Sarajevo, a city with an intriguing history located in the south east corner of Europe, is a melting pot of Islam and Christianity, East and West, contemplation and action. It’s the place where young Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand to set in motion the events that triggered World War I. It hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics then was brutally destroyed during a dreadful civil war and 1,425 day-long siege during the 90’s.
Few people are likely to be aware that the rise and fall of the city ran in parallel to the career of one of England’s great maverick managers: Brian Clough. Destiny brought Clough and Sarajevo together in 1972, a time when both were in the midst of their first major upturn. Clough had managed his Derby County side to a highly unlikely English league title, while the city of Sarajevo had blossomed into a Yugoslavian hotbed of industry, popular culture and sports.
For the first round of the 1972/73 European Champions Cup, Derby County was drawn to face FK Željezničar, one of Sarajevo’s two top flight teams and a truly working-class side that had upset the Yugoslav ‘Big Four’ of Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade, Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb. Just like Derby, they were embarking on their first European Cup adventure, but, unlike their opponents they already had some European pedigree having reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup the previous season.
Led by impressive sweeper Josip Katalinski, a player who scored an impressive total of 100 goals during his decade-long tenure in Sarajevo, Željo were opponents who were not going to be taken lightly at the old Baseball Ground. In the official match programme The Rams warned their fans that Željo’s style of play was a very similar to that of English teams, describing them as “the most physical side in the Yugoslav league and the best squad in Eastern Europe”.
The credit for the progress the club had made lay with its hard-working and innovative manager Milan Ribar who would scout every single muddy pitch around Sarajevo to find skinny youngsters with a pinch of talent and infinite desire to become professionals. Not only had he turned everything upside down in Yugoslav football, but, like his counterpart Clough, Ribar was a man with a strong sense of humour – so typical of Sarajevans. When his players once abandoned reading their usual comics and pulp fiction in favour of obscure philosophy only to lose a couple of games, Ribar gathered them together and simply ordered: “Forget the philosophy and get back to novels of the Old West! Željo is the club of warriors, not sleazy academics. And be aware of that until your very last day here! ”
Disciplined and humble, Željo’s players faithfully obeyed the man who had taught them always to be sincere to themselves. By their own admission they didn’t know much about Derby until a few days before their meeting, but were very much aware that a team capable of defeating Leeds United, Liverpool, Arsenal or Manchester United deserved respect. The match proved them right. Derby deservedly won 2:0 on 13th September in front of 32.000 home fans and a group of impressed Yugoslav reporters, whose conclusion of the match was picturesquely summed up in one huge newspaper headline: “9th Circle of Hell”. The most popular sports newspaper in Yugoslavia “Sport” described Derby’s players as ” Clough’s robots”.
“Brian Clough is young, audacious, even arrogant, but at the same time very communicative. He has all the right to be proud of his squad. With their hard-shell offense, there was absolutely no time for Željo’s players to take a break, not for a second, not even for a moment to think what to do next. Željo fought bravely and didn’t hesitate to put their heads where others wouldn’t dare to engage their boots… It was the only possible way to fight against Clough’s Ubermenschs”.
And while Clough’s assistant Peter Taylor warned the British public that a lot of work still had to be done, Željo were already saying goodbye to their European Cup campaign. Though Katalinski lamented the referee’s decision to ignore alleged McFarland’s handball in his own box, his team-mate Velija Bećirspahić dispiritedly commented that it must had been some misunderstanding since he couldn’t actually remember Željo moving the ball outside its own penalty area.
Things were very much the same on the 27th September in the return leg at the Koševo Stadium in Sarajevo. Around 40,000 fans witnessed a routine 2-1 victory for the away side, O’Hare and Hinton scoring early goals to extinguish and chance of a surprise and confirm the elimination of Željezničar. A group of loyal Derby supporters who travelled all the way from the East Midlands to Bosnia received an unexpected tribute from their idol. Around midnight Clough took all his players to the Europa Hotel, where the fans were staying, to celebrate their first European success together.
“It’s a great honour to play for you”, Clough said. “With fans like you it’s much easier to fight and win this or any other fixture. You can’t ignore fans like that. Cheers, lads!”, he stated and rose his glass in a toast to European Cup victories yet to come.
Clough’s reputation, as well as Sarajevo’s, continued its steady rise and peaked during the late 70’s and early 80’s. His career peaked with back-to-back European Cup wins with Nottingham Forest, while Sarajevo successfully earned hosting rights for the 1984 Winter Olympics; an official recognition for the city’s impressive development.
That curious connection between Clough and Sarajevo continued even with the onset of difficult times. Following Clough’s definitive break up with Peter Taylor – his partner and voice of sobriety without whom Clough failed to repeat his earlier accomplishments – Sarajevo too became stricken by chasmic divisions. Hatred between Muslims and Serbs spread even across the stands of the Željo’s Grbavica Stadium. Once a place of a brotherhood in blue and white, at the beginning of the 90’s it literally became the very centre of a battlefield.
By the end both Clough in a despondent and derelict condition and a destroyed, unrecognisable Sarajevo shared a similar sense of tragedy. Like in a modern theatrical performance the deterioration of a man became a metaphor for the destruction of the entire city during 1992 and 1993. Their later death, literal in Clough’s case or symbolic when relating to Sarajevo, erased almost all material traces of their only actual physical encounter two decades earlier.