To propose writing yet another book about Brian Clough must, I imagine, be akin to pitching on a new documentary about 9/11 or submitting a PhD proposal for a thesis about Nazi Germany and the Third Reich – does the world really need another? Do you have anything original to contribute to that body of knowledge? Well, in the case of Jonathan Wilson’s Nobody Ever Says Thank You, it just so happens that the answer to both questions is an emphatic ‘Yes’.
As a regular contributor to The Guardian
, World Soccer
magazine, and several other well regarded publications, as well as editor of the utterly brilliant football quarterly, The Blizzard
, a profit-sharing, pay-what-you-like venture conceived as a much-needed platform for long-form, in-depth journalism about The Beautiful Game, Wilson is among England’s foremost football scribes, his work both scholarly (the award-winning Inverting the Pyramid
being a genealogy of football formations and their mutations) and highly readable, covering everywhere from Eastern Europe to West Africa via South America and beyond. This combination of gravitas and lightness, of depth and breadth of knowledge, pervades Nobody Ever Says Thank You
; the result is less myth-soaked hagiography or re-hash of the now dog-eared anecdotes (several are in there, although not always how Cloughie himself had told them, Wilson warning that they “are often good to start with, but have been polished to greatness by manipulations over time”) than an all-encompassing 'map' of a singularly compelling figure against the backdrop of a specific period in English football, one that only briefly overlapped with the synthetic glamour and anodyne corporate straitjacketing of a Sky TV ‘revolution’ that seems now to have been with us forever.
Why would such a footballing cosmopolitan want to tackle Clough, you may wonder. Well, in part, the book is the author’s tribute to his late father, a Wearsider who considered Clough the greatest player ever to represent Sunderland, despite him only playing a season-and-a-half at Roker Park before a career-ending knee injury on Boxing Day 1962, at the age of just 27. The fact that this book is not from the pen of an East Midlander might account for the lack of kid-gloved veneration – albeit with no absence of fairness or compassion – with which it treats its subject over the course of 550 pages that divide up Clough’s life into five lengthy and well-defined segments: the formative years in Middlesbrough and his playing career; his not-so-tentative first steps in management at Hartlepools and then Derby, to whom he delivered the First Division title; the lengthy fallout at Derby and even bigger ruckus at Leeds United; assembling the team that brought the brief glory years to Forest; and, finally, the years of decline.
Boxing Day, 1962: "the day the iron entered Clough's soul"
It is of course incumbent on all biographers to venture theories as to the motives and reasons for their subject’s behaviour and actions, to probe them for habits and traits, to tease out what makes them tick – otherwise, the text is nothing more than an aggregate of facts and/or anecdotes; enjoyable, maybe, but not particularly insightful. Now, if our personalities can be said to be a kind of impermanent cocktail of, on the one hand, various formative experiences infolded into memory and habit (that continue to inform and act upon our present perceptions), and, on the other, the ongoing accretion of the diverse and novel events that befall us, swept in off the horizon before we quite know what has happened and affecting those memories and habits, then Wilson balances the two aspects dextrously, not only bringing to bear much expertise in his analysis of the unfolding present – the terra firma of the football world – but also a deftness and subtlety in his consideration of the terra incognita of Clough’s especially opaque unconscious. Indeed, the psychoanalytic speculations are handled both convincingly and modestly (through the consistent use of such tropes as “perhaps” and “maybe”, rather than heavy-handed assertions about what are of course highly complex phenomena), and yet without falling back on that trite Freudian maxim: “the child is father to the man” (i.e. our childhood experiences make us indelibly, inescapably who we are).
While the author does indeed acknowledge Clough's mother’s Methodist austerity, aspirationalism and orderliness as a strong early influence (until gradually unravelled by alcoholism, at least) – he even kept her mangle in his Quarndon home as a sort of fetish object – as well as the shame of failing his 11-plus exams in a family of academic achievers, there are other equally significant formative events in his adulthood: in particular, the aforementioned injury – one whose traumatic aftershock would quickly settle into a phobia about having injured players around the squad (he would not allow Trevor Francis to sit on the bench for the 1980 European Cup final) – not to mention the unceremonious way Sunderland dumped him in order to claim their insurance fee, treatment that engendered in Clough a hard emotional carapace and his seemingly callous streak. And then there was his mother’s death on the night of his 38th birthday, the night, too, that Derby secured passage to the semi-final of the European Cup, where they would suffer a controversial exit at the hands of a perfidious referee in Turin – events that become emotionally entwined for Clough and that spark in him, conjectures Wilson, an obsession with winning the trophy akin to that of Captain Ahab’s quest for Moby-Dick (a passage from which is chosen as the book’s epigraph), a single-mindedness bordering at times on monomaniacal insanity.
