Brian Howard Clough was a complex character; that goes without saying. But despite the glut of books about him – and there have been several published this year – none have really examined his psyche and the intrinsic developments that created one of the most revered, successful and talked-about football managers of all time.
Jonathan Wilson has though. Extensively. Following meticulous research with nearly 200 interviews as well as hours upon hours of time scouring newspaper reports and numerous biographies, the man who brought you the definitive tactics book, Inverting the Pyramid, has, in 550 pages, written the definitive Clough biography.
He sets his stall out early, identifying key moments in his childhood that may, or may not, have formed the brazen self-confidence, sparkling wit and pig-headed stubbornness we all know as well as the slightly more dubious and less-discussed anomalies that formed his much-loved personality. However, this is not a collection of his finest anecdotes or a personal experience and it’s certainly not out to debunk the Clough myth, simply to set the record straight with facts taking precedent.
Split into five sections – 1935-62, 1962-72, 1972-74, 1975-82 and 1982-2004 – Wilson quickly gets into his stride, detailing Clough’s rise from Middlesbrough schoolboy to England international. The title, Nobody Ever Says Thank You, comes from Harry Storer, Peter Taylor’s manager and mentor at Coventry City. And it’s a hint at the attitude that Clough adopted for most of his life.
While Clough’s playing career is often glossed over – remarkable goal-scoring record, yes; further detail, little – close to 100 pages are dedicated to his youth and time at Middlesbrough and Sunderland. His early abrasiveness identified in the players’ rebellion against his captaincy at ‘Boro, which ultimately led to his transfer to Sunderland in 1961 (the same year Don Revie was appointed manager of Leeds).
Clough’s career-ending injury on Boxing Day 1962 is well-documented but Wilson accounts his failed comeback, the subsequent transition to youth team coach at Sunderland and how, ultimately, everything comes back to this one defining moment.
It’s at Hartlepools United that Clough and Taylor begin one of the most successful management teams that football has ever seen. But it starts slowly and progress is only made because of Clough’s charisma and forceful personality – as well as the ongoing battles with directors. A move to down-and-out Derby County sees things gradually begin to fall into place and, always with an eye on the tactics, Wilson deciphers the pair’s methods – and if you’ve read the seminal Inverting The Pyramid it’s clearly his analytical strongpoint.
In the 1968-69 season Derby really hit their stride, the signing of Spurs’ Dave Mackay the key piece in the jigsaw, winning the Second Division Championship by April – just 16 months after Clough and Taylor took over.
Wilson, perhaps as expected, concentrates on the football rather covering ground that is familiar to most – the players, the scorelines, the heightening sense of drama as a run of results either makes or breaks a season. And his meticulous research allows a balanced view of events, painting Derby chairman Sam Longson a fairer picture than he gets in either autobiographies or, unsurprisingly, The Damned United. In fact, it’s almost a rewriting of history as he finds Longson’s image as “a bumbling figure suddenly drunk on… celebrity… utterly unfair”. Indeed, Wilson notes that by 1973, Clough was out of control. This period in his life could only end badly.
The fiasco that followed Clough and Taylor’s resignation, and the subsequent move to Brighton & Hove Albion, is covered in detail and balance; much of it revealing the particular nature of Clough’s character and personality of the time.
But despite Clough’s dedication to his family and his close relationship with Taylor, Wilson leaves much of this to the autobiographies; perhaps sensibly so given the football-focused nature of the book.
The 44 days at Leeds United, in contrast to the fictional Damned United, portray a Clough up against the odds in a post-Revie world, making one poor decision after another. Evidently a reign that went disastrously wrong, but it’s more in keeping with the glossed-over film than the dark recesses of the novel. And a full transcript of the infamous TV meeting between the two rival managers again proves Wilson’s balance rather than hyberbole after the event. And while he describes it as “perhaps the most mesmerising conversation about football ever recorded on British television”, it’s equally as mesmerising in print.
And this where Wilson excels: the politics, the manoeuvring, the bickering, the psychology, the manipulation – on all parts – which makes the episodes between clubs, and between seasons, utterly compelling reading.
