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Interview: Duncan Hamilton

25 November 07 words: Al Needham

The winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2007 talks to the 'Lion about his experiences with Brian Clough...

Not only is the Nottingham Evening Post a good place to sell a used pram or write a moaning letter about the Council to, but one of its former journalists has written the best book we’ve read this year – and possibly the final word on the reign of the Godlike Brian Clough.

Duncan Hamilton’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me is a painfully honest account of his career as the Post’s Forest correspondent, and a comprehensive - and in places controversial - dismantling of the Clough myth. We had a word with him when he stopped off in town on a promotional tour…

 Why did you write this book?
I saw Old Big ‘Ead – The Spirit Of The Man at the Playhouse, thinking it’d be a one-man show, where they’d pick out the best quotes. I was quite surprised to see what they’d done with it, with a supporting cast. I was expecting a one-man show. And I thought, why don’t I tell the story of Clough as I knew him?

Was it a hard book to write?
It was very easy once I’d started – I decided that if I could write a handful of pages, I could do a book. I started at the beginning of September 2005 and finished the first draft by December – just after the year that Brian died.

So it wasn’t a cash-in…
To be honest with you, I’d stopped writing about sport. I’d spent the last twelve years of my career desperately trying to get away from being a football writer. And now it’s gone full circle…

Did you realise when you were writing the book that it’d be so controversial?
The only thing I felt was “who on earth will want to read this?”  When you’ve lived through something, it’s just commonplace. History never feels like history when you’re living through it. I suppose for a lot of people of a certain age in Nottingham, I’m writing about something that’s very important to them.

Have you had any feedback from the Clough family?
I had lunch with a friend of the family, before the unveiling of the Clough statue in Middlesbrough, and he spoke about Simon’s opposition to The Damned Utd. I said that writing about Clough and not mentioning alcohol is like writing Moby Dick without mentioning fish. And he said if they’re desperately opposed, I’ll tell you. And I haven’t heard anything from him. There are some things I’ve left out due to matters of taste. I didn’t want to upset anyone, but not to write the book the way I did would have been a fallacy.

You say that Clough wouldn’t have made it in today’s Premiership, but the two managers most like him are Mourinho and Ferguson
Well, it’s unfair to compare the old Division One to the Premiership, as I pointed out. Clough would have been able to adapt and be relatively successful in the Premiership, but not as successful. Mourinho isn’t in charge of his entire club – Clough was. If Forest wanted to repaint the corridors, it would have to go through Clough first. I think he would have had problems with the modern-day media – I couldn’t see him on Sky Sports News with all the advertising behind him, minding his Ps and Qs…

Doesn’t that say more about the Premiership than it does about Clough?
I think it probably does. The game is so different now both on and off the pitch. I actually went back and looked at those old European games. The second final against Hamburg was pitifully slow – there’s one bit where Kenny Burns goes into Kevin Keegan and literally walks over him – you wouldn’t get away with that these days. People forget that we’re as far away from the European Cup side as they were from the 1959 FA Cup team.

You also state that Clough wouldn’t have succeeded as England manager, but we remember the huge ‘Keep Clough At Forest’ campaign the Post ran in the late 70s. What was his reaction to that?
Rather like most newspapers, he would read everything and claim he read nothing. I think that he knew he wasn’t going to get the job anyway, and so did the Post. The thing about successful newspaper campaigns is that you only start them when you know that you’re going to win them.

You claim that he was too politically incorrect to be England manager even in the early 80s. We were dreading a few more racist comments in the book…
Well, I don’t believe he was a racist at all. I think he was typical of that era. For example, I saw an episode of Please Sir! recently, and a black character comes on and they’re using words like ‘Wog’ and the like. Brian never used those words. There were one or two things he said that were typical of the period, but he wasn’t racist.

