To understand the true nature of what happened to Brian Clough in 1965, some history is in order. Until the Great War, the Football League had two divisions. In 1919, that became three through the simple expedient of incorporating the top division of the Southern League. (Grimsby Town were also elected to Division Three: their fixture list for that first season, comprising of no one else north of Birmingham, must have been exhausting).
The measure brought a tranche of young, relatively healthy south-of-England clubs able to compete with their older, northern rivals. Although promotion into the Second Division was hard – for most of Division Three (South)’s existence, only the Division Champions would be promoted – the idea proved a great long term success, as the statistics demonstrate.
Of the 22 clubs elected to the first Third Division in 1919, 13 have spent time in the First Division or Premier League. One team, Portsmouth, has actually won two League titles and an FA Cup. One other club – Southampton – has won an FA Cup, and others – QPR, Watford, Crystal Palace, Brighton and Millwall – have been seen in FA Cup Finals. Only Newport County and Merthyr Town of those first 22 are no longer league clubs.
The need was felt to balance things by creating a second â€œthirdâ€ division from non-league northern clubs. The problem was that practically all of the viable northern clubs were already league members. Third Division (North) was a rag-bag of misbegotten, insolvent clubs with horrible, broken grounds and small, fickle audiences.
Of the 20 clubs elected to the Third Division (North) in 1920, none have ever played in the First Division or Premier League. (The current Wigan Athletic were formed in the wake of the demise of Third Division (North) pioneers Wigan Borough, and are therefore a different club). None of the clubs has made it to an FA Cup Final. Only one – Tranmere Rovers – have seen a League Cup Final, which they lost. Of the original 20, only 12 still play in the Football League.
In the 1960s, even that runt had a runt. Hartlepools United were the worst club in the Division by a distance, and could count themselves lucky to maintain their status. But that gave them one thing in common with Brian Clough: desperation. And they had another: links with Len Shackleton.
Shackleton appears to have been genuinely fond of Clough, and saw him as a fellow sufferer from intelligence and originality in what was and is an essentially and deliberately stupid industry. But Clough was also very useful to him. Shackleton was no longer a disgruntled footballer; he was a successful newspaperman, and Clough had been an excellent source of quotes for the best part of a decade. But Clough had been sacked; he was no longer on the inside, privy to gossip – or, for that matter, provoking it.
The friend in Shackleton wanted to help Clough before his post-sacking spiral got out of control: the newspaperman wanted him in the game for the sake of the material he generated.
Len Shackleton found Clough and told him that he could secure him the job as manager of Hartlepools United if he was interested. â€œWell,â€ Clough replied, â€œItâ€™s a bit thin on the ground around here with Middlesborough and Sunderland. So the answerâ€™s Yes.â€
It had had to be very thin indeed. Clough said later:
Len was as influential off the field, being a big star in a small place like the North East as he was on it. So he could talk to chairmen like Ernie Ord (of Hartlepools), and he got me the job. But Hartlepool werenâ€™t just bottom of the Fourth Division, as it was in those days: they were cemented there! They had to reapply for reelection six times out of seven, so thatâ€™s how bad it was.
It was the worst job in professional football, in other words: the least likely to succeed, the least glamorous, the poorest. What’s more, the local rivals were Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, giants by comparison, effortlessly hoovering up whatever local talent was to hand.
By accident, then, Clough had fallen upon exactly the kind of opportunity a managerial career needs to get properly underway.
There are two ways to get a managerial career going. Either, start amidst the ruins of a once-great club reduced to desperation (Busby at Manchester United and Shankly at Liverpool are the two best examples) or begin extremely small (O’Neill at Wycombe, Ferguson at East Stirling). Of the managers who dominated the Football League and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, none bar Bob Paisley took over a flourishing organization, and that’s to do Paisley a disservice: he’d been an essential figure behind the scenes since before Shankly’s arrival.
Clough’s arrival at Hartlepools is always written up as the real start to his life, the beginning of something spectacular. His playing career is glossed over; this is what fans are waiting for; here comes Cloughie etc. Everything will be OK now.
But it wasn’t like that for Clough. For the man himself, his real life was his playing career, and management never took its place. But it’s an old saw that nothing is better than playing, that retirement can come too soon, as it did for Clough – and, under slightly different circumstances, for his old rival Jimmy Greaves.
And Peter Taylor’s arrival at Hartlepools United as Clough’s assistant is always hailed as the master-stroke that began a dynasty.
That wasn’t true either. Clough’s appointment at Hartlepools was an act of charity and a media stunt. Taylor’s arrival wasn’t made with the intention of melding his skills with Clough’s.
Shackleton had had a front row seat in the Clough show for the best part of a decade, and had seen Clough rejected by the dressing rooms at both Middlesbrough and Sunderland, and knew that Clough’s sacking at Sunderland despite some success as Youth Coach had come through Clough’s alienating every member of the club’s board. Unless something was done about it, Clough would be dismissed by Hartlepools in short order, and the supply of entertaining football stories and gossip would dry up once more, this time permanently.
What’s more, Clough didn’t really know anything at all about club management. He claimed later to have been “talking club management” for years with Peter Taylor, but there’s no evidence to back him up.
