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Review: Revie – Revered and Reviled; the Authorised Biography by Richard Sutcliffe

Posted on 21 January 2011 by JamesHamilton

Revie and Clough debate Leeds on ITV in 1974

Say this for David Pearce’s novel The Damned Utd – it was the first really unembarrassed cultural treatment that the national game has ever had. Fever Pitch broke the ground. But Fever Pitch was gauche, blushing, unsure of its reception. It was essentially uncontroversial, and that is what has set The Damned Utd apart: the real hurt and confusion the novel caused, the bad memories it revived, the losses it refreshed. It may have helped cement Brian Clough in his full and proper place in the public life of the country, but The Damned Utd exhumed Don Revie and Revie’s Leeds along the way, and didn’t do the same for them at all.

Much of the drive for Richard Sutcliffe’s new biography of Don Revie comes from anger at The Damned Utd, and because the issues that the novel raised about Revie are the narrowly footballing ones, it’s these that Sutcliffe concerns himself with. Why isn’t Revie seen in the same kind of light as Busby, Shankly, or Clough? Do Leeds deserve to be remembered only for cynicism and winning at all costs? What’s the real story about Don Readies: the manager and his money? What really happened to Revie at England?

There is a wider significance to the life and work of Don Revie, which Sutcliffe leaves aside. The way Revie stands for Leeds, for instance, as the Chamberlains do for Birmingham. The sheer depth and breadth of change in the life of a man born in poverty in Middlesbrough, whose son went to Repton and Cambridge, who ended his career wealthy and honoured in the Middle East where his home is now a beloved shrine. The issue of what happened to leaders with backgrounds like Don, who before the 1973 Oil Crisis seemed set fair to rule Britain and take her into a better future.

What does it mean, too, that Don Revie was so young when he retired? He had just turned fifty when he resigned from the England job. More than half of all current Premiership managers are older, including Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce. It hardly seems possible, but Revie was largely photographed in black and white, which, unless you are a Beatle, makes you look older than you are.

All that had to be left aside. Football matches make football biographies different from those of politicians, artists and writers, because games turn careers and there are so many of them. There has to be at least one book that does the heavy digging of tracing an important career through, game by game, club by club, transfer by transfer. What we really lacked was a proper, basic, detailed reference biography of Don Revie, and this is what Sutcliffe has provided.

Revie’s Managerial Achievement

Sutcliffe wants to make the case that Revie’s achievements were equal to those of his rivals and contemporaries. Contemporaries they were, too: Shankly and Nicholson both retired in the year Revie left Leeds, Busby wasn’t long gone, and Clough was about to take himself out for three seasons.

In terms of sheer club achievement, there’s no doubt that Revie is at home with the very best. He was only at Leeds for thirteen years, and when he began, Leeds was a cricket and rugby league city. United were considered beneath not just Yorkshire Cricket Club and Leeds (Rugby League) but Hunslet and Bramley RFCs as well.

This table compares Revie’s achievements at Leeds with those of Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Bill Nicholson over the same period. I’ve included the 1975 European Cup Final because although it post-dates Revie, it was Revie’s team in Paris that night, ably shepherded by Jimmy Armfield.

(Click the chart to enlarge)

No Harry Catterick, Bertie Mee, Brian Clough, Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison here, but the table highlights just how competitive an arena Revie found himself in. Most observers agree that the period 1956-1973 was the absolute apogee of English club football, in achievement and in absolute depth of talent. Leeds’ total of seventeen significant football achievements is some way ahead of what Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham managed in the same time. Yet, before Revie, Leeds had had no top-level honours of any kind. Even Clough’s clubs had won top trophies before his arrival. Revie had had to build his club from scratch.

