He was one of the greatest players ever to grace the Garibaldi and remains Forest’s all-time second highest goalscorer, his footballing brain unsurpassed in recent times. But, asks Billy Nathan, does Nigel Clough hate the club that made him?

Give him a ball and a yard of space,
He’ll give you a move with Godly grace,
He’s a nice young man with a lovely smile.

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Two weeks ago when the Reds lost to Clough’s Derby County for an astonishing sixth time in his tenure as the Rams boss, I’ve been toying with a question. Does Nigel now despise the club that he grew up playing for, the one his father turned into league champions and European Cup winners?

If there was ever was a game where Nigel’s value and contribution to the Trickies was highlighted the most, it was Arsenal v Forest in the FA Cup quarter-final, 1988. Clough was immense, the maestro, and as a youngster I never fully appreciated what he did that day.

I’ve looked at the game again on YouTube. For the first goal Nigel collects the ball with his back to the Gunners’ box, swivels and lays it off to Paul Wilkinson who shoots first time, the ball hit the post and then crosses the line.

For the second, Gary Crosby passes to Clough well inside the Forest half, he turns and carries the ball forward a little, spots Brian Rice on the left wing and with one mighty diagonal pass takes out FOUR Arsenal players – including Adams and Bould. Rice, through on goal, chips Lukic to make it 2-0. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better ball.

When Derby plucked Nigel out of non-league football I was more than jealous. I always imagined we’d give him the job – I’m sure he wouldn’t have done a worse job than Joe Kinnear, Gary Megson or even Colin Calderwood. I can understand why Nigel Doughty never gave him the opportunity to manage the Reds; the weight of expectation, following in his father’s footsteps and all that. I’d have been more than a little nervous of destroying a club legend.

It didn’t seem to phase the Rams, though. The public got what the public wanted. “You’ve made a lot of fans very happy,” said a man to Nottingham Forest’s second highest all-time goal-scorer, before he’d even took charge of a game. But, would they have accepted their board appointing a manager from the fifth tier of English football had he not been called Clough?

There was a lot of goodwill from Reds’ fans, in a ‘shame it’s them but all the best and please don’t do better than us’ sort of a way. We even cheered him when he came back to the City Ground.

And then things went a bit wrong.

That FA Cup game at the City Ground. We went 2-0 up and then cocked it up, to put it mildly. Kris Commons who looked like he had a few points to prove (a bucket of sharpened spears to be exact) scored two, despite the stick he was getting, and lapped it up for all it was worth. But what really rankles was that shot of Nigel, arms folded, laughing with the loathsome Robbie Savage.

Three weeks later and we lost again, 1-3. Hmmm, my goodwill was sapping away.

In the next seven games we had the Nathan Tyson flag waving incident, the little digs about how much money we’d spent, Billy alleging Nigel had kicked him, a slaughter at the City Ground, the non-league Nigel chants at Pride Park… it got nasty from both sides.

But it’s the Chris Cohen incident that hurts the most.

A professional footballer is left in clear agony and yet no Derby player kicks the ball out, despite the gesticulating from the Reds and the shouts from the tiers. I wasn’t there but watching the highlights, the commentator, Martin Fisher, says: “Clough is urging his players on.” Of course, from that incident Derby scored. We know play-acting goes on but Chris Cohen? Surely Nigel knew Cohen was an honest pro? Would Brian have shouted to play on when a player had stayed down? (I do remember him shouting at his own midfielder Kingsley Black to get up – which the Northern Irishman dutifully did with his tail between his legs). I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have. I still finding it shocking and it goes some way to explain the bitterness Forest fans have developed for Nigel.

I don’t think Nigel hates Forest — it’s just business, the spiteful game we‘ve come to accept — but one way of explaining the comfort and ease of his ’tribe swapping’, lies with Eddie Merckx, the great Belgian cyclist. He’s an old man now but people still remember his five Tour de France triumphs. When he is spotted at a cycling event the crowds gather. His equivalent in football would be Pele, Bobby Charlton or even Maradona. But Merckx was quite sober about all the fuss and attention. He said the fans came to speak to him but they only wanted to talk about a man that he no longer was. Someone he didn’t know anymore.

And that is what we have with Nigel. He is no longer the nice young man with a lovely smile. He’s the Derby boss now and he’s just doing his job.

Image: Richard Croft (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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