Now then, young man
A benevolent dictator
Anyhow, for all the interest of his formative years and the welcome reminder that he was a formidable goalscorer as a player – indeed, the fastest to 250 senior goals, albeit only in the second tier of English football – it is of course through the prism of football management that Clough will principally be judged (the book’s title is a quote from one of Clough's and Peter Taylor’s key influences, Harry Storer, in reference to …well, to the thanklessness
of management). Thus, after lengthy and nuanced accounts of his political battles with the Derby board, his much-documented antipathy toward Don Revie, and the subsequent, ill-fated 44-day attempt to fill Revie’s shoes at Leeds
– a fiasco prompted by both the hunt for his ‘whale’ and native brassneck, one given memorable cinematic treatment in The Damned United
– almost half the book is then given over to his time in Nottingham, where the outline that emerges is of that singularly curious mixture of the forbidding and the friendly that we know so well, a managerial style that was part-authoritarian, part-libertarian.
The second of these two tendencies is perhaps most clearly evinced in his hands-off, almost laissez-faire approach to both coaching and tactics (famously, never practising set plays or discussing the opposition) and in a match-day modus operandi that focussed almost exclusively on mental preparation, on relaxing his players (having of course embedded both his authority and vision of the way the game should be played), often achieved through his gloriously counterintuitive motivational ploys – permitting booze on the way to cup finals, for instance (a projection of his own nerves, and needs, on to his players, maybe...). The ‘despotic’ streak, meanwhile, can be seen in the fact that, despite hardly ever being at the training ground he was still able to make his presence continually felt, ruling by way of a sort of 'principle of reflection' that was instilled in players through unpredictable acts, much in the same way that the grand yet sporadic spectacles of capital punishment carried out in the name of the distant, never-seen monarchs served to pacify the population. (And much like the inscrutable despots of yore, “no matter what he did, it was always assumed he was doing it for a reason, as though he existed on a higher plane and was constantly manipulating mortals, stimulating them to greater heights or dispensing nuggets of wisdom.” Provoking a perpetual, agitated interpretation of what he means, what he wants: is there a more accurate depiction of despotic power than this?)
Interestingly, Wilson thus dispels the now commonplace notion that Clough's was a rule of fear per se: “What [he] did was to dominate by force of personality, even when he wasn’t there. His unpredictability prevented anything resembling complacency setting in”. He is equally keen to debunk the “absurd” idea that Clough didn’t deal in tactics, despite his frequent protestations against “subbuteo men being pushed around a felt pitch” and scorn for Revie’s meticulously compiled dossiers. In fact, what Clough didn’t do was overburden the players with details – indeed, occasionally he didn’t even bother with team-talks – in marked contrast to such perpetually gesticulating and perhaps inhibiting figures as, say, Rafa Benítez. Rather, he gave each of them instructions that were “simple and minimalist, rooted in Clough’s basic theory that players, having been strategically selected to blend together, should broadly be given responsibility” and which, added up, created the discernible style of his teams.
Munich, 1979: Mby-Dick is slain
Double acts: Clough/Taylor; Clough and 'Clough'
Wilson notes that the nature of the Forest teams, if not the style, was transformed once Peter Taylor departed in 1982, with underachieving rough diamonds now eschewed for “neat football played by polite young men with short hair who didn’t answer back to referees”. The breakdown in the relationship with Taylor is perhaps the most poignant of the book’s narrative threads – familiar events, true, but here overlaid with genuine insight into the psychodynamics within and between the two. At its best, it was the classic good-cop, bad-cop duo – Taylor the unearther of unpolished gems, Clough the man who moulded them into a cohesive whole – while, crucially, Taylor seems to have been the only person able both to lift Clough from his periodic bouts of morose introspection and to rein him in from his boorish excesses.
