Following a genius of a manager can be extremely difficult for a football club. Marcelo Bielsa’s wholly expected contract extension last week has kicked the can down the road for another year but it is something Leeds United are eventually going to have to face again. When they do, they will have to do a lot better than in 1974.
To just look at his CV, appointing one of the greatest managers of his generation seemed like a good idea by Leeds 47 years ago.
Brian Clough had been good enough to win the league title with Derby County, and would be good enough in years to come to win back-to-back European Cups with Nottingham Forest, an achievement that grows more astonishing with every passing year. There are plenty who still swear blind he is the best English manager never to manage England.
But the beauty of football is that there is more to it than that. Not that anyone at Elland Road found it particularly beautiful back then.
Even at the time, few thought the decision made by a divided board to appoint Clough as Leeds United manager was a good one, but how spectacularly bad it was probably caught even most of the naysayers by surprise.
By the time of Clough’s first league match, at Stoke City’s Victoria Ground, the seeds had already been sown for the grim harvest to come.
It was July 22 that Clough flew back from Majorca to try to fill the shoes of Don Revie, a rival from the same town of Middlesbrough who viewed the game in a very different light. Revie had left to manage England and although his parting gift was a league title, the Whites had staggered slightly over the line after a hugely impressive start, and the squad he left was an ageing one, in need of delicate and tactful rebuilding.
Clough brought his sledgehammer.
At a time when he badly needed allies, he did not bring his trusted right-hand man Peter Taylor, who chose to stay at their previous club Brighton and Hove Albion.
It is one of football’s great “what ifs”, although it seems unlikely anyone could have spared a headstrong Clough from the collision course he thundered down.
Even his biggest fans would admit he specialised in odd decisions, and heading straight back to finish his holiday ranked high amongst them but it was his unnecessarily confrontational and disrespectful first meeting with his new squad on his return which put him on a footing he could never scramble back from.
Rather than hold out an olive branch to players whose style of football he revelled in criticising as a television pundit, he beat them with it. It was the dictionary definition of losing a dressing room.
Clough’s first game was not technically lost, but Liverpool won the Charity Shield on penalties after Billy Bremner and Kevin Keegan had been sent off.
Bremner was allowed to face the Potters, his suspension not kicking in until the following week, but it made no odds. It was his weak tackle John Mahoney broke through to open the scoring from 25 yards.
It was Stoke who had ended Revie’s 29-game unbeaten start to the previous season and whilst Jonny Giles – who had wanted the job Clough was given – was on fine form for the visitors, the mercurial Alan Hudson outdid him in midfield.
Though Leeds lost 3-0, the scoreline was deceptive, with the yellow-shirted visitors the better team in the first half and Stoke scoring twice in the last four minutes of the second.
Former Leeds striker Jimmy Greenhoff scored with a shot which deflected off Trevor Cherry shortly after the centre-back put a diving header wide, and John Ritchie rounding things off when Hudson pounced on a tired mistake by Paul Madeley in central midfield. Gordon McQueen had overlapped him wanting the ball, and left a big hole in the centre of defence when it was lost.
Clough sported a brave face as one of the pundits on the Sunday highlights package which to his chagrin only showed the best bits of the second half.
“We know, I know, how many goals we missed,” insisted a manager who had been without the suspended Allan Clarke, but gave summer signing Duncan McKenzie a league debut in his place.
“I know how well we played and if it had been 3-0 to Leeds at half-tme, the game would have been over. We dominated 80 per cent of the game.
“We had a spell in the second half where I don’t think Stoke touched it in 10 minutes and then we went to bits a little bit. We got a little bit desperate.
“They (Clough’s Leeds players) were so keen to do well it was unbelievable. We lost a bit of our composure and conceded two silly goals in the last five minutes.
“If we play like that we’ll not only win the league, we’ll walk it.”
Nevertheless, he was quickly into the transfer market again for two of his former Derby players, John McGovern and John O’Hare. “It’s a long time since I’ve been involved in a game where I’ve been whacked 3-0,” Clough admitted.
“The heads were down on the floor.”
They lost again in his Elland Road bow, to Queens Park Rangers, and at Manchester City before, on September 12, the board admitted their mistake and it was all over.
They were 44 days Leeds fans would love to have forgotten about, but which live on in notoriety to this day, the memory perpetuated by David Peace’s controversial book The Damned United, and the film which sprang from it.
It would be simplistic to say Clough’s appointment brought the end of the Leeds glory days – although their title defence was all but over they recovered to reach the European Cup final under new manager Jimmy Armfield and with different refereeing against Bayern Munich in Paris, who knows what course the club’s future might have taken.
As it was, more than a decade of struggle would follow before Howard Wilkinson revived the club and lifted the league trophy once more.
It was a remarkable spell when an incredible manager and a wonderful team showed just how important chemistry is in football.