Dirty Leeds

The manner in which Revie succeeded is this biography’s second issue, and Sutcliffe deals with it carefully. Leeds weren’t a cynical team: they were a maturing team learning their trade. Revie was protective as they grew. The “Cantona” signing was that of Bobby Collins, who really was a hard case, but he put heart and belief into the talent around him. Other teams had similar players – Chelsea have Ron Harris, for instance. European opposition spat, hacked, rabbit-punched behind the referee’s back.

In his last two years at Leeds, Revie took the shackles off his side, and they played memorable football, the kind that would have flattered Anfield or Old Trafford. But by then, the mind of the public had already been made up.

When Revie went to England, he realized that the opposition players he had worried over and warned against in his pre-match dossiers – players he now had at his disposal – were not as good as he’d thought, and that his old team, Leeds, had been much better than he had ever realised. In Sutcliffe’s account, Revie came to regret not letting his team express themselves much earlier in their development. So much more might have been won. His caution had robbed his lads of the medals they’d deserved.

Don Readies

Sutcliffe treats Revie’s financial dealings in a similar way. Revie was either innocent or no worse than his feted rivals. Revie met Alan Ball on Saddleworth Moor in 1966 to bribe him, but Matt Busby left a suitcase of cash at the young Peter Lorimer’s house in the hope of buying his signature. Sutcliffe denies outright that Revie was ever involved in match-fixing: everyone wonders why he never sued. Perhaps he didn’t want the hassle..

Match-fixing aside, Revie’s relationship with money really does have to be seen in context. Then, as now, the real control of football and the real money in football lay with the club owners. Wealthy as players are now, they are still nowhere near the level at which they could think about buying a controlling stake in a Premiership club.

Revie had come from an impoverished, insecure background. In depressed Middlesbrough, Revie’s family were worse off than most. His father found work hard to come by. His mother died. As a consequence, in adult life he took care to balance job security with income maximization. For instance, as a player, he believed in changing clubs reasonably often, and looked out for signing on fees. But as Sutcliffe makes clear, professional care accompanied great personal generosity.

Revie at England

After England had beaten Czechoslovakia at Wembley in Revie’s first competitive start, he told his son something that would prove key not only to his management but that of all of his successors. “We haven’t got the players.” In particular, he meant that there were no English equivalents of Bremner or Giles, his key Leeds lieutenants, but he was right across the board: the post-War supply of talent -  nourished by fair rationing of food, playing on car-free streets, coached on proper pitches at new schools, made sensible by hardship -  was fast drying up.

But Revie had issues of his own in any case. A clever man – his son, as we’ve seen, became a Cambridge graduate given the chance – he had always been a deep football thinker. Not necessarily where you’d think – the “Revie Plan”, Sutcliffe establishes, was Manchester City colleague Johnny Williamson’s idea. But his tactical acumen and attention to detail, his novel training approaches and openness to novelty are well established. With England, however, his brain had too much time on its hands.

Revie overthought everything. In the weeks and months between internationals, his natural paranoia, superstition and caution overwhelmed his marvellous instincts for a player, a position, an on-field situation.

Nor did the techniques he used so effectively at Leeds translate to England. Sutcliffe thinks that players’ opposition to things like dossiers, carpet bowls and bingo have been exaggerated. But that didn’t mean that the Leeds family atmosphere could be rebuilt in Lancaster Gate, it didn’t mean that players could win Revie’s trust in quite the same way and it didn’t mean that the dossiers didn’t sometimes eat away at players’ confidence.

Sutcliffe makes clear that Revie was one of those who were gifted with extraordinary emotional intelligence – a man manager of the highest calibre. In the early 1960s, this had enabled him to pull Leeds together, and keep it together, by dint of the extraordinary work he put in to keep his side happy and the support staff involved. But at Leeds, he’d had everyone around him, all the time: at England, bureaucracy and the sheer lack of player contact proved more than he could compensate for.

