Clough, Taylor and why Sunderland still wonders what might have been

Part Two of The Sports Bookshelf's two-part interview with Jonathan Wilson on his new biography of Brian Clough

Read Part One

Brian Clough: The Biography -- Nobody Ever Says Thank You

Jonathan Wilson’s fascination with the evolution of football tactics has been the basis for two successful books so as he studied the career of Brian Clough for his new biography of the double European Cup-winning manager it was natural he should focus on the methods he employed.

Yet Clough’s approach to the game had always been based on keeping it as simple as possible, so Wilson did not expect to discover any great tactical masterstrokes.  Indeed, a tape he obtained of a UEFA Cup tie between Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Anderlecht in 1984 rather confirmed that impression.

It was a game notorious for a later admission from the former chairman of the Belgian club that the match referee had been bribed to officiate in Anderlecht’s favour -- they won 3-0 to overturn a two-goal deficit from the first leg at the City Ground -- but quite apart from the extraordinary decisions that contributed to the scoreline what struck Wilson was the comments he heard from Clough on the effects mic.

“In the first half,” he said, “the Belgian TV coverage picks up everything Clough says and while it is fascinating to hear exactly what he is saying it is nowhere near as complex or sophisticated as you might think.

“It’s more along the lines of ‘What are you doing standing there? F***ing run back! F***ing run!‘ He sounds almost like a Sunday League manager.

“Which kind of confirms the idea that he was not a great tactician in the sense of being able to change things on the pitch.  Yet Roy Keane said that nobody understood football as well as Clough -- so you conclude that he was a strategist rather than a tactician, much better with the bigger picture.  Maybe that’s something he lost when Peter Taylor left.”

What Wilson did deduce was that, at those clubs where he did stay longer than 44 days, Clough’s strategy was more or less unchanging, and is reflected in results.

“At Hartlepool you could see the start of the method that would make him great in the 1970s and what is really interesting is that you see the same pattern at every club.

“There is an immediate lift because his personality inspired everybody, then a falling off as he rips the squad apart and rebuilds it. Then 18 months later it starts to pick up again.  He followed that pattern at Hartlepool, even to an extent at Brighton where they were beginning to do well at the end of that season after an awful start, when they lost 4-0 to Walton and Hersham in the FA Cup and 8-2 to Bristol Rovers.  It was after their goalkeeper, Peter Grummitt, broke his pelvis that it fell away again.

“But you could just see things starting to build and maybe if he had not left for Leeds that summer, if he had been able to bring in his own players, maybe he would have taken Brighton into the European Cup as a top-flight force.  It is probably true that he was not as committed to it as he might have been-- he was campaigning in bye-elections in Derby and going off to see Muhammad Ali fight -- and yet the shape was there.”

Clough’s right-hand man at Brighton, of course, was Peter Taylor, as he had been at Hartlepool and Derby over the previous eight seasons, guiding the latter to the First Division title in 1972.  Taylor stayed behind on the south coast when Clough made his ill-starred decision to join Leeds but would rejoin him at Forest, where the two shared their greatest triumphs, taking what was a fairly modest Midlands club in the Second Division to promotion in 1977 and then becoming League champions at the first attempt, before attaining Clough’s overriding ambition by winning the European Cup in 1979, retaining it in 1980.

After Taylor retired in 1982 (although he would controversially return to management later, back at Derby), Forest could not rise to such heights again but Wilson challenges the popular assumption that it was all down to his parting from Clough.

“It is easy to fall into that trap but I think it was a lot more complicated than that.  Taylor retired in 1982 but by then Jimmy Gordon had retired as well.  He had been Clough’s first team coach all the way from Derby and that was a big loss too.  Gordon had been a trusted figure who could be a counterweight to Clough, building players up again after Clough had taken them down a peg or two.

“Also there was the financial aspect.  Forest made quite a bit of money through winning the European Cup but then gambled on building a new stand, which put them in debt until the early 90s.  They had just about cleared that debt when they were forced to build another stand to comply with the Taylor Report after Hillsborough.   Those two things happened close together.

“Interest payments hamstrung the club through much of the 80s and they wasted a huge amount of money on Justin Fashanu, Peter Ward and Ian Wallace. Basically, within two years of winning the European Cup they had nothing left, largely due to three bad signings and the burden of the stand.

“So Clough was having to manage without his two major confidants but also having to do so in a very different financial climate.  He had to sell his best players to balance the books, whereas previously he had sold a player only when he felt it was right to do so.”
Jonathan Wilson is also the author of

Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football_____________________________________________________________
Jimmy Gordon had known Clough at Middlesbrough, where his argumentative nature first came to the fore.  He could be a difficult team-mate and was known to try the patience of his dressing room colleagues at Sunderland, too, particularly during the dark days of his injury.

