In 1975, unfashionable Nottingham Forest were wallowing in mid-table obscurity in the Second Division. By 1980 they had won the European Cup twice in a row.
Now that the Premier League’s moneybags Top Four is a closed shop, how did even a genius like Brian Clough motivate a bunch of nobodies to triumph at club football’s biggest prize?
The answers lie in filmmaker Jonny Owen’s new documentary, I Believe in Miracles. It charts the golden age of Brian Clough’s 18-year reign as Nottingham Forest manager, and pisses from a mighty height over the woeful ilk of Mike Bassett: England Manager, Goal! and When Saturday Comes.
The film opens in September 1974, with Clough on the verge of being sacked by Leeds United after only 44 days in charge. This part of Clough’s story was previously detailed in David Peace’s notorious book and movie, The Damned United.
“If I pitched a script with what happened even Disney would say, ‘You’ve gone a bit far at the end there’”
Many questioned whether Clough would ever manage again. Yet five years after being appointed as Forest manager in January 1975, he had achieved the impossible.
Owen says, “If I went to Hollywood to pitch a script where a manager comes into a team, gains immediate promotion, wins the Premier League the season after and goes on to win the Champions League, they would fucking cart me off. Even Disney would say, ‘You’ve gone a bit far there.’”
Yet such was the story of Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side, often dubbed the Miracle Men. They won Division One (the Premier League in old money) in 1977-78 and the following season beat Malmo 1-0 in the European Cup final. Oh, and the winner was scored by Trevor Francis, whom Clough had made Britain’s first £1 million player when he bought him from Birmingham City.
Owen made the decision to focus on Clough’s glory years rather than tell the whole story of his turbulent career in I Believe in Miracles.
“I picked the time that Clough was at his most successful, as that’s what fascinates me,” he says. “Nottingham Forest fans went from watching their team in Grimsby in 1975 to playing at Barcelona’s Nou Camp within three years.
“Everyone loves an underdog story. As a fan, it just makes you think, ‘What if?’”
It’s been 35 years since Forest won their second European Cup, beating Hamburg 1-0 in 1980. However, Owen believes their achievement still hasn’t been topped, “There simply isn’t a better story in the history of team sport.”
The director told Forest’s story by interviewing all 16 players from that 1980 European Cup-winning side. “Other films have tried to get into Clough’s head and imagine what he was thinking,” he says. “But here you’ve got the people that were with him every day. They had the best insight into what made him tick.”
The film depicts a unique footballing force of nature. Loved by the public, Clough was hugely political while practicing management techniques way ahead of his time and with a unique relationship with the press.
“He was brilliantly relaxed on camera,” Owen says. “He could look down the barrel of a lens and wink. Clough talking about football got millions of people watching and listening. He always had something to say.”
If Clough has a parallel in modern football, it is undoubtedly José Mourinho. Indeed, the Chelsea boss wrote the foreword to I Believe in Miracles’ accompanying book, written by Guardian journalist Daniel Taylor from Owen’s 20 hours of interviews with the Forest players.
“Mourinho says exactly what he wants to even if it means having ups and downs with the press,” agrees Owen. “That’s exactly how Clough was, too.” There are many more parallels between The Special One and Clough at the peak of his powers – not least their disciplinary records.
“Clough would take the team to Benidorm for three days. They’d think he’d gone mad”
At the time Clough’s management style at Forest was deemed unorthodox. Nevertheless, his team loved it.
“All the players told me that he encouraged them to be free,” says Owen. “He told them, ‘You can’t play if you’re afraid’ and he wanted them to express themselves. Or he would tell the players, ‘Bring your passports in on Wednesday.’ They would all think he’d gone mad, then he would take them all to Benidorm for three days. They’d fly back and win their game on Saturday.”
Yet football has changed hugely from the halcyon, maverick days of the Seventies. So how would Clough fare in the modern game?
“He’d have to change the training and diets, but great sportsmen of any era are able to adapt,” reckons Owen. “The things that make you a great manager – the psychology of training players and how you prepare them – would be exactly the same.”
Shining a light on Clough’s success was not the main pleasure that Owen took from making I Believe in Miracles, a movie that he freely describes as a labour of love.
“Forest fell out of the spotlight because they are no longer a Premiership side,” he says. “So you never see the players from that great team as pundits now. What Clough did was to get the chemistry and balance of the side perfect. Hopefully the film will show a new generation of football fans that the group of people that Clough put together at Forest performed miracles.”
Costly Francis apart, those players were mostly cheaply-assembled journeymen who had been discarded by other clubs. They included John Robertson, previously thought of as a fat waster but transformed by Clough into one of the best wingers in Europe.
“John Robertson’s fat arse moves so well when cut to The Jackson Sisters it’s a joy to watch”
In his personal life, Owen dates This Is England actress Vicky McClure, a hardcore fan of Notts County. So did making a film about his partner’s bitter local rivals cause a rift at home?
“Not at all,” he laughs. “There’s footage at the beginning of the film where Les Bradd scores a winner for Notts County against Forest. So I redressed the balance.”
Owen’s films have become renowned for inspired soundtrack choices. His cult comedy Svengali featured music from Stone Roses, the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Fall and the Coral. By the same token, I Believe in Miracles is cut to some of the very best of Seventies soul, funk and disco.
“George Best may have been the first modern footballer, but the Forest team of the late Seventies were the first modern team,” Owen concludes. “They were superstars. They all went to nightclubs at the weekend, so John Robertson moved his fat arse so well when we cut it to The Jackson Sisters. It was a joy to watch.”
Brian Clough, of course, was to succumb to the alcoholism that was to end his life prematurely, but Owen feels that this should not taint the golden memory of the man who habitually referred to himself as Ol’ Big ’Ead.
Clough’s outspoken temperament was dominant even on his deathbed in 2004. During his last week in hospital with terminal stomach cancer, he was instructing the nurses how to improve the distribution of pills to the ward.
“He just could not help himself,” concludes Owen. “He managed people automatically. Brian Clough is still box office because Brian Clough was a star.”
I Believe In Miracles is available on DVD, BluRay and download now.
Loaded reporter Robert McCallum has written for many leading culture magazines and websites about music, sport, science, politics, fashion and arts. Follow Robert at @therobmccallum