The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 55

December 4, 2010

OK, here we are at book review time again.

This one is from TAG 43 – May 1995


Clough – the Autobiography – Partridge Press, £16.99

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingA few months ago the BBC ran a repeat of Muhammad Ali’s incendiary appearance on Michael Parkinson’s chat show in 1974. Ali had then just regained the world heavyweight title for the third time and had good claims to be the most charismatic and idolised person on the planet. For some unexplained reason the normally charming and good-humoured Ali totally flipped his wig and began ranting and raving about Black Power and his plans for setting up an apartheid system in the USA to prevent contamination of his race by white trash.

Parkinson and his studio audience, which was packed with British sporting celebrities, were entirely taken aback by this performance. Indeed many, including Parkinson, appeared to be physically frightened as it seemed that Ali was quite prepared to defend his title there and then with anyone who dared to contradict him.

Who would be crazy enough to risk clashing with the heavyweight champion in this atmosphere of super-charged menace and barely suppressed threat of violence?

Step forward Brian Clough.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingCloughie was at that time busy establishing his reputation as arguably the most talented and indisputably the most aggravating, post-war English football manager. In a real case of the mountain coming to Muhammad, a cocky, arrogant, acerbic and razor-sharp Clough engaged an enraged world heavyweight champion in verbal combat. In one corner was the apparently semi-divine Ali, whilst in the other was this brash, boorish, loud-mouthed Yorkshire terrier.

Muhammad had to concede a draw.

Immediately after repeating the 1974 programme the BBC zoomed forward to broadcast a documentary which focused on Muhammad Ali, 1994 version. Time (and terrible illness) had not been kind to him. In his current incarnation, Ali, the God-like figure of ’74, is regrettably now a shambling zombie who seems to be barely alive in the conventional sense.

On the face of it, Clough has hardly fared any better. We’re all too familiar with Brian’s final tragic year at Notts Forest, a relegation season played out against a backdrop of tabloid stories of alcoholism and corruption. These stories were usually illustrated by suitably lurid photographs which depicted Brian as little better than a befuddled wee red-nosed drunk, haplessly driving his club towards demotion in a haze of gin and cheap wine.

This book is an attempt to put that final annus horribilis into its proper context. It’s an attempt by Brian Clough himself to erase the image of failure which he left us with, by reminding us of the spectacular triumphs which had gone before.

At the outset I should say that, in my opinion, it’s more or less a completely successful attempt. This is one of the most entertaining football autobiographies which I’ve read. Part of the enjoyment comes from the fact that throughout the book Brian is just as unbearably conceited and full of himself as he was in his heyday. You simply have to marvel at the shameless way in which he repeatedly blows his own trumpet. I found myself laughing out loud at assertions like, “It would be some time before Winterbottom (the English team manager) came to his senses and picked the best centre-forward in the country” (ie Clough B.), or “The English FA’s biggest mistake of all was in failing to appoint the best man for the top job – me“. But the inescapable bottom line is that the sheer scope of his achievements gives him plenty to be conceited about.

This Charming (Yoong) Man

Most of us, except the real oldies amongst TAG’s readership, will remember Clough only as a manager. His playing days were cut short by serious injury at the age of 27. From the perspective of 1995 his career as a player seems to have been simply outstanding. Prior to his injury he played in 271 league games for Middlesborough and Sunderland, scoring a phenomenal 250 goals. On any view of it, and Brian’s own opinion is set out above, he was one of the best British strikers since the war.

The cruel curtailment of his playing career merely opened the door to him becoming the youngest League manager at the age of 30, when he took over at Hartlepool Utd. This occurs on page 53 of the book and it’s here that the real Clough story starts.

You want forthright opinions? You got them. He begins in typical fashion. He describes how the Hartlepool chairman, Ernie Ord, offered him the job. The very next sentence reads, “I wasn’t to know it until sometime later but l’d just agreed to work for one of the most evil men I have ever met“.

How did Ernie’s “evil” manifest itself? Well, Brian says, “His size annoyed me, he was a.tiny man who drove a Rolls-Royce and when it passed in the street it looked like a car without a driver“. OK, I suppose that’s fairly evil, but hardly in the same league at Attila the Hun.

It wasn’t long before Clough parted company with evil Ernie, but not before he had managed to refer to him as ‘despicable’ and ‘a dreadful little squirt’.