On 6 January 1975, Clough is appointed manager of Nottingham Forest. The Evening Post, Wilson notes, seemed to regard Notts County as the bigger side – Forest were thirteenth in Division Two. Draw your own parallels.
The subsequent makeover of the side is nothing short of impossible but it’s the addition of Taylor in 1976 that sparks the glory years. With John Robertson, Martin O’Neill, Viv Anderson, Ian Bowyer and Tony Woodcock already at Forest, they’re soon joined by John O’Hare, John McGovern and Frank Clark… the pace is frantic as the team quickly gain promotion, take the First Division by storm and then Europe.
Wilson attempts to lay the question about the England job to rest, arguing, quite eloquently, that in reality Clough was never likely to get it in 1977. And by 1982 he was too much of a thorn in the FA’s side.
The detail and insight becomes clearer during the Forest years as national newspapers take more interest and players’ autobiographies add flesh to the bones. Clough’s dismissiveness of ‘tactics’ is also laid bare; his disdain for negative plans to stop the opposition in sharp contrast to the reality of how he constructed a team and instructed them to play. You don’t achieve that kind of success by simply telling players to just go out and play.
Of course, it’s practically impossible to write a biography of Brian Clough and satisfy everyone as there are too many stories, moments and anecdotes. The away win in the European Cup semi-final at Cologne in 1979 is, as far as I’m aware, one of Forest’s greatest nights in any competition; sadly, for me at least, it only generates a paragraph. The quarter-final against Dynamo Berlin the following season, however, receives almost two pages.
It’s after the European successes, and the relative decline of the Eighties, that it gets painful: the break-up of the cup-winning teams; the breakdown of relationships; the squabbling over money; the drinking; the ill health; and the financial drain of the new Executive Stand (the final payment wasn’t made until 1989). And while Wilson attempts to deconstruct the Clough persona, the dilemma of public versus private identity remains unresolved.
More worrying, for Forest fans, is how the club went from conceivably being capable of challenging Liverpool as “the dominant team of that age” to the moderately successful side of the Eighties. The simplistic argument goes that everything changed after Taylor left but Wilson describes the difficulties in greater depth and clarity than I’ve ever read.
There’s a focus on the problems with Clough’s character as the decade goes on rather than the scintillating football that I grew up with – the almost telepathic ability Nigel Clough and Neil Webb developed, the sublime speed and thinking of Des Walker, Steve Hodge’s ability to cover practically every blade of grass on the pitch…
As Wilson sees it, the difference after Taylor is that Clough doesn’t sign the rough diamond, bad boys like Kenny Burns but opts for clean-cut, polite players who play elegant passing, swift counter-attacking football in his utopian style – but without the bite or aggression.
And given that Forest finished third in 83-84, 87-88 and 88-89, perhaps a grittier edge would’ve delivered more points, more results, more championships? But these are moot points… What, if, maybe? Clough’s whole life was dotted with these questions and while Wilson poses the question it’s impossible to know.
By the early Nineties, it becomes increasingly difficult reading. I, like many, overlooked or played down his eccentricities at the time but if this is the truth, then I don’t want it. Where the late Seventies stir feelings of great pride, a decade later it’s just painful. Does Wilson dwell too much on the bad points, the sour notes, the negatives… Or is this really the way it was? It’s certainly not a book a Forest fan could’ve written; it’s too deep, too raw, too traumatic.
But the players’ accounts are all there and you’re hard-pushed to find many critical voices, any who say he wasn’t, let’s be frank, a football genius. Bungs? Please don’t… And as you turn the final pages, if a streak of sadness doesn’t overcome you then you must have a cold heart. It’s just too tragic.
Martin O’Neill once said: “I was asked in an interview to sum up Brian in three words. I think he would be insulted to be summed up in three volumes.”
No man can do justice to Old Big ‘Ead in one book. But this complements Clough’s two autobiographies, the only other existing biography by Tony Francis and the exceptional Provided You Don’t Kiss Me by Duncan Hamilton alongside many other notable books. There’s no question, Wilson’s done a hell of a job. Look no further for this year’s must-have Christmas book.
Rest In Peace Brian.