The burst of media interest in Brian Clough that accompanied the release of The Damned United might be the last one. Luckily, television used the opportunity to dip one more time into its archives and broadcast at least a proportion of what it found. Of course, the programming hung around all this fresh material was no more than it usually is, and that deserves comment. But as the film’s release generated controversy over the man Clough, his players and his life, and that being some kind of achievement, it’s worth asking what we know now as a result of it all. And there are new things to say.
To start with the programmes themselves, and in particular ITV’s new documentary, it’s clear that there is a great deal more Clough on film than we might previously have expected. This is especially the case of Clough the player, who’d really only been handed down to us on reputation, statistics and ancient match reports.
Clough the player is articulate on and off the pitch. Quick, thinking, moving – he’s reminiscent of Rooney in that regard – and with a fierce shot off an oft-spoken, rarely seen short backlift, as impressive as we’d been warned it would be. The film of his career-ending injury is better than the grainy press photographs of the event (which look as though they were taken on the Eastern Front and tell us almost nothing other than the injury hurt). The collision with the keeper looks innocuous – and it all happens very quickly. He tries to get up, but it’s like watching the struggle of an animal with a rifle bullet in its hip. These days, he’d have lost a season, no more.
Also included in the documentary was a lot more of the young manager Clough. It was obvious that whatever the footage showed, the media didn’t want the essential Clough story to change: Clough the charismatic loudmouth, his ghost always there now to back up whichever working class passion-and-commitment clichee the middle class journalist du jour wanted to push. But what hits me time and again, watching Clough, is the effortless intellectual strength of the man, head and shoulders over the world around him. He’s very, very clever. Brighter than the articulate, intelligent men who wrote and write about him. But God forbid, in British football culture, that thinking had anything to do with Clough’s success. Let alone the upper-middle-class effortless superiority style of thinking which is increasingly what I suspect he exhibited. That man holding his own on Parkinson and being yelled at by Ali is also the man who tried to teach the England squad to play bridge – the man who was the only one of his siblings not to make grammar school and the white collar world – the man who married Barbara, and fathered Nigel. It takes a cricketer, his friend Geoffrey Boycott, to say it.
I think that particular penny is one football doesn’t particularly want to drop.
Moving on to Clough’s changing personality, we learned more about his drinking life. The Damned United suggests, and I suspected, that the drink was always there in the background from the time of his injury on. George Best once protested, understandably, that it was absurd to point the drinking finger at him alone when the game’s culture was intriniscally alcoholic. But not for Clough, it turns out.
Clough’s drinking years seem to come in two waves, both after his injury. And, I think significantly, they came (1) before his managerial partnership with Peter Taylor commenced at Hartlepool and (2) after his managerial partnership with Peter Taylor ended at Nottingham Forest. After Taylor’s death, Clough remembered him predicting that Clough would never laugh in the same way again once Taylor was gone. “And he was right!” Clough said afterwards. Taylor wasn’t the key to Clough being a good manager, as the relative continuing success at Forest after 1982 showed. But he was key to Clough himself, and to the best kind of success.
All of the new material shed disappointingly little new light on his time at Leeds, which must now remain essentially mysterious. Perhaps, like so much else, Clough at Leeds was a knock-on victim of the Yom Kippur War and the ’73 Oil Crisis, the end of Bretton Woods, Nixon and all that went with it. 1975-6 is the interregnum between the World Cup-winning English football world and the dirty twilight that followed.
But at least, in relation to Leeds, we learn that whatever did happen, there are certain things that did not. A line has been drawn, both by the players who were there and by Clough’s family, below which his reputation at Elland Road will not be allowed to fall. There was no boozing; no real scheming; Revie’s desk did not meet an axe coming the other way.
The Leeds players come out of this very well – warm, intelligent, avuncular men who feel no need to step on Clough or to ramp their reputation in any real way. Johnny Giles’ successful lawsuit was a victory for Clough’s memory too.
After the publication of Anthony Thwaite’s selection of Philip Larkin’s letters, Tom Paulin’s theatrical disgust led Martin Amis, in relation to Larkin’s posthumous reputation, to wonder, “Are we really going to do this?” And, of course, we were.
But Giles’ suit, and the Clough family’s moving anger at The Damned United, and perhaps the persistence of Duncan Hamilton, mean that, on this occasion, it looks very much as if we aren’t going to do this.
Perhaps Larkin’s error, if it can be called that, was to leave his protegees, not in the public world of poetry, but in the private one, the county palatine profession of academic libraries. Of the two, Larkin was the selfless professional man, helping, encouraging, putting words in the right places, giving his time gratis, helping with L.A. exams. Clough’s pursuit of career was more or less entirely in his own interest. That, as they say, is football: although the same people still want the game to stand for a shifting array of traditional virtues nonetheless.
But at least we aren’t going to do this; we aren’t going to trash Clough’s shade. We aren’t going to allow the shade to be clever – and certainly not more clever than journalists who themselves want to hide that particular bit of their light under the proverbial. Allowing him to rest in peace is about as good as can be expected, so it is to be welcomed. And it’s more than Larkin got.
This clip from the ITV documentary is one of the most life-enhancing I’ve ever posted. Enjoy.