From there he moved on to Derby County. The bare statistics can not do justice to what he and Peter Taylor achieved at the Baseball ground. When they arrived in 1967 Derby were a nondescript outfit malingering around the lower reaches of the English second division. By 1972 they were champions of England and in 1973 were only narrowly beaten by Juventus in the semi-final of the European Cup. A transformation in a club’s fortunes of this sort is simply stupendous, but when that club is a ‘provincial’ club and is not backed by Blackburn-type mega-bucks, then the achievement is breath-taking. How was it done? Brian modestly reveals the secret, “As the best manager around, it was inevitable that I would finish up with the best team “.

Equally inevitable, as it turned out, was that it would all end in an acrimonious show-down between Brian and the club chairman, Sam Longson. According to Brian, “He (Longson) became more and more envious of me “. An argument arose about exactly what function Clough’s assistant, Peter Taylor, actually performed at the club. In a fit of bravado Clough tendered his resignation and was reasonably gob-smacked to find it being accepted. There then followed a short-lived players revolt in favour of Clough and Taylor, a libel action by Brian against the entire Derby board, following allegations that (surprise, surprise) he had been ‘on the fiddle’ in relation to expense claims, and a highly public slanging match, conducted under the auspices of the tabloid press, between the two warring sides.

All in a day’s work for Clough.

Although, under Dave MacKay, Derby went on to win the league title two years later, they were soon sliding back into the mire from which Clough had plucked them. For Clough though, the departure from Derby was merely the prelude to even greater achievements.

I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish

His first job after Derby was in the third Division at Brighton. His assessment of the Brighton team was that they were ‘crap’, and this seems to be borne out by early results which included a 4-0 FA cup hammering by the mighty Walton and Hersham amateurs and an 8-2 home defeat by Bristol Rovers. He only stayed there for nine months, during which time he toyed with the idea of giving it all up and becoming a Labour MP.However mind-boggling a prospect that was, it was small beer compared with the offer from the Shah of Iran for Brian to become manager of the Iranian team. If he’d have accepted then the Iranians would’ve simultaneously got Clough and Khomeini together in a package deal from hell. Lucky white heather!

Instead of Teheran, Brian opted for the barely more hospitable environs of Elland Road, Leeds, His stay there has passed into legend as the shortest managerial stint on record – a handsome 44 days.

He inherited the ‘family’ which Don Revie had fathered at Leeds. What kind of family was it? Brian says it was more in keeping with the Mafia than with Mothercare. He describes how the entire Leeds club were hostile to him right from the beginning, and whether his version is true or not, the whole Elland Road chapter makes very depressing reading.


It was his ill-luck that one of these 44 days included the disgraceful scenes in the Charity Cup Final when Bremner and Keegan were sent off for fighting. Clough placed the blame firmly on Bremner’s shoulders and it wasn’t long before the Leeds players were passing a vote of no confidence in the manager. When he’d taken the job the Leeds Chairman had said, “You are the one we want”. Six weeks and two days later the same Chairman was saying, “We’ve got to part company”. Clough takes considerable pleasure in recounting how he proceeded to screw the Leeds board for a massive contract-busting £98,000 which enabled him to buy a mansion and left him financially secure for life.


Not bad for 44 days work which had included one solitary victory. His successor at Leeds was Jimmy Armfield. With just a hint of malevolent satisfaction Brian sums up Jimmy’s qualifications for the managerial role as, “He had no idea!”

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

And so in January 1975 Brian Clough ascended into his true kingdom at Nottingham Forest. If anyone had ever been tempted to think that his achievements at Derby were a fluke then the transformation of Forest from second-division also-rans to champions of Europe conclusively knocked that on the head. When he arrived at the City Ground the club was near the bottom of division 2 and going nowhere fast. As with Derby the bare statistics cannot do proper justice to what occurred, but even the statistical record makes incredible reading.

Promotion to Division 1 in 1977. Champions of England the following season, with the League Cup thrown in for good measure. Champions of Europe at the first attempt with the League Cup retained. The European Cup won for the second consecutive season in 1980 with the Super Cup tucked away as well. Five years in which it went from Nottingham Who? to Forest as one of the pre-eminent teams in World football.

Suck on that, Alex Ferguson!

