The irony behind Brian Clough’s transfer to Sunderland is that, according to the tables at least, Middlesbrough were marginally the better side. In season 1960-61, Middlesbrough finished fifth, one place above Sunderland. But the story is stranger than that narrow gap would indicate.
Middlesbrough enjoyed a fine season at home, winning thirteen of their 21 games, and coming away with a goal difference of +24. They lost at home only twice, a better record than either of the promoted clubs. Away from home, they lost ten games, and shipped an astonishing 54 goals in the process – the third worst total in the division. Away from home, Sunderland conceded 18 fewer goals.
Little wonder that Clough was keen to make the switch. Here, at last, was a club whose defence would give him something worth playing in front of. In the year before his arrival, Sunderland scored 75 goals. In his first season, his presence took that up to 85, 16 goals more than Leyton Orient, who somehow beat them to promotion by a point. A year later, Sunderland were denied promotion purely on goal difference, and if that sounds unlikely in a team that had Clough playing up front, well…
For all that Clough himself described his first season at Sunderland as “lovely days”, there really is an air of something like happiness about him in 1961-2. Of course, he was somewhere where he was genuinely wanted, at last, no longer having to depend upon his goalscoring to win dressing room politics. He was playing amongst men who had the same big ideas as he did. There was real hope, all year, that he could look forward to Division One in the autumn.
But there was more to it than that. He was playing for Alan Brown.
Alan Brown wasn’t the first “friend” Clough had made in football, but he may well have been the second (Middlesbrough’s reserve goalkeeper, Peter Taylor, had befriended Clough and kept the younger man onside in many a tense situation through the strenuous use of humour. Taylor wasn’t a particularly talented player, unlike Clough, but was clever enough to keep up with him). The friendship didn’t come in 61-2, of course: Brown was a disciplinarian manager, and would not have stood for familiarity with any of his players.
But that strength helped Clough. At Middlesbrough, there was always the feeling that no one was really in charge: in a way Clough had been compelled to make himself heard, to put himself forward, as no one else felt inclined to display strength or direction. At Sunderland, Clough knew where he stood, and where other players stood, a restricting but deeply secure experience for an intelligent but impulsive young man.
Brown, like Clough, had had experience of being unappreciated in football, and had left the game for a long period to join the police force. That experience, and the clicheed morality that was presumed to go with it, were part of Brown’s appeal for Sunderland, and it would be easy to link it with his dependence upon a strict regime at the club.
Regardless, it enabled Brown to assemble a team of strong characters under captain Charlie Hurley. Clough was pulled into line quickly after an early training ground incident, treatment which he “took like a man” according to Brown, coming into the manager’s office immediately afterwards to offer a full apology. Another apology – unasked for in this case – followed after a bad team performance.
Clough would already have looked like a “Brown” player on his arrival – settled, married, smartly dressed with short hair. Others would have to adapt.
But just as it would be wrong to assume that Brown drew all of these (very noticeable) aspects of his approach from the police force, so it would be wrong to assume that Brown was a crowning example of some kind of good old fashioned “traditional manager.” It would be wrong because Clough had already been playing under the classic old-fashioned secretary-manager at Middlesbrough, Bob Dennison. Dennison was far more like the typical Football manager in the league’s first sixty years, a figure who saw his role as playing go-between for the board and players, his aim as survival and the quiet life. The era’s exceptions – Herbert Chapman, Scott Duncan, Frank Buckley, and, by 1961, Busby, Shankly and Stein, were just that – exceptions, whose influence would eventually spread and become the norm. In the process, they’d cover the evidence of what came before them. Brown never quite made the heights of that group, for all that he would take Sunderland into Division One in the end. Nevertheless, his approach and ideas had more in common with what was new in English football than in what was old.
Clough’s behaviour towards Brown – hero-worship, in essence – wasn’t just the consequence of gratitude, or the flattering manner of his rescue from Middlesbrough. It was the natural admiration of the imaginative, insecure, aggressive personality for the restrained bully. Clough had had to dominate at Middlesbrough, without possessing an accepted dominant role, and that need to be the strong personality in an environment of relatively weak and unfocussed ones had lost him friends and allies. At Sunderland, the dominant role was taken by someone who knew how to wield it appropriately: Clough could step down, relax, and play the best football of his life.
Season 1961-2 went down to the final game. By now, it must surely seem to be just the thing that would happen to Clough: promotion went down to the last match of the season. Sunderland fell short. Seven seasons after his debut, the man who was arguably one of England’s top two strikers – and one of the best three since the Wall Street Crash, alongside Lawton and Greaves – had two caps, no medals, and had never played in England’s top division. “Lovely days;” scarcely “good old” ones.