The only difference between these and other clubs of a similar size is that they are required to live up to a level of achievement that now seems positively abnormal.
Before Clough’s arrival in the region, it is arguable that Leicester would have been the best bet as its most successful side. During the early and mid-Sixties they consistently finished mid-table or better in the top flight. Now they too have a charismatic manager brought up in the Clough tradition, and with a habit of winning trophies, albeit minor ones.
But in the era of the Premiership and the Champions League, the chances of any medium-sized provincial club winning either are all but zero. Whatever burdens the region’s clubs have to bear in the future, an expectation of outlandish glory does not seem likely to be one of them.
The highs and lows
It’s been the best part of a century since the east midlands teams were a collective force, even though the region’s only three titles came in the 1970s. Between 1897 and 1906 Derby, Notts County and Forest were all in the First Division, with the Nottingham clubs finishing third and fourth in 1901 (matched by Leicester and Derby in 1928). Forest also beat Derby in the 1898 FA Cup final. Since then the clubs have passed each other going in opposite directions with monotonous regularity. There have been only five seasons in the past 95 when the region boasted three top division clubs, all since 1971.
In a region full of compulsive yo-yo teams (no club has been promoted or relegated more times than Notts County), there have been very few seasons when none has been in the top division. The last was 1993-94 (when Forest and Leicester went up from the First), but before that you have to go back to 1955-56, when Leicester, Forest and County were in the Second, while Derby and Mansfield battled it out in the Third North. That remains the only season in League history when no east midlands team has either been in the top division or has been promoted to it.
Crowds in the region have often been fickle. Take Forest for example. In 1967 they drew 31,282, making them the tenth best supported team in the country. By 1973 that had dropped to 9,995, below County and 40 other teams. When they won the title five years later they were back up to 32,501, seventh in the land (the highest any team from the region has reached). Derby sank below 12,000 in 1964, but five years later won promotion under Clough with 27,659 in tow. That in turn was more than they pulled as First Division champions in 1975, when no less than 14 clubs had better gates.
All the clubs except Mansfield have led the pack at one time or another. Notts County’s big moment came in 1949-50, when Tommy Lawton helped draw an average of 35,176 to Meadow Lane to watch Third Division South football. They also led the region the following year, but never since. Leicester were kings in the Twenties (when the two Nottingham clubs barely pulled 20,000 between them) and for much of the Fifties. Derby had their best years in the late Thirties and early Seventies, and Forest dominated the Eighties. Now Derby, since their move to Pride Park, are way out in front again.
From WSC 160 June 2000. What was happening this month