What do you think of The Damned Utd?
I read it in four hours. It’s not the Clough I knew. I only recognise bits of him. But that’s not surprising, because I believe that Leeds was more of a turning point for him than even his injury was. Technically, it’s a fantastic achievement – David (Peace) has sat down, gone through all the choice quotes, sifted through all the information, but I feel it’s a full-on portrait of a sour, glum character. Clough was a much funnier person in real life. Not as funny as Peter Taylor, though…

Did your publishers nudge you towards writing about anything in particular?
The only thing they wanted me to write more of was about bungs, because there’s not much about it in the book. I told them I could only write about what I saw, and I didn’t see much of it. There was an entire culture of bungs at the time – stories about managers and directors having their own turnstiles, transferred players taking bungs big enough to buy a house outright and so forth – but in terms of Player A going to Club B and Manager C taking a bung, I have no knowledge of it. I don’t doubt that things like that happened, though.

A lot of the reviews of the book are expressing surprise that a Post journo could be such a good writer…
I haven’t seen any of the reviews yet! I’m slightly surprised that so many people are still interested in Clough – I’ve been to readings, and there are kids there who weren’t even born when he was managing Forest.

You must have had the best job in Nottingham in the late seventies and early eighties...
It never felt like it! It was a very hard job, because it was a very long season. I used to work non-stop for 48 weeks a year, from the pre-season tours to the end of the season.

You weren’t very popular amongst certain Post readers for your assertion that Nottingham wasn’t a football hotbed. I’ve got a copy of The Almighty Brian with a drawing of you in a dunce cap…
Well, if you think covering football in Nottingham is hard, you ought to try covering cricket in Yorkshire, where everyone’s got an opinion on your columns. I still don’t think Nottingham is a football hotbed when you compare it to Newcastle, but I think Forest supporters appreciate the successes of the past more these days than they ever did then. There’s this enormous looking back in football in general these days anyway, because it’s so manufactured nowadays and players are so distant. I remember seeing Peter Davenport coming out of the City Library when he was playing for Forest, and we got on the bus to Bridgford and no-one batted an eyelid. Can you imagine any professional footballer doing that these days?

We can’t imagine any of Clough’s players shitting on the floors of Lace Market bars, either...
He was such a disciplinarian that you never had any problems on tours. Justin Fashinu once put his fist through a hotel door, but that was because he woke up from a nightmare, didn’t know where he was, and was terrified. Not as terrified as Viv Anderson, though – he dived under the bed…

Did you ever go on the lash with the players?
Only on preseason tours. I used to go round to Johnny Metgod’s house for dinner, and when I wrote a column with Viv Anderson, I’d always seem to ring him up when he was in bed watching videos. The players were so easy to deal with then – nowadays, I feel I’d be endlessly chasing up players and not getting interviews. I spoke to the Forest correspondent at the Post the other day and asked him about the access with Calderwood, and he said that when he asks for a post-game interview on Saturday, Calderwood says; “I can fit you in on Thursday”. I mean, they’re in the old Third Division. Who do these people think they are?

Who was your favourite player?
Robbo. Basically because when you saw him in the morning, it gave you hope that you could be an athlete – and then when you saw him on Saturdays, you couldn’t believe that this small, fat bloke had managed to get past a defender, whip his foot round the ball and be so accurate. I also loved to watch Trevor Francis – he used to glide across the pitch. But Robbo was more of a cult hero in his day than Psycho ever was in his. And he’s playing the Peter Taylor role to Martin’s Clough at Villa.

Did you expect so many of his players to go into management?
The one thing that surprised me was how long it took Martin O’Neill to find a decent job. It didn’t surprise me that Viv did, or Frank Clark, or Larry Lloyd. There were one or two others that I knew were going to find it difficult. Peter Shilton worked so hard at his own game and became the best goalie in the country, but he couldn’t translate it into management. The really ironic thing is that Roy Keane has got the job Clough always wanted, and I think he’ll do a brilliant job at Sunderland.

