The death of Nottingham's "surrogate dad" still hasn't sunk in, writes Al Needham

It goes without saying that Brian Clough was the greatest manager ever, but to the people of Nottingham and Derby it ran much deeper than that. He put us on the map and gave us a reason to be proud of where we came from. Kids from Nottingham were not supposed to see their club win the League, go to Wembley more times than to Skegness, see their club wearing nasty jumpers on Top of the Pops, hold up the European Cup in their Dad's local, or listen under the sheets at 3am to them playing in Tokyo. For anyone in Nottingham between the ages of 30 and 45, Brian Clough was responsible for some of the happiest moments of our childhood. And, despite what anyone else thinks, underneath the media bluster he was a really nice bloke: Nottingham's surrogate dad. 

"The tributes at the ground look crap, don't they?" said my mate over the phone, the day after he died. I was forced to agree. On the telly, it looked no more impressive than the railings where people get knocked over in car accidents. I still went down, though (after signing a book of condolence at the Council House, and flicking through assorted tributes to "Brain" and, in one case, "Brine").

Forest, unlike Newcastle or Liverpool, don't really go in for ornate gates. The main gate was in constant use by TV vans and club staff, so you had to make do with a collection of smaller gates dotted around the car park. I stood outside the club shop and watched as Sky Sports News Bloke intruded on other people's grief for the 30th time that day. Funny how he never asked about Cloughie's alcoholism, as they did of assorted ex-Forest players over the phone that morning.

It's always bizarre when people assemble in a car park to mourn a manager. It's a bit like Beatles fans commemorating the death of John Lennon by standing round the loading dock of Tower Records. But I practically lived in this car park when I was growing up and on my six-week summer holiday, when Forest were champions of Europe, and every time I come here I can still see Cloughie charging this way and that in his green top, or John Robertson, looking like shit on a stick after another late night out at the Beer Keller, winding down his window and singing the chorus of Going Underground, or Trevor Francis and Peter Shilton's massive white Jags sandwiching reserve goalie Lee Smelt's knackered Vauxhall Viva, virtually held together with a Gravesend & Northfleet car sticker.

There are shirts with tributes written on them with marker pen everywhere. Looking at them, it truly hits home how much of a blow this is to Nottingham. As well as pointing out how many awful shirts we've had over the years. And flowers all over the shop, even though he said he'd prefer them when he was alive. I added my contribution – a Forest programme. It was a personal tribute; seeing as he signed at least a hundred for me, the least I could do was sign one for him. And so what if other people thought I was being mingy? He'd understand.

"It's been truly remarkable how many people have been crying in this car park," says Sky Sports News Bloke. "There have been men with shaven heads who I would cross the street to avoid in floods of tears." About 20 shaven-headed men – myself included – look at each other as if to say: who is this southern twat and why doesn't he piss off?

Then it gets bizarre. A couple of Footballers' Wives types have shoved their twin-seater baby carriages a good two feet into the pile of flowers to take pics, whooping all the time in an attempt to make their spawn wave and smile. Everyone else's eye roll at such a pace they nearly pop out of their sockets and trundle towards the Trent. After they have gone I take a slow walk down by the banks of the Trent, where once I jogged with the European Champions (except for Robbo, who would invariably sneak off for a slash under Trent Bridge).

It's hard to believe that Brian Clough is actually dead. But then, it's still hard to believe that Forest were once the greatest team in Europe. May it never sink in.

From WSC 213 November 2004. What was happening this month

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