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Is Martin O'Neill the new Brian Clough?


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With ITV airing a one-off documentary about Old Big 'ead on 25th March, ChrisVillan has been thinking about Cloughie's relationship with the Aston Villa boss and asks where there are similarities between the two.

The Apprentice

The careers of the late Brian Clough and Martin O'Neill are linked so often that it's almost become part of football assumption. The idea that a managerial great of Clough's standing would inspire a few of his players to follow him into management isn't exactly far-fetched, but the extent to which O'Neill is labelled as Clough's professional offspring is a little strange. After all, Clough's real offspring doesn't look too shabby as a manager!

I've long thought the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, that O'Neill's style combines flashes of Clough's brilliance with a different kind of mad genius. Luckily I got a chance to find out a little more. ITV Sport, which is showing a documentary named 'Clough' this Wednesday at 10.35pm (ITV1), held a preview screening for the press on Friday - so I invited myself along to report back for VillaTalk. Seriously.

Everybody knows that O'Neill and Clough had an up-and-down relationship, largely because Martin was one of the few (non-Leeds) players with the bollocks and intelligence to stand up to him. In ITV's film, O'Neill recalls a difference of opinion between the two, telling Gabriel Clarke that "I thought I was brilliant, and he didn't." Beelzebub Francis, Forest's winning goalscorer in their first European Cup win, tells the old story about O'Neill and Archie Gemmill telling Clough they were fit for the final only to be left on the bench by a manager who didn't believe them. And yet Martin is clearly brimming with respect for Clough to this day.

Peas in a pod

Let's begin by thinking about some of the characteristics of O'Neill's management.

Martin's approach is very simple, and tactically there are definite similarities with Clough. Much like his old boss, O'Neill builds teams which are greater than the sum of their parts. Both play simple football, Martin's in particular based on pace.

Sitting at ITV's headquarters yesterday, it was easy to see why so many people compare our manager to Cloughie. How much of the following is familiar?

Nigel Clough, manager of Derby County and Brian's son, told ITV interviewer Clarke that his dad's teams were built on discipline, both in terms of organised play and respect for opponents and officials. He said Clough Sr was a master motivator, a clever man manager and a perfectionist. Derby's title win under Clough, said Nigel, made him a miracle worker.

O'Neill told Clarke that Brian Clough was, above almost all, charismatic. I think there's a little of Martin in all of this, and then when the documentary moves on to show some great clips of Martin at Nottingham Forest, linking up brilliantly with one John Robertson, it's almost like watching the Villa. Robbo's demeanour was not unlike that of James Milner, and Villa's reliance upon Ashley Young demonstrates that O'Neill learned the value of Robbo's ability. That's where the similarity on the wings ends, mind. I doubt Young will ever be described by his manager as a "little fat guy that will turn [his defender] inside out".

What's more, Cloughie wasn't necessarily a hands-on coach. Despite all the classic clips of the man lambasting his players on the training ground - many of which appear in the documentary - we're told he wasn't always there. Now where have we heard that before?

There's only one Brian Clough

The thing is, I think the few differences outweigh the many similarities. O'Neill has all the charisma of his mentor, but less outward arrogance. He gives all the soundbites, but with Martin finding them is like panning for gold - from Cloughie, it was more like he just took the pan and smashed you about the chops with it. Granted, a lot of the similarities were down to both character and changing times. Can you imagine O'Neill ever showing up for a press conference wearing a tracksuit and brandishing a squash racquet? Or being interviewed topless before a European Cup Final? Clough was just a little bit more brash.

As much as I hate to say it, Clough in his pomp just didn't let the pressure tell. Taking Derby and Forest to league successes was an unbelievable achievement (and a sign of the times). I can't help but draw a comparison between those seasons and our current fight for fourth. Again, it's a difference both in character and in timing, but it's a difference all the same. Chatting to Clarke about O'Neill after the screening, it was clear that his impression is that O'Neill, while clearly inspired by Clough, is a different man despite one or two tactical similarities. I have to say I agree with that.


The documentary itself is a marvellous piece of television. It's beautifully shot, moving and very respectful. But it pulls no punches. Clough's wife Barbara and sons Nigel and Simon are candid about their views about David Peace's "faction" The Damned United (they don't appear to have any intention of seeing the feature film), as is Johnny Giles, the Leeds United man who successfully sued the author.

Perhaps necessitated by the forthcoming film, ITV's show does not shirk Clough's 44 days at Leeds and gives an insight rarely seen in Clough retrospectives. It also features, I believe for the first time, confirmation of Clough's belief that the FA's interview process while searching for Don Revie's replacement as England manager was a sham, a suspicion Old Big 'ead took to the grave.

You can see the documentary at 10.35pm this coming Wednesday, on ITV1. I thoroughly recommend it, and I suspect it will throw The Damned United into sharp relief if you see both.

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...I believe the bit where it says's Martin O'Neill is clearly inspired by Clough.... but he's a different man.

I also suspect Cloughie fancied being Villa Manager.... we just didn't have the hierarchy to make it happen.

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No No No No No. and when he stops thinking he is we will all be better off.


To even think of O'Neill in the same category as Clough is stupid. O'Neill at this moment is a very mediocre football manager

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