It’s clear from Sutcliffe’s account that England were unfortunate not to qualify for the 1976 European Championship. An absurd draw against Portugal doomed England when they were by some margin the best team in a limited group. But qualification for Argentina 1978 was another thing altogether. Revie’s selection for the crucial match against Italy in Rome was so unexpected – so panicked and erratic, with players out of position and established performers excluded – that the Italians took it as a bluff at first. Then they took advantage.

It hadn’t helped that Revie’s attempts to get political with selection misfired. Sutcliffe sets out an intriguing version of events surrounding the 1975 Wembley match against World Champions West Germany. So convinced was Revie that England would be beaten handily, the story goes, that he picked the players he’d been urged by the press to pick, intending them to fail. Mavericks and playboys: Alan Hudson in particular believed that his call-up was to make sure that he’d play himself out of England contention for good.

In the event, the “new” defence of Gillard and Whitworth proved solid, Hudson ran riot, and England humiliated West Germany for ninety glorious minutes. Anyone not aware of what had prompted the selection of this particular team might consider that Revie had found a team to win a World Cup.

Revie’s disintegration was accelerated by FA machinations. Sir Harold Thompson, an enemy to Ramsey and to Brian Clough in turn, was at the heart of Revie’s troubles. It wasn’t just the secret negotiations with Bobby Robson behind Revie’s back or the comic snobbery (“Revie – when I come to know you better, I will call you Don”); it was the terrible punitive hounding of Revie once he’d left for the Middle East.

The worst one can say of Revie with regard to leaving England is that he sold the story to one paper – to Jeff Powell at the Mail, and he came to see it as a mistake in later years. But he had every right to leave, and every right to do the best for himself when he did so. If Sutcliffe’s account is true, then it isn’t Revie’s loyalty and patriotism that should be in question, but that of Thompson and his colleagues.

The story of Revie in the Middle East isn’t often told. It’s a happy one. He and his wife enjoyed their time there, and Revie was successful in kickstarting UAE football: his youngsters would take UAE from the bottom of the Arabic pile to qualification for the 1990 World Cup. He is still warmly remembered, and his house has been kept as it was when he lived there.

The rest is taken up with – taken away by – motor neurone disease.

This is the right biography for Revie, now, and it opens up the field for writers who will consider him, and what he achieved, in the life of the country as a whole. Because where does football stack up? Where do football men like Revie stand in importance to England and to the UK compared with, say, William Golding, Jennie Lee, Charles Mackintosh or Benjamin Britten? That’s for later. Richard Sutcliffe has given us both a rehabilitation for Revie and an essential reference work built around him. It’s the very least that Revie the man deserved.

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Brian Clough: who he really was, and what he really achieved

Posted on 06 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

We’ve done it, at last, haven’t we: taken the silent and unanimous decision that Brian Clough matters. He’s made the step up: Brian Clough’s cultural now, gone from the close, sweaty barracks of football because he stands for England like Elgar and Dickens.

The news about Clough isn’t in the tabloids anymore.  It’s  strictly broadsheet, review and monthly: it’s been to the London Film Festival and must by now be under Granta’s walls, in strength. All that whilst never being out of place: all that, whilst never abandoning Derby, all that without losing the common touch. Clough, more than Ramsey, or Revie, more even than Shankly, his only possible rival, is a cornerstone and comment upon the zeitgeist, and post War Britain is impossible without him.

You can see his shape and hear his voice in all of it: it’s there in the memories of wet bus queues and Tony Blackburn and Green Shield stamps and Sportsnight and the whine of the milkman’s electric float.  Clough’s is one of that medley of reassuring provincial voices that dominated Wilson and Heath’s Britain, a Britain that felt so safe but left with a suitcase thirty years ago: he’s there in the head with Jim Callaghan, Eric Morecombe, Jimmy Savile and Noddy Holder. All gone, at least as we knew them then, all towed off in the back of the last Sealink Ferry or municipal dustcart.