Taylor, on the other hand, had been thinking about management. He’d done more than just think. Peter Taylor had learned the trade. At Coventry City, he had played under the formidable Harry Storer. Storer was one of a group of post-war managers who built on Herbert Chapmanâ€™s pioneering example in taking charge of his club, taking an interest in his players and in the style of play itself. He had strong feelings about his team: personal discipline was a priority, as was â€œmoral courageâ€, the ability to retain enthusiasm when everything was going wrong, to resist the urge to hide from play. We know less about the specific way in which Storer identified the players he wanted – and much of it must have been instinctive – but we do know that Taylor spent his time at Coventry in an intense study of everything Storer did, making notes as he went.
Some months after Cloughâ€™s terrible injury against Bury for Sunderland on Boxing Day 1962, Taylor â€œran intoâ€ Sunderland manager Alan Brown on holiday. Itâ€™s not clear how accidental this encounter actually was. Perhaps not very: Brown found himself unable to shake Taylor off for his entire holiday. Peter Taylor was at his side from morning until late evening, asking question after question about football management, soaking and squeezing the information out of Brown. At first, Brown resented his everpresent interlocutor, but over the course of the fortnight realised that the questions he was being bombarded with were the right ones – that Taylor was deadly serious in his desire for information – and when, at the end of the holiday, Taylor told him that heâ€™d given him the â€œA-Z of Football Managementâ€, Brown was deeply flattered.
By the time Clough was sacked by Sunderland, Taylor was earning Â£41 per week as manager of non-league Burton United. It’s not clear what led to his becoming assistant to a younger, less experienced man, on a wage of Â£24 per week. Was it Cloughie’s famous persuasiveness, as most accounts would have it? Taylor wasn’t even assistant manager at Hartlepools (such things didn’t exist in 1965); he was “trainer” albeit with no knowledge of modern fitness training or the treatment of injuries.
It’s most likely that Shackleton sold Taylor the idea, by convincing him that it was a step up into the Football League, that he would be the power behind the throne and in a position to take over when Clough blew up – to say nothing of being in a position to prevent him from blowing up. Taylor joined Clough, not with a view to a great future, but to prevent the present, already bad, becoming worse.
Nevertheless, it was certainly Clough, not Shackleton, who persuaded the board at Hartlepools to take Taylor on. It was no mean feat, as Clough had already begun to hate his employers. Of the chairman, Clough would have this to say years later:
I worked hard at it, kept them afloat, so to speak, and survived a human villain called Ernie Ord. Oh, he was a horrible man! We canâ€™t libel him now because heâ€™s been dead 20-odd years: I just wish it had been 120-odd years.
In 1965, assistant managers didnâ€™t exist – that we are familiar with the idea now has everything to do with the success of the Clough-Taylor partnership. In fact, most boards of directors would have been more familiar with the idea of the â€œsecretary-managerâ€, a figure who would administrate the club under their guidance, buying and selling players, keeping the team fit and perhaps encouraging the team to consider tactics between themselves from time to time.
The big â€œpersonality managerâ€ had only just begun to emerge in the previous fifteen years, at large clubs like Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United. At Liverpool, Bill Shankly had only just started to pick up trophies; at Leeds, Don Revie had yet to win anything at all, and he was still chiefly famous for his tactical nous as a player. In bringing Taylor on board at Hartlepools, Clough was not only doing something completely new, but he was establishing himself with the board in a way none of his predecessors would have dreamt, let alone dared.
For ten years, Clough’s intelligence and mouth had had to bump up against authority figures who were his intellectual and sporting inferiors. Hartlepools might have been the worst professional club in Britain, but it gave him his head for the first time. It would be a vivid experience for those around to witness it.
But it must be emphasised what this all was: Hartlepools was not “before Derby County, before Nottingham Forest”. At the time, it was very much “after Sunderland”, a ledge to grab onto when falling.
He was on a ledge, then, but he was king of the ledge. Brian Moore remembered:
I had to interview him for BBC radio and he was terrific value for one so young. He was driven by the fear of unemployment, by self-preservation, and he put everything into those early years. He despised journalists who thought they could talk about the game but he loved football gossip, whoâ€™d fallen out with whom. He also liked to know what other managements were like in other walks of life. In those early days at Hartlepools, there was a deep conviction to do things in a strong, orderly way with Peter Taylor. They blended so well and they beat the system from deep in the Fourth Division. They changed the role of management from the most unpromising of situations.
Clough got to work, and, just as in his playing career, he made sure that the press were at the very heart of everything he did. Television cameras were there as he stood underneath the leaking main stand, holding a bucket to catch the drips as he appealed for donations. When the ground was – finally – redecorated, it was Clough the cameras found with paint brush in hand.
They were called in, too, to see him pass his Public Service Vehicle Driving Test which would enable him to drive the team bus. His powers of persuasion even compelled a local brewery to pay for new floodlights.
At night, Clough worked the pubs and clubs like a revivalist preacher, using his by-now well-practised public speaking skills to urge local men to come to games, to dip into their pockets for what Clough was determined to make into their club.
