Clough’s warning for all: beware Bale’s Wales

Brian Clough knew his football, and as far as internationals with England were concerned, he knew from experience that Wales should never be written off. And that was before they had Gareth Bale, writes NORMAN GILLER

I can hear the distinctive voice of Brian Clough in my head as England prepare for Saturday’s European championship qualifier against Wales in Cardiff. “Young man,” he is saying, “never ever write off the Welsh. They wrecked my international debut when, so we thought, we had them beaten.”

Clough in action at his goal-scoring best in the 1950s

I was a guest at Clough’s Midlands home nearly 20 years ago, along with our mutual mate Brian Moore, when Cloughie recalled the 1959 match at Ninian Park. We were shooting an ITV documentary I had devised called Over the Moon Brian, and we got Cloughie reminiscing on his remarkable career.

It was one of my more confusing assignments. Brian Moore was interviewing Brian Clough, with Brian Klein (Top Gear) directing. It truly was the life of Brians.

I am reminded of it because of Fabio Capello’s plan to pair Wayne Rooney and Andy Carroll against Wales this weekend. Walter Winterbottom, England’s coach for 17 years, had a similar strategy back in 1959.

He teamed Clough with Jimmy Greaves for the first time. Walter wanted it to be the Cloughie and Greavsie show when they were rivalling each other as the most prolific goalscorers in the history of English football.

“We called him Walter Coldbum,” Cloughie said with typical irreverence. “He was a professor type, a former schoolteacher who never said two words when 20 would do. He talked as if football was algebra rather than the simple business of trying to get the ball into the net.”

It was Clown Prince Len Shackleton who once interrupted a Winterbottom blackboard tactics talk – in which he chalked the route Shack and his team mates should take through the defence – to ask: “Excuse me, Boss, but what side of the net would you like us to put the ball?”

Back to Cloughie: “After Walter had talked us into a coma, I said to Jim, ‘Forget all that claptrap. You give me the ball and I’ll bang it into the net. And then I’ll repay the compliment.’

“Sadly, it didn’t turn out the way we’d planned. It hissed down with the sort of blanketing rain you only get in Wales and it became a battle in the mud. Jim gave us the lead, and I was just thinking I’d got my international career off to a winning start when they forced a last minute equaliser. We outplayed them for much of the game but they had that tremendous Welsh spirit and refused to lie down.

“I remember my Dad and 40 of his workmates made a 10-hour round trip by coach to support me. It was the one and only time most of them ever came out of Middlesbrough. All they got for their trouble was to be soaked to the skin.”

Life of Brians: ITV's Brian Moore working with Brian Clough in the 1970s

A month later Cloughie and Greavsie were paired again, this time against Sweden. “We lost 3-2 and I carried the can,” Brian recalled, with a bitterness that had bridged more than 30 years. “I hit a post and the bar and had the bizarre experience of tumbling on to the ball a yard from goal, sitting on it as if I was hatching the bloody thing. Professor Coldbum did not give me another chance. Perhaps it was because I had the temerity to say we should have played with more width. I should have kept my big mouth shut.”

His lovely, long-suffering wife Barbara chipped in: “And you still haven’t learned the lesson.”

Cloughie being Cloughie responded by singing one of his Sinatra favourites to Barbara: You Make Me Feel So Young.

It was surreal yet magical, and I treasure the memory. Just a blink of an eye later I was sharing the epilogue duties with Bob Wilson at First Gentleman Brian Moore’s funeral, and a desperately ill Brian Clough made it to the church to pay his final respects.

Yes, truly the life of Brians.

Now, into a new world, Rooney and Carroll will try to do better than Cloughie and Greavsie, but all these years later Clough’s warning carries weight: “Don’t write off Wales.”

As an armchair expert on Tottenham, I can confirm that Gareth Bale has the pace, the power and the purpose to rip apart the England defence. Had he been fit, he just might have wrecked the Capello plan. But even so, as Cloughie warned, the Welsh should not be taken for granted.

TALKING OF BALE, I hope our esteemed sportswriters take up his case to be considered for the British team in the 2012 Olympic football tournament.

The Football Association of Wales has made it clear they will ban him from playing if selected as an over-age player in a Great Britain under-23 squad for the Olympic tournament. They are letting politics get in the way of Bale’s ambition to take part in the greatest sports show on earth. Realistically, if sadly, it is Welshman Bale’s best chance of playing in the finals of a major international football tournament.

Will Wales let Gareth Bale play for Great Britain?

Wales – along with Scotland and Northern Ireland – are refusing to allow their players to participate in the Games. They fear FIFA and UEFA would use it as evidence that they should play international football under a Great Britain banner rather than have individual status.

Recent Olympic football tournaments have featured some of the world’s top players – Lionel Messi won a Games gold in Beijing with Argentina, for instance.

Two Scottish women players are challenging the decision in the employment court, and if they win the right to play for the British women’s team, it could open the door for Bale to get an Olympic place.

I can hear Cloughie again, advising Bale: “Young man, go for gold …”

SIR ALEX FERGUSON should thank the Football Association disciplinarians who have banished him to a seat in the stand for five matches for being too withering with a referee assessment.

I wonder if he will admit that he gets a far better view of the action and is able to be less emotionally involved from his enforced position?

Most of the outstanding managers from my reporting days – the likes of Sir Matt Busby, Bill Nicholson, Stan Cullis and Ron Greenwood – preferred to watch from a seat in the stand. Each of them reckoned they got an enhanced overview and were able to make more complete tactical evaluations.

Bill Nick once told me: “I dislike watching it from pitch level. You get a distorted view, and it is pointless shouting out instructions to the players because they can’t hear you properly and it just leads to confusion. From the stand you get a complete view of the pitch and are better able to assess the team and individual performances.”

It was a painful and edifying experience to sit behind Stan Cullis, whose seat at Molineux was immediately in front of the Press Box. He kicked every ball and the wooden partition in front of him used to take a battering.

I once asked him if he wore out his shoes. He looked at me blankly, because he had no idea that he was kicking the furniture. Stan used to get so intensely involved in every match that he once drove off home alone after a game, forgetting he had taken his wife.

As Cloughie once said: “Football management drives you round the bend …”

But it can also make you feel so young.

Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here

Tue Apr 5: SJA Olympic Question Time
. Click here to find out more

Wed Apr 13: SJA 2011 Annual Meeting, at offices of UK Sport, Russell Square. Strictly SJA members only.

Wed Dec 7: SJA 2011 British Sports Awards – note the date in your diary now.

All details subject to alteration. Keep checking for updates