Clough’s international “career” began in 1957, when he was picked to take part in a tour of Iron Curtain countries by England Under 23s. He started well, scoring against Bulgaria, but was dropped for the next game in favour of Derek Kevan, a centre-forward of the traditional kind. Jimmy Armfield was there to witness Clough’s reaction:
He was absolutely astounded when he came back to our room. Utterly deflated. He had done what he was picked for, scoring a lovely goal. That decision really rocked him, and you have to wonder now about Walter Winterbottom’s judgement, because big Derek never had Cloughie’s ruthlessness in front of goal. His despair was all the more striking because Cloughie was such a confident lad, yet so young. He was much brighter than the average players on that trip and he was not afraid to pipe up and speak his mind in front of the manager. Even at cards, he was better than us – he gave up trying to teach us bridge!
It’s the simplest thing in the world to mistake loquacity and verbal facility for confidence. At about this time, Clough’s Middlesbrough team mates put up a round robin demanding his demotion from the captaincy. At least Clough’s various biographers are prepared to admit that that incident cut through “Cloughie”‘s “surprisingly” thin skin and caused him real hurt.
In 1957, the full England team were on an astonishing run of form, driven by a young Manchester United core of Byrne, Edwards and Taylor. Between the end of the 1954 World Cup and the Munich Disaster in February 1958, England won 18 of their 27 matches, beating Brazil, West Germany, Spain, France and Yugoslavia along the way. They were undefeated between October 1955 and November 1957. This was in spite of an inconsistent selection committee and the age of some of the better players (Matthews’ failure to be selected for the 1958 World Cup was controversial for all that he was 43 years old by that stage; Finney was in his late 30s, as was Billy Wright).
When the Munich Disaster gashed into Manchester United and England, Derek Kevan, not Clough, was brought into the squad.
Clough was 24 and the World Cup gone by the time he made his full debut against Wales on October 17th 1959. He failed to score (Jimmy Greaves was England’s scorer in a 1-1 draw). His international career, and his striking 3-way partnership with Greaves and Bobby Charlton, came to an end 11 days later, at Wembley in a 3-2 defeat against Sweden.
Film of that match still exists, and may be all that remains of Clough’s playing days apart from a small number of black and white photographs.
Clough hit the bar that day, but England’s formation – two wingers banging in crosses towards three men, none of whom were famous for their heading (Clough had good technique, which he’d partly learned from watching golf stances, but preferred the ball to his feet) – didn’t suit his game, or Charlton’s, or Greaves’s. It was Clough who took the matter to Walter Winterbottom.
Like Clough, Walter Winterbottom’s career as a player was ruined by injury, and his coaching would be hampered by his having, like Clough, a superior mind to those around him. Unlike Clough, he was in a position to use his mind without penalty. We can assume that Clough, 24 and one of the two best strikers of his day, chose his words unwisely. He never played for England again, despite continuing to score at an astonishing rate for another three years.
Clough’s failure to gel with Winterbottom is a shame in retrospect. Winterbottom was a modern coach in his day, and had done much to restructure football coaching in England in the post-war period. World Cup victory in 1966 had a lot of Winterbottom’s hidden work involved in it. His job was only partly concerned with managing England – something that escapes commentators too often. Clough’s brief international career was almost his only contact as a player with the changing, modernizing face of English coaching in a period when the best of it was once again catching up with the rest of the world.
Winterbottom wanted Ron Greenwood as his successor. It was one more political battle with the FA that he lost. Alf Ramsey was brought in from Ipswich instead. England so nearly had the young, fresh-thinking Greenwood as manager. Instead, he took over at West Ham, promoted to the top tier for the first time in almost thirty years, and within four years took them to a European trophy.
Greaves and Charlton went to the World Cup in 1962. Clough was still to play a single game in the First Division. By that stage, his status as a perennial outsider in his chosen milieu must have been obvious to him.
But life still held local status and comfort. He married Barbara in 1959 – another intelligent Clough – and for their summer holidays in 1961, Brian and Barbara took a cruise around the Mediterranean.
At the end of the cruise, their ship docked at Southampton. With a long journey ahead of them home to Middlesbrough, Clough made sure he was first off the ship. Handling his luggage on the quayside at six o’clock in the morning, Clough was surprised to be greeted by the manager of Sunderland, Alan Brown.
Brown and Sunderland’s unusual approach needs to be set in context. In 1961, the Wearside club were still trying to recover from a calamitous end to the 1950s, which, after a decade of heavy spending in search of success (they’d become known as the “Bank of England” club as a consequence), had ended with financial scandal in 1957 and relegation – for the first time ever – in 1958. Alan Brown, a former policeman, had a reputation for a dramatic kind of uprightness and, (in a combination that has a distinctly pre-War feel to it) for advanced football thinking, a willingness to learn from other sports and other arenas generally.