Clough, like the others, started out with hack-written biographies and My Lifes. They’re all down in the Bodleian somewhere, still, browning in a stack with a host of others with the same huge type and bad binding and three sets of photos, one in colour. Books about sporting immortals don’t have long lives. The best a given copy can hope for is to be bought, by accident, by a badly-funded public library, where it can lurk at the back unnoticed long after its St Ives-printed brothers have been pulped or landfilled.

Ten years ago, something happened to books about Clough.  Or maybe it was something they did, something Clough himself would never have dreamed of: they betrayed their origins. They jumped genre. They became “proper books”, a transformation achieved dangerously close to the disputed border between snobbery and defensible taste and identification. A Clough book would henceforth be a proper autobiography, then a proper biography, then a novel, and then there was a Clough film – which, to show it was keeping up with developments, would feature real actors, and have football in it yet succeed.

Now come the memoirs, and the best of these is BAFTA-winning writer and film-maker Don Shaw’s Clough’s War. Clough’s War, as the title suggests, is Shaw’s first-hand account of the player rebellion at Derby whose ultimate failure brought the great post-1964 rush of English football to an end. After 1973, English club success in Europe covered cracks. It might not have had to. That it did was because Clough was an end, not a beginning; he was the last and greatest product of the only string of good English managers the game has ever produced. That string appeared just as the traditional but resilient business practices that built the game in the late Victorian and Edwardian period were being eased out. Eased out too slowly, too late for Clough: Shaw’s account of a world talent being forced to manouvre amongst petty provincial businessmen, whose sole concern was their local standing amongst their peers, is enough to set your trigger finger twitching back and forth.

Shaw deliberately leaves his picture of Clough incomplete: there are areas of the man into which he can’t see, and he says so. Shaw is a typical Clough friend: outside football but passionate about it, intellectually strong but of ordinary background, possessed of a powerful instinct for, and respect regarding, friendship and loyalty. And, of course, skilled with words. Philip Whitehead, film producer and Labour MP, was another of these Clough acolytes. Had the momentum of the 1960s and early 1970s continued, England would have ended up under the rule of this kind of clever, ordinary northerners and midlanders. 1973 did for that in all sorts of ways: Callaghan gets the blame, for dodging the autumn 1978 election and precipitating Thatcher, but the damage was done in the oil crisis. And, just as much,  in the community halls, pubs and discreetly parked football managers’ cars of Derby.

Part of Shaw’s Clough comes across well in this 1979 interview (9 mins):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqAZsoF-ghw]

Here, confronted with the young John Motson, Clough displays some of the attributes Shaw notices, describes and frets over:

Fearlessness: “Clough felt invulnerable” says Shaw, “because he knew that the world held him in awe. That is why he could launch his slanderous attacks and suffer no consequences.. Lesser mortals, doing the same, might have expected a smack in the face. Not Clough. He knew that the pedestal on which he stood was high enough to be out of the range of brickbats.”

Self-belief: “I never think of Clough as suffering from megalomania,” says Shaw, “but its dividing line from self-aggrandisement is very close. His reference to Generals Wingate, on the British side, and Patton, on the American, was significant in that their insistence on self-belief, allied to their strong feeling of destiny, was central to their military philosophy, as it was to his approach to football management. His courage was unquestionable. His statement, ‘If I’d been a Spitfire pilot I’d have taken on a squadron of Messerschitts,’ could easily be dismissed as ‘Old Big ‘ead’ bragging. But to have been in his presence when he spoke those words was not to induce intense scepticism, but to accept it, such was the matter-of-fact way in which he made the claim.”

Psychological Aggression: Clough is waiting for Motson to provide him with something with which to disagree, whereupon he will present the disagreement as the product of moral and intellectual failing by Motson and the broadcasters. But Clough doesn’t wait for opportunities to put Motson off balance: putting Motson off balance is the core plot of the interview. In a player, likewise, Shaw says, “Clough searched for character traits and patterns of behaviour, which, once grasped, gave him a power over the player intended to induce fear initially, out of which would come obedience and respect.”

