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Sam Longson - the man who brought Brian Clough to Derby County FC

PUBLISHED: 17:52 10 April 2014 | UPDATED: 18:13 29 April 2016

Brian Clough and Peter Taylor sign for Derby County in the presence of Chairman Sam Longson

Brian Clough and Peter Taylor sign for Derby County in the presence of Chairman Sam Longson

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Mike Smith is fascinated by a newly-published autobiography that sheds fresh light on a very special chairman-manager relationship that brought unprecedented success to Derby County before it ended in acrimony

Portrait of Sam LongsonPortrait of Sam Longson

Sam Longson, a farmer’s boy and self-made millionaire from Chapel-en-le-Frith, was the chairman of Derby County throughout the most successful period in the club’s history. Shortly after being appointed, Sam had taken a controversial decision to bring the unproven management duo of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor to Derby from lowly Hartlepool United: a judgement that was vindicated by the club’s spectacular progress over the next six years. For much of that time, the relationship between the chairman and his management team seemed like a marriage made in heaven, only for it to end in acrimonious divorce just eighteenth months after the club became English champions.

Much has been written about the chairman-manager relationship that began so well and ended so badly. The best-known of the many books inspired by this ill-fated partnership is the novel “The Damned United” by David Peace, in which Sam is portrayed as an obstructive chairman who refused to allow his brilliant manager to get on with his job. Even though the book is a work of fiction, it has been accepted by many people as a factual account. Only now, four decades after Brian Clough left Derby, has a very different interpretation come to light, with the publication of Sam Longson’s autobiography, more than a quarter of a century after it was written.

The memoir has been edited and published by Sam’s son-in-law Robert Mulholland, the proprietor of Caron Publications, who says: ‘Although Sam wrote the book in the final years of his life, he decided against publication because he thought it would bring heartache to the club and to Brian Clough’s family, but the story has finally appeared in print at the instigation of Sam’s family, who want to correct the misleading portrait in David Peace’s book.’

Sam’s rags-to-riches story begins with the moment when his two brothers enlisted in the Great War, leaving him at the age of 14 with the responsibility of delivering the milk supplies from the family farm. It was the later replacement of his horse-drawn float by a ‘Tin Lizzie Ford’ with a changeable body that made Sam realise that motorised transport offered many opportunities. In no time at all he was offering to collect mail and newspapers from the railway station and to transport building material for local traders. By the age of 21, he had purchased a fleet of vehicles and had become the first person to deliver milk by road from the Peak District to Manchester.

Chairman Sam Longson could not resist helping his groundsman to clear a sodden pitch at the Baseball GroundChairman Sam Longson could not resist helping his groundsman to clear a sodden pitch at the Baseball Ground

When Sam secured a contract to carry stone and lime from the vast ICI quarries, he was well on his way to establishing one of the biggest haulage companies in the country, causing the Daily Express to dub him ‘the man who made millions from moving mountains’. Over time, his business empire expanded well beyond haulage: he ran a finance company; built a housing estate; developed a project in South Africa; bred a dairy herd; kept 500 pigs and, despite the advice of many sceptics, successfully grew raspberries in the harsh climate of the High Peak.

But Sam had always found time in his life for another interest. After supporting Derby County as a loyal spectator over almost half a century, he was given a seat on the board in 1953 and was elected as chairman in 1967. Having sold his haulage firm, he was now able to bring to the club all the attributes that had made him such a successful businessman, including a willingness to take risks, coupled with an ability to spot opportunities that others had missed.

When Sam took over the chairmanship, the team was in the hands of Tim Ward, a popular manager who had taken Derby to respectable league positions in the Second Division. But Sam had loftier ambitions for ‘The Rams’ and was keen to recruit a managing team who would share his vision. Although his choice of Clough and Taylor was greeted with a fair amount of criticism, the chairman remained unfazed. After all, this was a man who had put his faith in road haulage at a time when it was in its infancy and who had defied sceptics by growing raspberries on windswept hills!

Sam believed that much of his success as a businessman had been based on the good relationships that he had built up with his staff and on his willingness to put trust in them. From the outset, he was determined to fashion his dealings with Brian Clough in the same image. Over the next five years, the chairman-manager relationship at ‘The Rams’ became the envy of the football world. In 1972, Sam was able to boast that ‘the pinnacle of success of the Longson-Clough era was Derby’s achievement in winning the First Division title for the first time in their 84-year history.’

In the 18 months following this triumph, the ties that had bound the two men together began to unravel. Sam became increasingly concerned that Brian’s media commitments, including regular appearances on television, were taking his attention away from running the team. As he recalls in his autobiography, ‘It was my conviction that if Brian had concentrated on football and had forgotten about the media spotlight, he would have been the greatest manager in football.’

But it was the nature of the manager’s contribution to the media that was an even bigger concern to Sam. Brian had become increasingly outspoken in his criticisms of football administrators, as well as the managers and players of other teams – even branding the fans of his own club as ‘a disgrace’ on one occasion. But it was Brian’s scathing attacks on Don Revie and his team at Leeds United that caused Sam ‘to fear that the Derby club was in for the high jump from the Football Association’.

Throughout his memoirs, Sam repeats his high regard for Brian’s ‘brilliant skills’ and claims that he would have been willing to give him a five-year extension to his contract if he had agreed to stop his involvement in matters outside the club. When no such assurance was forthcoming, he realised that he would have to accept the resignation of ‘the most successful manager in the club’s history’.

Readers of Sam’s book will be able to come to their own conclusions about the many incidents that led to the chemistry between the chairman and his manager becoming such an explosive mixture, but many will conclude that one particular episode may have been the final straw for Sam. Brian’s decision to sign David Nish from Leicester City for £250,000 without consulting the board was seen by the chairman as conclusive proof that his manager was ‘out of control and had become too carried away with his own omnipotence’.

Despite the calls from supporters for Brian Clough’s reinstatement and for the chairman’s resignation, Sam remained adamant and carried on in his post until 1977, by which time he had seen the team clinch another First Division title under Dave Mackay, whom he had selected as the right man to succeed Brian. Shortly before he retired as chairman, Sam was awarded on OBE: a worthy recognition of his brave leadership throughout a decade of agony and ecstasy for Derby County.

Sam’s Story

Sam’s Story, by Sam Longson, is edited by Robert Mulholland and published by Caron Publications (ISBN 978-0-947848-156). The autobiography is available from bookshops, including Waterstones and from Reading Matters Bookshop in Chapel-en-le-Frith (which occupies the building where Sam once lived!). The book is also available from Amazon and on Kindle.

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