The vicissitudes of their relationship encompassed playing together at Middlesboro, where hours and hours were spent discussing the game, ideas carried into diverse management experiences at Hartlepools, Derby, and Brighton, before being reunited for the Forest zenith. Over the course of the book we see how small cracks in the friendship – “fissures” that were at first imperceptible but that would later come to sunder completely the affection and trust between them – might in fact have been there from very early on (in 1959, Clough accused Taylor of deliberately letting in goals) but only later crossed that threshold beyond which they cease to be tolerable. The micro-cracks were perhaps evident in Clough’s fondness for skimming off perks at Derby, and in Taylor’s insecurity and craving for recognition, provoking his ill-fated book in 1981 – all of which would lead, we know, to an apparently “shot” Taylor suddenly turning up in the dugout at Derby. Although Wilson is too careful to say so unequivocally, it is plausible that it was because of his definitive rupture with Taylor – a schism so bitter and with so much mutual treachery and rancour that neither spoke a word to each other after the tribunal to determine the fee for John Robertson’s controversial transfer to Derby – that Clough increasingly sought refuge in alcohol, and also that, once Taylor had died, the end of his reign at Forest was so precipitous and chaotic. Put simply, he was heartbroken; it was the end of a platonic love affair. In many ways, the single greatest tragedy of Nottingham Forest’s history is the waning of their energy, the erosion of these bonds, the loss of two mates’ ability to make each other laugh.
Of course, an unavoidable thematic constant of the book is the liberal use of alcohol to block out the perceived pain and cruelty of the game – a pain felt so palpably by Clough as a player cut down in his prime, a cruelty intrinsic to a job that so often involves deciding the fate of players (a reluctant despot, then...). It is in large part as an outgrowth of being emotionally taxed in this manner, Wilson argues convincingly, that Clough’s famously brash and bumptious public persona emerges over time – an accumulation of acts of booze-fuelled or booze-emboldened bravado that recall (for me, anyway) nothing so much as Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the eponymous Prince of Denmark famously adopts an “antic disposition” to try and spook various courtesans and family members so as to manipulate their emotional responses and ultimately their behaviour. However, so convincing is he at it that this alter ego comes to take on a life of its own, with those around him – perhaps even Hamlet himself – unsure as to whether he was genuinely unhinged or “but mad in craft”.
'Clough': TV character
So it is with Clough at Forest, claims Wilson, and then goes on, intermittently, to chart his slide into self-parody, egged on by a media happy for his rent-a-quote polemical shtick, him happy for the adulation, his hammed up bluster and bragadoccio thus becoming gradually sedimented into habit. And as his psychological moorings became less secure, increasingly the question becomes: how much of his famously bizarre man-managerial ruses and public utterances were a performance, an artifice, contrived, and how much were they ‘authentic’ (non-deliberate, spontaneous) behaviour? Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t... In Wilson's account, Clough over time thus became ‘Clough’: literally, a caricature of himself, a mask, a set of public expectations, a tool to control his players, a device to protect himself from the pain of his job, a media entity. To underline this crucial point, Wilson cites the observation of another Clough biographer, Tony Francis, that “what made him difficult to work with wasn’t his genius per se but his recognition of his genius”. In the dugout, where it really mattered, the gambits of ‘Clough’ are shown to tread a fine line between said genius and an “insufferable perversity” (it often being the outcome of his actions, rather than any “internal logic”, that determined the media's evaluation of his antics).
None of which is to say that this isn’t a highly effective way to manage, of course, and in among the familiar and not so familiar yarns – the extraordinary theatricality and doggedness of his attempts to secure key signings (McFarland and Gemmill are favourite stories), the brazen and cunning use of the media as PR and political tool – there is a heartfelt vindication of Clough’s considerable post-Taylor achievements at Forest, let alone those of the 1978-80 collaborative zenith and their previous work along the A52. Of the former – three third-place finishes and two League Cup wins for a club with small gates and limited resources that, post-Heysel, was denied the oxygen of European football – Wilson is rightfully effusive, judging the work of the 1980s to be “extraordinary”. Of the latter, he says: “It is hard to overstate the magnitude of what Clough had done… Derby and Forest were not merely provincial sides without a league title to their names, but neither was even in the first division when Clough took over. To lead one modest club to promotion and the league title would be remarkable, to do it twice in the space of a decade was barely credible”.
Method in his madness
'Till death us do part...