Sunderland were a club all too aware of lost greatness. Once the “team of all the talents”, they’d last won the League title in 1936, so by the time Brown interrupted Clough’s unpacking, they were in a position analogous to Manchester United in 1989, eager to get back to where they felt they belonged, but not knowing quite how they were going to achieve this.
To Brown, Clough’s goals seemed like one way of making the trick. He had interrupted his holiday, he told Clough, to come to see him: the deal was done, and Middlesbrough were happy to release him. Clough shook Brown’s hand:
Done. I’ll go and sort it all out. No need for you to come. You go back on your holiday, you’ve earned it. Now I’ll try and sort out this bloody baggage.
Clough looked back on Sunderland with huge affection:
It was the happiest time of my life in terms of football. Sunderland folk are beautiful, much warmer and more genuine than those at Middlesbrough and we had a wonderful relationship going. I was young, happily married, my first two kids were born in Sunderland, I was cracking in the goals. Lovely days.
Lovely days indeed – Clough would score 54 goals in his 61 games for Sunderland, and at last he was central to a side who wanted to achieve things. But apart from that happiness, and a general ambition to advance in the game, there is little hint at this time that Clough had any real strategy for his life, any sustained plans for the future.
He wasn’t feckless – from the beginning of his playing career, he’d saved money against a rainy day, and he proved a determined family man in the early part of his marriage. Clough had curiousity beyond football – as his relationships with the press and interest in Bridge (scarcely a working-class pursuit) showed. But there is no sign – none – that Clough was thinking beyond his playing days.
At about the time Clough signed for Sunderland, the first proper colour film of English football was being taken – usually of FA Cup Finals and other very significant matches. (Match of the Day, when it came, began in black and white and continued in that format until 1969). The game bursts into colour and looks immediately recognisable: baggy shorts have already gone, and although boots still look a little larger than they would become, the ankles are bare. For the most part, teams are already in their familiar strips (the last big change being that of Leeds United from green and gold to all-white under Don Revie).
Every generation of sportsmen thinks that theirs is the one that has finally broken through the chains of the past into the sunshine of reason and the application of science. Every generation finds the training methods of its predecessors alternately comical and nostalgic.
British Pathe have a film of Middlesbrough training in 1936. The players look thin, insubstantial, as if they’d break when you dropped them. There is nothing quaint about their training, although the ball gets away from them from time to time. George Camsell, scorer of 59 goals in a season for Middlesbrough in the wake of the offside law change in the 1920s, stands out, with beautiful touch and control.
How different is 1936 from 1961 from today in terms of training, and is it really a story of progress? Much modern fitness is so bizarre (ice baths? creatine?) that it’s easy to assume that it’s driven more by fad than by thought. New age thinking has burrowed its way into the NHS (we live in an age when EMDR – look it up yourself – has made it past NICE, which would have been incredible to the age of Doll and Medawar) and surely has a presence in football (I suspect at London Colney for a start).
Treatment of injuries is one area of obvious progress. Clough’s injury of Boxing Day 1962 would probably not have ended his career had it occurred on Boxing Day 2006. But we still labour under the idea that playing through and with injury is somehow heroic and admirable rather than stupid and barbaric.
Late 1950s and early 1960s fitness, furthermore, was contained entirely within a milieu dominated by smoking and drinking. Moderation was not the rule and some top players – notably Bobby Moore – might well have been described as functioning alcoholics.
And the essential look of fitness has changed. The gymnasium set up at Highbury by Herbert Chapman in the 1930s, and all those that followed in the next three decades, looked in many respects like factories, like industrial installations. Now gyms look and sound like offices or living rooms – some of them are offices and living rooms. Fitness has gone white collar.
Something similar is happening to the game of football itself. It isn’t evident from the football literature of Clough’s career that the game was expected to be anything other than exciting, competitive and demanding of courage. The famous phrase “working class ballet” is Alf Garnett’s, which dates it to after 1965: Pele’s “Beautiful Game” is later still. If such thoughts existed before the 1958 World Cup, and Brazil’s stunning stylishness, then they did so off the printed page. Working class ballet reaches across a narrowing divide to middle class sport.
Bridge-playing, thought-expressing, independent-minded Clough spent his playing days falling into that divide, or so it seems now. Then he met Alan Brown, who he’d come to venerate, and with Brown came Clough’s “Lovely Days.”
There’d be so few of them, and they were followed by the end of everything.