Another controversy

Published : Mar 21, 2009 00:00 IST



In the old second division, Brian Clough (in pic) was a prolific goal-scorer, capped by England, but a horrifying collision with a goalkeeper while playing for Sunderland put an end to his career, while he was still in his late 20s.

Controversy has been reignited with the showing of the film — of the same name’s book — ‘The Damned United’. Being the highly fictionalised story of Brian Clough’s tormented 44 days in charge of Leeds United. The film seems less sensationalised than the book, which has Clough foul mouthed and heavy drinking. Expletives proliferate on every page. Everything is in stark black and white, written by David Peace, a successful author, based in Japan, who has no connection with football and never met Clough. By sharp contrast with a book which came out shortly afterwards, ‘As Long As You Don’t Kiss Me’, the beguiling and perfectly observed account of Duncan Hamilton’s 20 years — from teenaged reverence up — of covering Nottingham Forest for local papers.

The appearance of the film has reopened the wounds caused by Peace’s book. Clough’s widow and family deplore the picture which it gives of Brian. Indeed when the book came out, the publishers were sued by Johnny Giles, the gifted little Irish international playmaker, who is portrayed as Clough’s saboteur in chief. Giles succeeded in having a number of passages adversely relating to himself to be excised. One critic has written that the result of his legal action is that in the film, he is shown as somewhat ineffectual.

That, for me, constitutes a kind of libel in itself. I have known, liked and appreciated Johnny Giles since his successful playing days. The last thing he has ever been as player, manager — including his own national team, the Republic of Ireland — is ineffectual. He has, in fact, a sharp intelligence and a lively, ironic humour. But then, Peace has never known him or any of the other main characters in his book.

I knew Clough pretty well over the years and admired his remarkable success as a manager, though allegedly it never quite made up for the cruel disappointment of his playing career. In the old second division, he was a prolific goal-scorer, capped by England, but a horrifying collision with a goalkeeper while playing for that other North East of England club, Sunderland, put an end to his career, while he was still in his late 20s. By his own admission, he started drinking heavily then, but he rose above it when he became the manager of the then struggling little Hartlepool club; enlisting as his irreplaceable adjunct Peter Taylor, the former Middlesbrough ’keeper who, at that club, had been a kind of father figure to him, encouraging him to rise and excel after early disappointments.

The story of Clough and Taylor is one of the most remarkable and dramatic in the history of English football. Together they turned Hartlepool around then went to Derby County where they again revolutionised the club with their varying talents, finding players and developing them where other clubs had ignored them. Promotion to the top division came, the championship was won. There followed a severe falling out with the Derby chairman, Sam Longson, bitter exchanges, the departure of Clough, without the essential Taylor, to Leeds.

Why in the name of logic, you might ask, did he go there, putting his head into the lion’s mouth? He has publicly castigated the team as one which resorted to dirty tricks under his detested rival, Don Revie. When he arrived at Elland Road, he exhorted the players to throw their medals into the refuse bin. But they, for their part, were worshippers of Revie and there was never a chance that Clough would stay. Nor did he, long. When he left he and Taylor took over a far lesser club in Brighton, where Clough frankly demoralised his moderate players with his criticisms and demands, reducing them to a shambles of a team, with fearful results.

But, of course, he would rise triumphantly again, re-uniting with Taylor, taking over another East Midlands club in Nottingham Forest, taking them out of the second division to win immediately the Championship title and then, against all odds and probability, twice, with this unfashionable club, successively winning the European Cup. Alas, in due course he would fall out with Taylor, who’d depart to manage Derby.

If I don’t trust Peace’s book, it’s in so small measure because he misleadingly narrates an episode in which I happened to play a central part. In April 1973, in the European Cup, Derby met Juventus in Turin, and there were turbulent half time scenes when Taylor tried to stop Helmut Haller, Juve’s German inside-forward, talking to his compatriot, the referee Schulenberg. After the game Clough emerged from the Derby dressing room and told the waiting Italian journalists, “No cheating ba*** will I talk to. I will not talk to many cheating ba***,” and disappeared. “Cosa’ha detto.” What did he say, the reporters asked me — at least Peace got the Italian phrase right, though he doesn’t mention whom it was addressed to. I feigned ignorance, whereupon the door opened again and Clough said, “Tell them what I said, Brian,” which I duly did.

He didn’t swear. He used no obscene language. Yet, Peace’s book has him emitting, a foul mouthed outburst, wrong to a degree. And how much else in his book has been distorted? Not that Clough, who drank himself to death, arguably, was any plaster saint. Greed could consume him, not least, and I have the story from first hand, the day when Watford’s manager Graham Taylor was sitting in his office, when the phone rang, while he was sitting next to the club’s Chairman and benefactor, the singer, Elton John. It was Peter Taylor, from Forest. “Brian and I are having a benefit match,” he said. “See if you can get Elton to come and sing at half time. Mark our card for us, Graham!” He said nothing about Elton’s presence.

Not long afterwards, the phone rang again. Peter Taylor asked if there were any news. When told there wasn’t he said, “Mark our card for us Graham, and if Elton does come, you can look at our reserve team and have any one player you like on a free transfer!”

Elton, then earning about £7 million a year, was predictably amused.

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