An ode to Peter Taylor, a man who history has done a great disservice

Seb Stafford-Bloor

Writing an autobiography through the lens of somebody else’s career is an incredibly strange thing to do. But Peter Taylor did it and, regrettably, it caused a terminal fracture in his relationship with Brian Clough.

Perhaps history hasn’t done anybody more of a disservice than Taylor? During his lifetime, he and Clough were entwined with one another, equal partners in an extraordinary tale. Over time, though, the perspective on their partnership has been skewed. Clough is the story, Taylor is the sub-plot.

He was born in 1928 in Nottingham. A goalkeeper by trade and an average one by his own assessment, his career began in the period immediately following the Second World War. He would spend 10 years at Coventry, bouncing between the divisions, and joined Middlesbrough in 1955 where, of course, he would first cross paths with Clough.

The tenet of their friendship appears to have been a shared admiration for Clough’s goalscoring ability. Taylor was the forward’s earliest and loudest champion and from that, a genuine bond began to grow.

They were unusual for their time. While Taylor recalled that many of their peers were drawn to snooker halls and pubs after training, he and Clough were genuinely in thrall to the game, spending their free hours debating tactics and philosophies and watching whichever local games they could get to.

Beginning the partnership

Clough’s playing career would end in misfortune, of course, with serious injury all but retiring him from the game before the age of 30.

Taylor, the older of the two, had taken over as manager of Burton Albion in 1962 and in 1965, when Clough had begun his own second act, he was convinced to leave non-league football behind and join his old mate at Hartlepools United as his assistant.

The history is well-known. From Hartlepools they joined Derby County in 1967. Promotion from the Second Division was won in 1969 and, by 1972, Clough and Taylor had turned them into champions of England.

Brian Clough and Peter Taylor at Derby

But the fractious relationship with chairman Sam Longson would compel them to resign, sending the pair skidding down the divisions to Brighton and, a year later, would seem them part. Clough succeeded Don Revie for his ill-fated spell at Leeds, immortalised by David Peace’s fiction, while Taylor remained on the south coast.

By 1976, with Clough having been appointed by Nottingham Forest, Taylor rejoined him at the City Ground, where they would co-author one of the most remarkable climbs in English football history.

Forest, a rust-bucket Second Division side, would be English and European Champions within three years. And, a year later, Clough and Taylor would retain the European Cup, beating Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg in the final.

The goods in the back

The division of labour between the two has always had some overlap. Clough was the charisma and the personality, Taylor the mechanics – or “the goods in the back” as Clough famously described him.

Their shared belief as to how football should be played meant there was little ideological separation, but Taylor’s ability to identify latent talent was at the root of the two great teams they built – at both the Baseball and City Grounds.

From a modern perspective, Taylor represented an archaic, almost romantic role. This was a time when players could move up the game at great speed and before the academy system cast its dragnet through international waters. With Clough By Taylor might be built on an unusual premise, but it’s a compelling read and its scouting accounts are invaluable.

On reflection, Taylor’s judgement was remarkable. If he has a legacy, then it’s that: as the shadowy outline of the scouting archetype. To this day, he remains the hunched figure in the crowd, hat pulled down, coat pulled up, and the list of talented players to rise through his recommendation is astounding.

His book is littered with those anecdotes. Of pulling Roy McFarland out of the Third Division. Of convincing the great Dave Mackay not to retire into management but to sit at the heart of the Derby defence and become its voice and mind.

The Forest years are more instructive, though. Converting Kenny Burns from a wayward forward at Birmingham into a terrifying-but-cultured centre-half was a visionary decision which was rewarded with those European Cups.

It also turned Burns from a notorious outlaw figure into the Footballer Of The Year, a process which began with Taylor snooping around dog tracks in disguise, weighing the cost of his various vices.

There are many more. John McGovern, signed by Taylor and Clough as an apprentice at Hartlepools, who then followed them faithfully from club to club and captained the Forest side in both of their European finals. Tony Woodcok, who was playing in midfield and on the verge of moving to Lincoln for £4,000 when Taylor moved to the City Ground but who would join FC Cologne for £600,000 three years later.

Or Garry Birtles. A carpet-fitter by trade, converted into an indefatigable forward on the basis of a single, sparkling drag-back in a reserve game. By 1980, Birtles would have a European Cup Winner’s medal, a transfer to Manchester United and a place in England’s 1980 European Championship squad.

And John Robertson.

Today, Robertson stands unchallenged as the finest player in Forest’s history. In 1976, during a pre-season tour to Germany, he was overweight and disillusioned, sulking by the hotel pool after Taylor had sent him in early from training.

Taylor confronted him when the squad returned: “You’ve fallen into the gutter, socially and professionally, and you must either climb out or vanish from the game.”

Is there a more interesting sliding doors moment in English football? Robertson responded to that challenge, of course, but it evidenced a side of Taylor that is generally attributed to Clough.

John Robertson

Taylor wasn’t a communicator in quite the same way. In fact, he’s depicted as nervous and awkward and riddled with social ticks, but his command over certain players at certain times was every bit as important. Robertson is one of the most gifted players in British footballing history and Forest wouldn’t have won the First Division or the European Cup without him.

The epitaph is that discord. Clough never forgave Taylor for his autobiography and when Taylor died in the autumn of 1990, the two of them had spent the last years of his life at war, sniping at each other through the press.

The descriptions of that period, including their final years at Forest, are not flattering. In fact Taylor, on the evidence of a strange encounter with Duncan Hamilton recorded in Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, seemed increasingly to be in the grip of a mental breakdown. Their accomplishments were remarkable, but their end was terribly sad.

Perhaps the only way to tell Taylor’s story is through Clough? His CV is so anecdotal because he was principally a complementary character and someone whose abilities worked perfectly with the man he remains bound to. The team-builder, the scout blessed with ethereal and incalculable vision, and the ying to Clough’s yang.

By Seb Stafford-Bloor

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