Do you feel the Forest of today have been crippled by the Clough era?
I actually wrote a piece in the Post the week that he resigned about the Clough curse at Derby after he left, and it’s happened to Forest too. Anybody who comes in after Clough is automatically being compared to a genius.

Forest were well unlucky to get relegated during the first Premiership season…
He left on the cusp of the Premiership, when the serious money was rolling in. If it had happened five years earlier, Forest would have been a very different club to what they are now. You would have though that – while they were never going to be a Man United - someone would have thought ‘this guy is so good, we could invest some money here and win more trophies’.

Do you think that there should be a Peter Taylor statue in Nottingham as well?
I think they should do something at Forest straight away, and it makes me angry to think that they haven’t. Here was someone who was synonymous with the success Forest had – it was always ‘Clough and Taylor’. I’m sure if Brian were here now, he’d insist that Forest would do something for him. Whether they do remains to be seen.

It’s funny to see three cities fighting over the soul of Brian Clough.
Well, Nottingham has the greater claim, because this was where he won the European Cup. Derby was where he lived, and Middlesborough was his hometown.

So what did he really think of Nottingham?
I think he felt that Nottingham deserved him. He was never going to live in Nottingham – he was happy where he was in Derbyshire. But then again, Peter Taylor was never going to leave Nottingham when they managed Derby. I think his biggest mistake in Nottingham was that he could have pushed a 60,000-seater stadium for both Forest and Notts. A shame, really - I think Nottingham would have benefited enormously from it.

What was the weirdest conversation you had with him?
When he called me up and said “Someone’s putting it about Nottingham that I’m going barmy” What the hell can you say to that? Oh, we had loads of weird conversations, just because of the length of time we had. On away trips we’d set off at nine, sit on a coach for hours, sit in a hotel for hours, and come back after the game. And on away tours, we’d be stuck in the middle of Holland for ten days. As a journalist, you’d start off as a fly on the wall, and end up as part of the family. When you weren’t there, it’d be noticed. Unless football has a financial crisis of enormous proportions, you’ll never get that access again.

So why did he confide so much in you?
I think it was pure luck. I was young and malleable, in the right place at the right time, we had similar interests. Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t. I think he saw me as a bit of a challenge.

Was Jimmy Sirrel really as bad as you claim in the book?
Oh, he was dreadful. And yes, he really did lick the top of the tomato ketchup bottle at team meals. I’d not been covering Notts very long, and after I’d written a piece about a new goalie having a half of bitter in the club bar, he went ballistic at me for ‘portraying my player as a drunkard’ and he refused to talk to me again - which was one of the best things that happened to me, because I didn’t have to work with him again. It was absolutely pointless getting a quote out of him – I remember a press conference after a match, and a journo covering the opposing club asked him if he was going to fine a player who’d been sent off. Jimmy said “It’s none of your fucking business”

So you’re saying he wouldn’t have made it in the Premiership, then.
Er, no. When I was researching the book, I rang Trevor Woodgate (the Post’s Notts correspondent in the eighties) and said “If I was to say to you the words ‘Jimmy Sirrel’, what was the first thing that came to mind?” and he said (Scottish accent) “Aw, fuck the fans”. He still goes back to Meadow Lane to have a bath, you know.

Does he?
I don’t know what it is about football managers and baths – Cloughie always used to say “I’m going for a bath now” and would disappear for an hour and a half. Anyway recently, Jimmy was in the bath at Meadow Lane, and he had a shave and dozed off, not realising he’s nicked his neck. And one of the young lads walked in, saw the ring of blood around his neck, and screamed “Oh my God! Jimmy’s DEAD!”  

What would Clough had said about your book if he was alive?
I think he wouldn’t have read it. Or read it and said nothing, like he always did.

And did you like him?
Oh yeah. I miss him.

Provided You Don't Kiss Me, published by Fourth Estate, is out now in hardback

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