With former protégés like Martin O’Neill, Roy Keane and Stuart Pearce managing at the top-levels of English football, Brian Clough’s name continues to swirl around the game that he was a part of for the bulk of his life. Often the most mentioned aspect of Clough’s career in football is that he took an unfashionable, regional club like Nottingham Forest to two successive European Cup victories. A recent book by journalist Duncan Hamilton attempts to cast a wider spotlight on the life and career of Brian Clough.
Hamilton became acquainted with Clough through his football reporting for the Nottingham Evening Post and their association lasted for well over a decade. Hamilton was invited into Clough’s inner circle and both men benefited from the relationship. Clough found himself a ghostwriter to publish columns in the papers and Hamilton found a source of quotes and extra cash. That’s not to say that the relationship was sycophantic, merely convenient. The two did share some common roots and developed a genuine friendship as well.
As I read Hamilton’s book, I was at times bored by his repeating of Clough’s character traits and habits. For example, it is mentioned several times that Clough and the English FA would not have been able to co-exist had he been named England manager. These bits are rehashed throughout the book and while they could be eliminated and the book streamlined, I came to realize that this was not to be taken as a start-to-finish chronological story. Hamilton’s book is like sitting down for a pint with an uncle who wants to regale you with stories of the “good old days”, he may have a start and end point in mind but it’s really the bits in between that are important. Hamilton is a good storyteller and it does not hurt that his material is golden.
Clough’s era came and went before I started following the game but in the videos I’ve seen, he was always a showman and the book is one more stage on which he stars. We get to learn of his time as a player, in which he was a deadly finisher for Middlesbrough and Sunderland (251 goals in 273 appearances) before his career was cut short by a severe knee injury. We get to follow Clough through his managerial career starting with Hartlepool, then leading Derby to the First Division title.
During his time with Derby, there was one incident that reverberates into recent football happenings. Derby reached the semi-finals of the European Cup but were knocked out by Juventus 3-1 on aggregate in very controversial circumstances. It later emerged that the West German referee had received gifts from the Italian side before the match. I found it quite ironic (and sad) considering Juventus’ recent banishment from the Serie A for essentially the same thing.
Clough would eventually claim the European Cup with Forest but not before a short, ill-advised and roundly unsuccessful stint as manager of Leeds United. It was a shocking move considering Clough’s outspoken criticism of former manager Don Revie and his team’s playing style.
Shortly after his appointment Clough infamously told the Leeds players that they should throw all their medals in the bin, since they’d won them unfairly.
Controversy was certainly no stranger to Clough and that’s one of the things the book fails to deal with completely. It is well known that Clough developed a severe drinking problem while at Nottingham Forest and Hamilton does well to document the downfall. One has to wonder if it was simply intimidation that kept Hamilton and others from saying anything to Clough about his heavy drinking.
The controversy that was not talked about much was the “bungs” scandal that emerged in the early 1990s. Clough was alleged to have been receiving illegal payments during transfer negotiations and making illegal payments to players. However, due to Clough’s declining health when the case was put together, he was never formally charged by the FA. Hamilton scarcely mentions the situation and it leaves you wondering what he knows, if anything. Even if it would just be a mention of “In my time, I heard nothing of illegal payments”, it would at least give the sense that Hamilton was not trying to sweep the issue under the rug to protect an old friend.
The book of course ends on a sad note, as Clough passed away in 2004 at the age of 69 from stomach cancer. Hamilton gives us a look into his life outside of football and a true sense of the man and not just the football personality. While Clough is described by Hamilton as ‘frightening’ and ‘obstreperous’, he also shows us that he was a kind and generous person who campaigned for coal miner’s rights and helped people out when they were down on their luck. He was a complex personality and fittingly the book gives ample time and space to all sides of the man.
Overall, Hamilton’s perspective is interesting because he was truly there for most of these famous moments and Clough often confided in him but at the same time he was meant to be a neutral observer. It is a fascinating serious of intertwined anecdotes and Hamilton takes time to comment on the differences in the game from when he first started reporting up until the time he gave it up to pursue current affairs and political journalism. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the English game or to those simply interested in reading about one of football’s celebrity names that will continue to be mentioned for years to come.
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