Unravelling the real truth behind the legend of Brian Clough

Part One of a fascinating two-part interview with Jonathan Wilson
on his new biography of Brian Clough

Read Part Two

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

So much has been written and so many stories already told about Brian Clough, both during his life and in the years since his death seven years ago, that finding something new to say would test even the most experienced sporting biographer.

For Jonathan Wilson, acclaimed for his dissecting of football tactics in Inverting the Pyramid and The Anatomy of England, the challenge in turning his analytical mind to the study of an individual was a substantial one.  “I was a little bit uneasy,” he admits.

Yet the invitation from publishers Orion to write a definitive life story of arguably the greatest English club manager was one he was never likely to turn down.  “I was aware of how many books there had been on Clough and how many good books there had been on Clough,” he said.

“But there had not been a full biography going from birth to death.  Although you have the Duncan Hamilton book, the Pat Murphy book and various collections of people’s memories of Clough, for the most part they are all memoirs -- either journalists telling you their experiences of Clough or other people telling you anecdotes about Clough.

“What there had not been is something critical, that looked at it from a historian’s point of view.”

For Wilson there was a personal attraction to the project, too.  A staunch Sunderland fan, a calling inherited from his father, he was driven by a curiosity inspired by what his father would tell him about Clough the player, still regarded by Mackems of a certain generation as playing a significant part in the club’s history, even though his career in the red and white stripes -- one that effectively ended with the cruciate ligament injury he sustained on Boxing Day, 1962 -- lasted only 18 months.

“I never understood why my father revered Clough so much,” he said. “ The way he would talk about him he sounded like a major figure at the club.  In fact, he played only for 18 months yet is one of my dad’s three or four all-time Sunderland heroes.

“I also found this odd because even though Clough had an incredible goals record, my dad was not one to be seduced by figures.  He liked a Paul Bracewell-type player, someone solid in midfield who passed it around nicely.  One of the things I  tried to answer, therefore, and partly for my own satisfaction, was why Clough had such a hold at Sunderland.”

Wilson’s father died last year, which gave a poignancy to the time he spent delving into the archives of the Sunderland Echo, reading reports of matches his father had attended.

He put in similarly long hours of painstaking research among reels of microfilm from the Middlesbrough Gazette, the Hartlepool Mail, the Derby Telegraph, the Brighton Argus, the Yorkshire Post and the Nottingham Post as he sought to construct a factual record of Clough’s career, from his prolific but all-too-brief time as a centre forward -- one that yielded 251 goals in just 274 League appearances -- to his successes and failures as a manager, winning the League Championship with Derby and Nottingham Forest, where he also won the European Cup twice, yet lasting only 44 days when he was appointed Don Revie’s successor at Leeds.

It was this research that revealed significant parts of the Clough story, especially those embellished by retelling, to be flawed, even in his own autobiographies.

“Clough was a great anecdotalist, somebody who was aware of his legend and the need to polish it.  So exaggerations were made.  And I think there has been a tendency to see things from Clough’s point of view simply because he tells it so well from his point of view.

“But you start to find out that the things everybody assumed were true are not true. The most striking of those is that he gets the date of his mother’s own death wrong in both his autobiographies.”

It is an error, Wilson theorises, that is more than merely an oversight, a muddling of dates.  He believes it offers a glimpse of the values and motivations that shaped Clough’s future.

“You kind of think it is something he would get right but the story he tells is of when Derby lost to Juventus in the semi-final of the European Cup in 1973.  Clough thought they were cheated when they were beaten 3-1 in the first leg in Turin -- and there is a certain amount of substance to the suggestion that the game was fixed -- and when they go back to the Baseball Ground and draw 0-0, missing a penalty and having a man sent off, he is still seething from the first leg.
Jonathan Wilson is also the author of

Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football

“He says he went home that night and was in bed when the phone rang. It was his brother, Joe, telling him his mother had passed away with the words ‘we’ve lost our mam.’ Clough describes it as the worst day of his life and even includes the detail that it was his birthday.

“But actually his birthday, on March 21st, was a month earlier, the day Derby beat Spartak Trnava in the quarter-final, and that was the day his mother died.”

In Wilson’s hypothesis, Clough confuses the two occasions not simply through a faulty memory but through a desire to place his mother at the heart of his quest to win club football’s greatest prize.

“All through his life he was desperate for the approbation of his mother. He was the only one in a big family in Middlesbrough to fail the eleven-plus, something by which his mother set great store.  She wanted her kids to go to grammar school so when he didn‘t he was left with a desperate need to prove himself to her.

“And what better way to satisfy her memory than to win the European Cup in her name?

“I think it is significant as well that when Derby won the League the year before he had been on holiday with his parents in the Scilly Isles while the squad and Peter Taylor were in Majorca. He was in the hotel restaurant when the call comes through -- Liverpool haven’t won, Leeds haven’t won, you’re the champions.  He describes how he bought champagne for the whole restaurant and how proud his mother was.  It was on that trip that they realised she had cancer, which eventually killed her.

“I think success and his mother’s death become entwined and he wants to win the European Cup to sort of settle that debt to his mother.  Not only do Juventus stop him from doing that, but they cheat him out of it and I think that’s why those two nights a month apart merge in his head.

“After that he becomes more desperate to win the European Cup and I think that informs so much of what follows.  Why did he take the Leeds job?  In that famous television interview with Austin Mitchell, when he and Revie appeared together, he talked about wanting another chance to win the European Cup. Maybe if he hadn’t been so desperate he might have realised why Leeds was utterly the wrong club for him and why he was utterly the wrong person for Leeds.”

The stain on Clough’s legend is the FA’s so-called ‘bungs’ enquiry, after which misconduct charges against him were eventually dropped on the basis of his failing health and because he was no longer active in football.  Whether or not there was truth in the allegations levelled at him -- that he accepted unauthorised payments in transfer dealings -- Wilson says that Clough did seem to have his own interpretation of right and wrong.

“People who knew him when he was a young man in Middlesbrough suggested he had a slightly odd morality, which meant, for example, that he was quite happy to go and nick fruit from somebody’s orchard if they were rich.

“He was a keen bird nester. There is a story that he and Bobby Charlton, both bored, once went bird nesting in the grounds of their hotel on an England Under-23 trip to the Soviet Union. But he only ever took one egg from each nest. He thought the mother wouldn’t miss one.  His attitude was ‘you’ve got a lot, I’ve got nothing -- I’ll take a little bit’

“You can almost see this later in life -- he did not really think it was a crime to take money from rich institutions.  In his autobiography he repeats the phrase that his mother taught him right and wrong and you wonder what she would have thought of that.

“There was also a sense that he felt football owed him a living. I think he was left very bitter by Sunderland, who put him through two years of pretty dreadful rehab and persuaded him to come back again after he had said he would retire.

“When he made his comeback it became clear he was not going to be the same player.  He started coaching the youth team and took them to the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup -- a good side that included Colin Todd and Colin Suggett -- with players who all say that, immediately, the mentality of the team changed, the way they prepared for games radically changed.

“It was the start of his managerial career but the Sunderland board wanted rid of him so they could get the insurance money and buy a new centre-forward.  When they gave him a testimonial and he made maybe a quarter or a third of what the board made by getting rid of him, it left him feeling that football owed him something.  And to be fair possibly it did because injured players were not treated very well.”

Part Two -- Why the decline of Nottingham Forest was not only down to Clough’s split with Peter Taylor; how Sunderland still wonder what might have been; and how Clough’s behaviour divides opinions of him. 

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

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