Me and Brian Clough

It’s the premier of The Damned United tonight, the film of David Peace’s acclaimed book about the legendary football manager’s ill-fated 44 days at Leeds United. For me, it’s a must-see. I am a great fan of David Peace’s work, I thought the book was superb, and Clough is someone who continues to fascinate after having a significant influence on me. 

When I was a kid Clough was already a larger-than-life figure, someone everyone had an opinion about. I liked his outspokeness, the way he took on the establishment and the way, unlike so many famous figures at the time, he readily identified with working people. Mine wasn’t an especially political family, but I was brought up believing Labour was for “people like us”, we read the Daily Mirror and believed in fairness and what became known as social justice. Clough seemed to identify with the same things, which made him a fascinating figure.

But it was, of course, the football that was key and, outside of my Spurs heroes, Clough is the single most important figure in shaping my love of the game. His Forest team were unfashionable and unfancied. Yet he took them, in successive seasons, from Division Two to Division One, the League Championship, and the European Cup. And then they won the European Cup again. Forest underlined what, to me, is the key thing about football or indeed any sport. Everyone has a chance of winning. I still believe that everyone has a chance, and when I stop believing that is when I cease to have any interest in football. 

They were, of course, different times. Nowadays the big competitions are won with monotonous regularity by the same sides. But football in the 70s was also dominated by a few elite sides, and Forest’s chance were initially written off. Forest broke into the big time, put noses out of joint and proved that everyone had a chance – and they did it by playing the short of football I love to watch. 

When Clough retired, amid sad scenes as Forest were relegated, it felt very odd. He had been around for as long as I had been interested in football. Towards the end his flaws had become more apparent, the team wasn’t working, and his views were becoming less in tune with my own as his pontifications threatened to turn him into a parody of himself. Through the late 80s and early 90s his Forest side and Spurs had played some epic cup ties, and games between the two teams were always entertaining and enjoyable. When Spurs won the FA Cup in 1991, denying Clough the only trophy he never won, there was a tinge of sadness that accompanied our joy. 

Duncan Hamilton’s book Provided You Don’t Kiss Me provides an engaging perspective on Clough the man and the manager, and comes across as a very honest and accurate portrait of a flawed genius. I know that word is overused, but it applies here.

Everyone has their favourite quote or story. On Radio 4 this morning, the journalist Patrick Barclay tells of how, as a young reporter, he interviewed Clough. Forest were European champions, yet Clough offered to make Barclay a cup of tea. Barclay nervously declined but Clough said: “I want one, you want one, wait there.” Minutes later he returned with a tray upon which was a teapot, cups, a jug of milk and a plate of biscuits. Clough poured and asked where Barclay was from, attempting to relax him. Barclay noticed there was no sugar, but was too nervous to point this out. Clough said: “I’ve forgotten the sugar. Do you take it?” Barclay answered, nervously, “No”. Clough said, “Yes you do, I’ll go and get some.” It’s a typical Clough tale from a life rich in them.

My wife is a little disappointed that she was not asked to do a cameo of her own encounter with Clough. She was working in the National Film Theatre cafe when she was a student in the late 1980s, and was clearing tables when Clough tapped her on the shoulder and asked, somewhat inevitably, where the bar was. She pointed it out, and he asked if it was self service or not. She told him it was, to which he replied with a broad smile, “Young lady, thank you”.

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Contact me at martincloake@mac.com

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