Peter Taylor might not have realised just how unpromising his situation really was. After a few weeks spent watching the players the two of them had inherited, Taylor took Clough aside and told him,
Somethingâ€™s got to be done about this lot – and quick. Weâ€™re in the shit good and proper. Weâ€™ll be asking for re-election at the end of the season with this team. Theyâ€™re bound to finish bottom unless thereâ€™s a place even lower in the bloody table.
From the bottom of the Fourth Division, Clough was quickly becoming one of the Leagueâ€™s better-known managers. And, using a mixture of local knowledge and Peter Taylorâ€™s crowded contacts book, the team gradually improved. One acquisition was a sixteen year old grammar school boy, John McGovern. McGovern was an orphan, whose headmaster intended for university and a good career. Clough had other ideas, and smuggled them into McGovernâ€™s imagination. Once they were safely there, Clough urged McGovernâ€™s mother and headmaster to allow the boy to decide his own fate, knowing that he wanted to play football.
John McGovern went on to lift two Football League trophies and two European Cups in a career that followed Cloughâ€™s own, playing for him at Derby, Leeds and Nottingham Forest.
But there were other boys whose plans Clough changed, who were less fortunate. We never hear from them, or from the players whose careers Clough ended or started downhill over the years. In football, more than anywhere else in human life, history is told by the winners. (Or, these days, by the drinkers).
Clough’s action in pulling McGovern into football was not an act of kindness: even in the 1960s, grammar school and university gave onto opportunities that outstripped anything football had to offer. Opportunities that wouldn’t dump men back into the real world in their thirties emotionally underdeveloped and without prospects. Clough was very much in the role of the forceful, selfish man imposing on someone weaker than himself. After all of the loss and fear his own poor education had given him, you might have expected him to treat McGovern with circumspection and care.
But there’s no evidence that he did care, care that he was deliberately denying a boy the education that he himself would have desired, and doing so for his own ends. The hard fact is that all managers – including the faux folk heroes – play games with other people’s careers. So much, once again, for football’s great men, for old-fashioned loyalty and the values that are supposedly rooted in the people’s game.
By the end of their first full season in charge, 1966-67, Clough and Taylor had hauled the Hartlepools wreckage so far up the beach as to finish eighth, with crowds up twenty percent on the preceding year.
They wouldnâ€™t stay to see the story through: the following year, under Angus Maclean, Hartlepools won promotion for the first time in their history. An astonishing, for â€˜Pools, crowd of over eleven thousand saw a 2-0 win over Swansea secure a place in the promised land of the Third Division. Being â€˜Pools, they wouldnâ€™t be there for long, but Clough and Taylor had given them a moment when everything looked as if it could be different.
The story Clough tells of his own management career is that of a man who took obscure nowhere teams to the heights in a way unprecedented in their history. Itâ€™s not just Clough who pushes that line – so too do the press. Clough and Taylor, they say, sparked miracles whereever they went – and, because of those miracles, Clough should have been England manager.
At Hartlepools, â€œmiracleâ€ might well be the right word. In the eight seasons prior to his and Taylorâ€™s arrival, â€˜Pools finished 17th, 19th, 24th, 23rd, 22nd, 24th, 23rd and 15th. What took place then can only be put down to Clough – a desperate man scrambling to hold on to the only life he wanted, but also a loud, revivalist preacher of a man, endlessly brave and persuasive.
The other side of what happened at Hartlepools set a different kind of precedent for the future. Almost from the off, Clough was at loggerheads with his board of directors, especially the bollard-sized chairman, Ernie Ord.
Ord was quick to recognize the consequences of Cloughâ€™s publicity stunts and independent behaviour. In the eyes of the press and the people of Hartlepool, the club was quickly becoming Cloughâ€™s, and the directorsâ€™ relative torpor and inadequacy was being shown for what it was. Furthermore, they were quickly losing real financial control over what was going on – the appointment of Taylor, whose role they simply did not understand, was proof of that.
In the first full, successful season, these conflicts came out into the open. Ord made it his habit to turn up in the dugout at matches. Clough, provoked, threatened to throw him out, physically, if he didnâ€™t leave under his own power. Then, upset by Cloughâ€™s high local profile, and threatened by Cloughâ€™s increasingly national fame, Ord declared that his son was henceforth in charge of all publicity. That was simply ignored.
Then, with the crowds increasing rapidly and â€˜Pools climbing the Fourth Division table, Ord took a step too far. He tried to sack Peter Taylor, citing financial reasons. Clough refused, furious. So Ord sacked Clough.
This was Cloughâ€™s second sacking in two years, and he wasnâ€™t having any of it. Instead, he simply ignored Ord, and remained at the ground, in his office, for 48 solid hours. His principal ally on the board of directors, John Curry, rallied support for Clough and Taylor, and, before the two days were up, a coup was staged at an emergency board meeting and Ord ejected. Hartlepools United needed Clough and Taylor more than they needed their chairman – so the chairman had to go.
Clough would not always be so fortunate in the men who fought his corner. But for now, his luck held, and a few weeks later, he and Taylor received the first real break either of them had had for years.