What doesn’t show in the interview are other traits that Clough would bring in to play to help his team. Humour – which he and Peter Taylor would bring deliberately to the table at specific times to reduce tension and pressure on the players – was a big part of the Clough persona, at least until 1982 and the end of the Clough-Taylor partnership. Simplicity: Clough’s advice to his players rarely reached any greater complexity, Shaw points out, than you’d find on a school playing field. Simple things can be remembered in pressure situations, and we saw the principle in reverse during the first McClaren international against Croatia.

Group bonding, brought to a height in the close Derby team, was essential to Clough. During the Ian Storey-Moore debacle, in which Clough essentially kidnapped Moore in order to hijack Moore’s move to Manchester United, he left Moore alone for a chat with each of the first team players in turn. They were quizzed for their views afterwards – “If a guy isn’t liked by the squad, then he’s out”. Moore passed his inspection, so Clough told him, late that evening, “We’re down in the lounge. Come down and have a cocoa with your wonderful mates.”

Nottingham Forest, Shaw thinks, was different: in the end, everything boiled down to fear. At any rate, his relationship with his Derby team represented the height of his career and his life, never to return.

There are sides to these Clough traits which Shaw doesn’t mention but which round out the Clough picture somewhat.

Gaslighting: “Gaslighting” is a technique to put a person off balance. You attribute a thought or feeling to your victim which you cannot know that they have and that they probably do not have. If they deny the thought or feeling, you rubbish their denial. If you are in any sort of authority or close relationship with your victim, this is extremely unsettling for them. The victim starts to distrust themselves, to question the message they are getting from their emotional responses. It slows them down, weakens them. Motson comes in for it constantly, and Clough uses the technique in almost every lengthy interview including the famous Revie conversation of 1974. The point about gaslighting is not just to point out that Clough employed the technique, but to reflect upon what that says about Clough.

Compartmentalizing: Clough didn’t make friends of his players – although he fostered friendship between them. Nor did he make friends on his various boards, or, indeed, Taylor aside, in football generally. This trait is an enabler of other traits: you can’t treat John Motson – or Sam Longson – or a player – as Clough did, and care about their opinion.

Grandiosity: It’s not just in Clough’s words (“..but I’m in the top one.”) but in his manner. Again, with Motson, he interviews like a captured Nazi general who can’t quite believe it isn’t 1940 anymore. Grandiosity needs to be defined in contrast to a sense of superiority: it has an element of defensiveness, of camouflage to it. Reading between Clough’s lines, I sense a frustration at only having football to perform in, a sense of being overpowered for his milieu but of being shut out from the stages that suited his size. Call it an air of frustrated self-importance.

Seeing others only in his own terms: Shaw’s account is one of Clough utilising Shaw’s loyalty, admiration and friendship as political pawns to play in his battle with the Derby board. The board, and the club, exist only as an opportunity for his self-expression. In the Motson interview, he sees the League Championship purely as an exercise in brilliant management, and the quality of the players is a secondary issue. This is the context, I believe, for the various set-piece Clough generosity stories. People for whom human relationships are all manouvre and negotiation, who lack some of the old-shoe moment-by-moment comfortable getting along with their peers, go in for the memorable, exaggerated gesture that the rest of us wouldn’t think of, or if we had, would be too bashful to attempt. Set-piece generosities backlight an otherwise selfish person’s interactions – we assume that they mean well, or that they are “really” generous and the more common selfishness is only an occasional blip of the sort everyone is prone to.

Football success carries enormous social, communal value, and, consequently, it brings with it tremendous forgiveness. The English, like everyone else, enjoy having someone coming from among them who can deliver something worth as much as football trophies. They enjoy having someone as different from most of them as Clough coming from their own stock – even someone differentiated by the sheer quantities of ego, selfishness and bullying as Clough could muster. At a distance, it’s easy to hang onto such personalities other values that the English hold dear – honesty, integrity, etc., and, having hanged hung them, easy to celebrate them: this kind of thing was projected onto the young Henry VIII just as it was onto Clough.

