The more football sprawls across 21st century culture, the smaller it seems. Who said what to whom on the pitch vies with breaking (non) news of managers’ denials of possible transfer targets, as the game’s embrace of 24-7 media grows ever more intimate. The more the game demands attention, the less it warrants it, suffocating anything genuinely interesting at the hands of PR consultants. It is served at one end by media dominated by personal and commercial links to the game and at the other by the shrill vacuity of keyboard warriors like an army of monkeys hoping for Hamlet to emerge on screen. Though not as glamorous, nor lucrative, nor skilful, nor global, nor omnipresent (indeed, on some days of the week and for months at a time in the close season, not present at all), the football of the second half of the 20th century seemed bigger – crowds heaved and churned like an angry sea, clubs rose to glory and fell to ignominy within a few seasons and a decent run of results could see your club challenging for the title. And in this big, roiling, carnivalesque world of football, nobody was bigger than Brian Clough.
In Brian Clough The Biography – Nobody Ever Says Thank You, Jonathan Wilson tells the tale of the boy from Middlesbrough who became, well, what exactly? That he was a football player and then a football manager is a bit like saying that The Beatles were a beat combo that made the odd film. Like John Lennon, Brian Clough carved his place in contemporary culture in the fierce light of publicity unguided by any template, advised only by those he distrusted sooner or later (sooner usually) and was prey to demons that debilitated and drove him. Like Lennon, he was loved (worshipped would not be too strong a word) and reviled, but never, ever, ignored.
Wilson begins his account with a portrait of a gifted (but not supremely gifted), clever (but not brilliantly clever) kid growing up in poor (but not poverty-stricken poor) post-war Teeside. After failing his eleven-plus and being taunted for it by his elder brother – a wound that stayed with him for a lifetime – Clough also failed to complete an apprenticeship: but none of that mattered because he could score goals. In the flat prose of the provincial press (much quoted by Wilson) Clough the player emerges as something of a Steve Bull-type centre-forward – a natural goalscorer seemingly content to finish off moves that were the responsibility of the other ten players, breaking records outside the top flight, gaining just a couple of England caps in an international career that was choked off before it had chance to breathe. He also led his teams in the way Eric Cantona led Manchester United: by being the focal point of the attack and the biggest, if most eccentric, personality in the dressing room. At 27, after scoring 250 league goals in 269 league games to set a record that still stands, he sustained the knee injury that cruelly terminated a playing career that achieved much, but nowhere near enough for a man whose ambition burned like Clough’s.
After a brave but doomed attempt at a comeback (and some 100 pages into the book), the second of the many Cloughs takes shape. At Hartlepools United, the manager cuts his teeth on the lowest possible rung of league football. Even there in those earliest days, much of the Clough who was two win two league titles and two European Cups, was visible – at least with the benefit of hindsight. There was the brash braggadocio leavened with searing honesty, the bullying leavened with kindness, the psychological acuity leavened with insensitivity. And there was Peter Taylor – the failed goalkeeper who could make Clough laugh, who could spot players in the most unlikely of places and who could, until the bitter split in the early 80s, put up with him better than anyone in football.
From Hartlepools, Wilson details Clough’s incredible managerial career: the lifting of not one, but two provincial clubs from second tier obscurity to inconceivable achievement; the brief sojourns at Brighton and Leeds; the rows with directors, players and even fans; the television appearances, including an electrifying account of his famous joust with Don Revie on the day he left Leeds United; and, tragically, the boozing, bungs and boorishness that marked his spiral into an early grave, failing to play out a full season of three score years and ten. Many Cloughs leap from the page – some attractive, some repugnant, all jostling for space in the inadequate confines of a single human being.
Over 500 pages of material meticulously sourced from newspaper archives, books and interviews, Wilson captures the mass of contradictions that characterised Clough the manager and Clough the man. This biography is much more critical than Duncan Hamilton’s beautiful love letter “Provided you don’t kiss me”, more rounded than David Peace’s compelling “The Damned United” (and much, much more serious than the slightly ridiculous film) and more truthful than Clough’s own accounts of his life. Wilson, as much a football obsessive as Clough, reveals Clough’s deceptively straightforward football philosophy and explains how it worked so well with those who fitted in, physically and mentally, and why it failed so instantly with those who did not fit in – notably Justin Fashanu.
What does not quite emerge – despite works on Clough growing to almost an industrial scale and the thoroughness of this book – is the alchemy that forged Clough’s charisma. How did he connect so viscerally with so many people? How did he make even his enemies warm to him? How did he promote such self-belief in others while continually wracked with anxiety?
Soon after Clough died in 2004, I heard a radio interview with a woman who had worked as a receptionist (I think) at Nottingham Forest throughout Clough’s long management. She spoke not just with the decorum one would expect when paying tribute to the recently deceased, but with real love, a torrent of the kind of restrained emotion that working class people who grew up in the fifties still favour. Out poured detail of Clough’s kindness, his solicitous attention to detail, his understanding of how to make people feel special, his – and if anything captures his genius, this does – ability to manipulate people and for them to welcome such manipulation. She spoke uninterrupted without script, without media training, without hesitation for at least ten minutes before the interviewer, choking a little himself, merely said thank you. Despite this book’s subtitle, almost everyone who fell under Clough’s spell wanted to thank him – even if they didn’t say it.