“You talk to Charlie Hurley and Stan Anderson, or Jim Montgomery, and they say he was a nightmare during that period and became unbearable,” Wilson said.  “Charlie Hurley in particular had a sympathy for him and an understanding of why he became so difficult to deal with and when he did come back Hurley said to the dressing room that if there was even a hint that he could be the player he was before the injury, they would have to boost him, they would have to tell him how great it was to have him back.”

How those players must have wished it could have been true.  Clough’s career with Sunderland amounted in the end to only 61 League matches yet, as Wilson knew from what his father had told him, his brilliance had made him a Roker Park icon in a matter of just 18 months, his memory still revered today.

“I think it is because when it ended he left Sunderland fans with a sense of what might have been if only it (the injury) hadn’t happened.   The reason Clough was so popular was that he made possible things that should have been impossible, he allowed people to indulge in a dream and I think Sunderland fans realise how close they were to their dream.  The term messiah has become a terrible cliché but there was something messianic about Clough.

“My dad said that the Sunderland team of Clough’s time was the best he remembered. It had Hurley, Anderson, Montgomery just coming through in goal, Len Ashurst, George Herd, George Mulhall, Clough, Johnny Crossan, Jim McNab -- it was a really good side.  If they had gone up with momentum, backed by a board that had cash and was willing to spend it, who knows what would have happened?  You look at Leeds and Liverpool who were promoted in that period -- could Sunderland have been one of those sides?

“In Clough’s first season at Sunderland, 1961-62, they needed to draw at Swansea on the last day of the season to be promoted, but lost. Then, in 62-63, they were well set for promotion when he suffered his injury, after which they had a dreadful run in which they had three months where they barely played because of the weather.  They had a lot of games packed in at the end of the season and again they had to draw on the final day, at home to Chelsea; but they lost 1-0 and Chelsea were promoted instead of them.

“If you read the match reports, they were drawing games but dominating a lot of them, and you wondered if they had had a great goalscorer, if they had Clough, on top of the dominance, they would have at least turned one of those draws into a win and gone up.

“And, equally, given his success as a manager, you ask ‘what if the board had kept him on?  What if, after his success with the Sunderland youth team, he had ended up working with George Hardwick, who always said that the intention was to keep Clough on only for them both to kicked out at the end of the 64-65 season? What if he had stayed and Hardwick had become the Taylor figure?  What if it had been Sunderland and not Derby and not Forest who went on to win the League and the European Cup?

“I think Sunderland fans realise how close they were to the dream of having the same thing Derby had or Forest.”

You might suspect that Wilson, as a Sunderland fan, would have been seduced by this notion himself and been led therefore to construct a romantic image of Clough to enhance and preserve the memory.

In fact, while he is at pains to point out that he set out not to be dogmatic and hopes simply to have guided his readers a little in reaching their own conclusions, there are facets of Clough’s character to which he is not well disposed.  Indeed, he points out that the subtitle -- attributed to Harry Storer, a former Derby and Coventry manager to whom Peter Taylor introduced Clough -- is not a device aimed at generating sympathy for his subject.

“Storer said to him that football is a game in which nobody ever says thank you.  I think it remains true in that football is a largely ungrateful game: when a player’s time at a club is up, they are pretty unsentimental in getting rid of him.  I think it reflects what happened to Clough at Sunderland but also the way he treated players himself, without sentimentality.

“My attitude towards him changed radically at times while I was researching the book.  There were moments when you thought what an absolute bastard he was, yet in other moments you see a real warmth and kindness.

“Human personality is a complicated thing and people do flit between different sides to their character.  It is probably exaggerated in him. This is one of the things that comes through in Duncan Hamilton’s book (recalling their relationship when Hamilton covered Forest for the Nottingham Evening Post) in that within half an hour he can change from being an absolute bastard to a lovely, warm, generous man.  Maybe that’s the burden of genius, that the pressure on you sends you to great extremes.

“I hope people can draw their own conclusions.  I have not been dogmatic -- but I have a problem with a lot of people in sport who get away with being quite unpleasant just because they are seen as colourful, comedy characters, and I think Clough has been given an easy ride, to an extent.

“For instance, the way he treated the England youth team job, when he was made manager, was appalling.  He never took the job seriously yet effectively forced three people who had been working there out of their jobs by being so unreasonable, and then played it for laughs in his autobiography.  He had the future of English football in his hands and changed the lives of three people radically yet did not really seem to care.  He should take responsibility for that.

“But I hope I have got to heart of what made him such a complicated person, I hope that by giving more detail than anyone has before I have been able to show his character in its full complexity without trying to shoehorn it into simple phrases and simple templates.

“I hope also that the book will remind people what a great player he was.  People in the north-east remember that but maybe elsewhere that side of him is forgotten.  He remains the fastest player to score 250 League goals.  If he had not had a managerial career we would remember him for that.”

Brian Clough: The Biography -- Nobody Ever Says Thank You is published by Orion. Click on the title to buy direct from Amazon.

Read part one -- Unveiling the truth behind the legend

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