Shaw thinks that Clough’s “management style” and personality could only have thrived at the 1970s Nottingham Forest because only there, and nowhere else before and certainly since, would he be given complete control. I’d put forward a similar argument. Clough displayed many of the traits that apply to the collection of behaviours together known as narcissistic personality disorder. You might share with me my concerns about personality disorders – the way they yoke together what are, after all, behaviours that are part and parcel of human nature, and the arbitrary nature of the yokes themselves. But you’ll also share with me the knowledge of what being on the receiving end of those behaviours is like. Clough, being the man he was, could have succeeded outside football. Both business and politics reward men with just Clough’s traits. But only in football are such men celebrated.

Clough is unusual in football, though, for the sheer range of reasons for celebration and remembrance. His teams played glorious football – both Derby and Forest are still wonderful to watch, even now. His players reached career heights they’d not have seen but for him: perhaps Stuart Pearce was the last of a line that began with John McGovern. He won two league titles, two European Cups, and a host of lesser trophies. He made a football establishment we knew to be inadequate look inadequate, and our gratitude for that has lasted three decades undimmed. He was a great Englishman at a leaderless time, and when Muhammed Ali recognized him, the Champ recognized us all by proxy. I’ve shaken Ali’s hand: I feel I’ve also shaken Clough’s.

He achieved something else, too: something less obvious, less visible to the naked eye, but interesting nonetheless. He did everything with tools left over from another age. To understand this, consider the history of English football management.

Organized football got underway in the 1850s and 1860s. Most sides of the period, playing in the nascent FA Cup, were managerless teams of friends or teams put together at universities or military institutions. The team captain was also the team convenor, the man who knew everyone, could contact everyone, could bring everyone (or nearly everyone, in amateur days) together for matches. Personal acquaintance with the team was the key to playing for the team.

Teams of this type were to all intents and purposes unstaffed. There was no trainer, no doctor, no physio, no kitman. What changed this was the game’s own development. Early international teams – take, for instance, Quintin Hogg’s unofficial Scottish side of 1870-1, made up entirely of London-based Scots – were like club sides, comprised of friends and acquaintances. As the number of clubs increased, and with it the number of serious players, acquaintance became increasingly second hand, and a player would be picked for England or Scotland on the strength of reputation and word of mouth, not always personal knowledge.

As the number of teams based in the north of England multiplied, this became more complicated. A Blackburn Olympic might play southern teams twice in a season, perhaps three times, and only in the FA Cup. Knowledge of Olympic players amongst the men picking the England or Scotland teams was limited.

But with the northern teams charging for entry to their matches, the likes of Olympic, or Preston, found themselves needing to produce elevens of the sort of quality that might attract a crowd. That sort of eleven wouldn’t be made up of people the captain had heard of, but of people a crowd would come to hear of and talk about, or that a newspaper might celebrate. Very quickly, the logic of the situation demanded that a northern club have on its staff someone who had knowledge of players from a wide area, and the ability and desire to expand that knowledge faster than his colleagues at rival clubs. And, with entry fees being charged, and then, wages being paid, some business skill might come in useful. Thus the secretary-manager was born.

Within twenty years, the secretary-manager was a standard, accepted figure at every major football club in the Football League, the Southern League, and the other professional leagues. John Cameron, writing in 1905, described the manager’s duties as

  • the acquisition of a decent first XI
  • keeping the club’s accounts up to date
  • managing the fixture list
  • administering the stadium (maintenance etc)

By this stage, and no doubt as a result of the time constraints upon the manager, a second accepted figure had emerged: the trainer. Cameron describes the trainer as

regarded as the father of his side. Attending to the players’ smallest wants, dressing their injuries, rubbing them down, hardening their muscles, and freely giving advice in a thousand matters, the occupation of a trainer is a busy one.