During that time we all gasped in sheer wonder at how it had been done. One of the beauties of it was that many of the Forest players didn’t seem to be up to much as individuals. For example, John Robertson was, in Clough’s words, “a scruffy, unfit, fat, uninterested waste of time. A dumpy little bugger, a chain-smoker, overweight. indisputedly the slowest player in the entire Football League. a slob, an absolute slob “. This fat, dumpy wee slob was an absolutely essential ingredient in Forest’s subsequent success.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingJohn McGovern was another Scot who might have struggled to get into any other team. It was difficult, without an expert eye, to see what exactly it was that McGovern did. Clough had the expert eye and McGovern twice raised the European Cup about his head as captain of Clough’s team.

Other apparently less than world-class players who took part in the European triumphs were Kenny Burns, Larry Lloyd, Peter Withe, Garry Birtles and Ian Bowyer, to name but a few. The secret was that, like Stein at Celtic, Clough took a collection of largely unremarkable players and made them into a team which was much, much more than the sum of its collective parts. For that, he deserves the recognition which he craves in this book.

Bigmouth Strikes Again

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe down-side of it all, of course, is that Brian has had a life-long penchant for opening his mouth and letting his belly rumble in a most disagreeable way. You know that Clough’s like. Bullshit is one of his specialities. Many of the other reviews of this book have commented unfavourably on one particular section, namely his views on the Hillsborough disaster.

The controversial sentence is, “I will always remain convinced that those Liverpool fans who died were killed by Liverpool people “. Crass, insensitive and ill-informed this may be, but in my opinion, it’s no more crass, insensitive and ill-informed than the more fashionable view that it was all the police’s fault.

The reviewers would have done well to pay more attention to Clough’s observations later in the same chapter when he describes the replay of that game, and Kenny Dalglish’s remarks after Liverpool had won, viz, “We wanted to win more than they did“.

Clough describes this statement as ‘scandalous’ and so it was. He admits that the Forest team did not have the stomach for the game. And how could they? How could they have added metaphorical insult to literal injury by beating Liverpool? Why did that game even go ahead at all? Clough may well be miles wide of the mark in his assessment of the reasons for the tragedy, but he’s right when he says that the FA Cup should’ve been cancelled that season.

Amidst all the sanctimonious, ignorant, hypocritical clap-trap which has been talked about Hillsborough, I found the idea that Liverpool had somehow won the cup ‘as a tribute to those who lost their lives’ as particularly nauseating.

The point is that you should not be deterred from reading this book just because a couple of paragraphs might offend your liberal sensibilities.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingDeath of another sort produces a genuinely affecting chapter when Brian details the passing of his long-time colleague, Peter Taylor. Some years prior to Taylor’s death he and Clough had had a Lennon/McCartney type falling out, and thereafter they’d never been properly reconciled. Throughout the book Clough describes Taylor variously as “a rogue, a villain, a shit and a rattlesnake “. But, despite all that, the chapter on Taylor’s death is titled, ‘Goodbye, My Friend‘, and Brian struggles to express the depressing realisation that the rift between them cannot now ever be healed.

There’s nothing maudlin or overly-sentimental in what he says, just the plain truth that Taylor’s death was made even more painful for him because a once intense friendship had soured towards the end. Indeed, such is the hurt that the book’s dedication is “For Peter. Still miss you badly“.

This is one of numerous instances where Clough tackles less than savoury parts of his own life head-on. The allegations of alcoholism are confronted with the unadorned sentence, “I do drink too much “. He doesn’t spare himself from lacerating self-analysis in relation to Forest’s relegation in his last season, when he admits that he lost the plot big time.

Not many football autobiographies will include a sentence even remotely like, “I will never live down the shame or completely overcome the anguish of the 1992/93 season… it was my fault “.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI started this book with the highest possible regard for Brian Clough. I finished it with that regard intact and reinforced. Of course he’s big-headed, infuriating and bloody-minded, and of course a lot of what he says is bollocks, and offensive bollocks at that. But I believe that he’s sincere. Call me incredibly naive, but I think this book is a relatively genuine autobiography presenting a rounded ‘warts and all’ portrait of its subject. Regular readers will be aware that I usually end up slagging the books that I review. For a pleasant change here’s one that I thoroughly recommend. Good book. Aggravating man. Great manager.

POSTSCRIPT – Brian Clough died on 20 September 2004 at the age of 69.


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