And yet… For all the tangible admiration of the author for these achievements, there is much here that might be unpalatable, heretical even, to the eyes of a trenchant, perhaps over-zealous Forest supporter. Then again, it is a self-professedly critical biography and Wilson is certainly no apologist for Clough’s more capricious character traits, his often vicious tongue, his erratic favour and fancy. Nor does he indulge those accounts that merely shrug off all this behaviour as part-and-parcel of his nebulous ‘genius’ – after all, Sir Bobby Robson proved that one could be both successful and pleasant. So, among other things that might be considered delicate, we have: an eyes-wide-open look at the circumstantial evidence surrounding the bungs scandal in the early 90s; mention of the apparent willingness of Clough to return to Derby County in February 1977; reference to a habit of souring the moment of victory, most notably after both European Cup finals; censure for both his ill-advised comments in the wake of Hillsborough disaster and the infamous cuffing of two Trent Enders during a mass pitch invasion; heavy criticism for his graceless, boorish grandstanding after failing to land the England job in 1977 when he acted “like an embarrassing drunken uncle at a wedding”… Then, at the end, there is the sad picture of a man(ager) whose fight has been expunged, one perhaps unwilling to adapt his thinking to recent changes in the game, a spent and broken figure now visibly raddled by the booze and hastily being granted the Freeman of the City as his Empire, finally, crumbles. Each of these episodes is considered by an author with no constituency to sway and therefore no punches to be pulled, and the book is all the better for it.
And yet… For all these many flaws, and for all that it will come as a difficult and painful read in places, this book is probably going to do very little to penetrate the overwhelming sense of gratitude and love in the hearts of Forest fans (indeed, Wilson points out that, time and again, he inspired sympathy and loyalty in even his most ardent foes). In sickness and in health… And as with any long-lasting marriage, the Forest faithful will no doubt accept – for richer or for poorer – the snoring and farting and dodgy unilateral upholstery purchases in exchange for the magic he brought, the stardust that he sprinkled on the city: a strong line of credit indeed. For Clough – ‘Clough’ – lives on today in the hearts and minds of so many, including carousing magazine editors crossing the Market Square in the wee hours, prompted by some long embedded memories to stop and kiss the statue and offer sincere and heartfelt thanks to him for having improved the quality of his life.
Freeman of the City
This monumental book is simultaneously testament to an extraordinarily rich life and to a formidable act of synthesis on the author’s part, assimilating the not inconsiderable Clough corpus into a coherent, consistent account of a flawed man of exceptional abilities. Nevertheless, despite this work of synthesis, this is no parasitic ‘meta-biography’ – a book about the books about Clough, some of which
remain indispensable – for there is a vast amount of original research here, even if no hugely surprisingly new facts are unearthed. For those less disposed to footballing minutiae, one minor criticism of the text would be its inclusion of several lengthy passages from provincial newspapers (in the North Eastern phase of his footballing life, by and large) that are occasionally as heavy as the old pitches and could easily have been condensed or omitted (although, one can understand the author’s reluctance to jettison an investment of so many hours’ work). At any rate, this is a minor quibble and doesn’t impinge on the remaining four parts – so thick and fast do the anecdotes and events stack up that there’s no need for padding, and one can think of few people in British football who could justify such treatment, a figure so transcendent that there are, of course, statues of him in both Derby and
For those looking for a clear and unambiguous answer to the Clough enigma, Nobody Ever Says Thank You will disappoint. Inevitably. It doesn't attempt to offer the definitive truth – for to seek that would be every bit as Ahabian as was Clough – and, as a result of the aforementioned modesty, there is no final verdict to be found here, nor any pithily bitesize summing up of the sort that Martin O’Neill once famously sidestepped. For Clough was confrontational, amiable, brash, obnoxious, charming, hypocritical, generous, money-obsessed, canny, clever, anti-intellectual, messianic, worshipped, lonely, occasionally xenophobic and self-pitying, often witty, bullying, thin-skinned, courageous, strident and vacillating, a visionary and a compulsive, insecure and self-aggrandising, a boozer, a gardener, a family man, fond of his downtime, an idealist and a materialist, noble-minded and sanctimonious. And above all, Brian Howard Clough was one of a kind.
Nobody Ever Says Thank You is published by Orion Books, priced £20.