Only by his efforts and shrewd judgement the appearance on the field of a popular player sometimes depends. Mistakes result in crippled players, and cause vexation of the spirit to the club’s officials.

In the space of barely thirty years, clubs went from being loose associations of mates to being joint stock companies with full-time staff. But very few full-time staff: it’s interesting to contemplate a club with a squad of twenty, plus manager, trainer and turnstile staff, weekly being confronted with crowds of twenty, thirty and forty thousand people. Such disparities had been seen only at the quiet branch stations serving the likes of Epsom, and then only once or twice a year. An Everton or a Tottenham were now handling them every fortnight, and without a railway company as backup.

Something stalled in British football when play halted in 1915. Crowds would continue to grow in the 1920s and 1930s, but the only signficant change in the way clubs were run would be tactical, Chapman amending the traditional 2-3-5 in 1925 to cope with the altered offside law. Manchester United went through the 1950s with four core administrative staff. Around the great league clubs of the north, industry and its management was transformed, by the arrival of the modern assembly line, by the arrival of efficient road transport, and by the impact of successive education acts. Football management stayed the same.

So, when Clough arrived at Hartlepools, Peter Taylor had to begin by masquerading as “trainer”, despite having even less relevant knowledge than his sponge-wielding peers. And, at Derby, his appointment was the cause of the first of Clough’s many conflicts with Sam Longson.

During the great years of his management career, in other words, Clough was, to all intents and purposes, a secretary-manager (Derby appointing “secretary” Webb only after a financial scandal caused by Clough’s indifference to the demands of accounting).  Clough was in an Edwardian role. So were his English counterparts. But his European rivals were not.

Clough’s attitude towards team and tactics were Edwardian too.  John Cameron, in 1905, might have been speaking for Clough in 1973:

Every manager is aware that if a professional team is to show successful results there must exist a genuine spirit of good fellowship among the players. The little jealousies that sometimes occur between different members of a team are unfortunate in the extreme, and should on all occasions be firmly repressed by those in authority.

Cameron never discusses tactics, and we know from other Edwardian writers that the basic 2-3-5 was considered to be the optimum formation, arrived at organically through experience and experimentation. Don Shaw describes just such an attitude in Clough:

Clough disregarded ‘tactics’ which, he said, were ‘the best thing to talk about if you want to ruin a team’s rhythm.’ Blackboard analysts were condemned as counter-productive. ‘Tactics aren’t for me,’ he declared. ‘They’re things teams dream up because they’re scared they might lose.’

Here Clough is channelling R.S. McColl, the Edwardian footballer and founder of the newsagent chain, who wrote:

Too rigid a system of play, in which all the moves are known, will not do. There must be flexibility; endless variety and versatility; constant surprises for the other side. System must be inspired by art and innate genius for and love of the game.

“We pissed all over Benfica,” said Clough after putting McColl’s advice into practice in the European Cup. “You don’t teach genius,” he said on another occasion. “You watch it.”

Clough’s Hartlepools and Derby were built around the Edwardian idea of the primacy of the first XI, not on the later squad concept first properly seen in England in Paisley’s Liverpool side of 1976-8. The essentials were a good goalkeeper (e.g. Colin Boulton), a good centre-half (e.g. Roy McFarland), a good link man (e.g. John McGovern), a good winger (e.g. Alan Hinton) and a good centre-forward (e.g. John O’Hare). The rest would follow.

Clough’s achievement, then, was to take the Edwardian-style football club to the very highest level of play and achievement that the structure offered. At a time when the frozen administrative set-up of British football was so obviously eating into British football’s future, and making clubs like Derby look like museum pieces put next to Benfica or Juventus with their tactical sophistication and modern stadia and evolved youth policies, Clough made it all work, one last time.

Like Cameron, like Chapman, Clough was a narcissist fuelled by his self-perceived superiority over the men he worked amongst. It took that unusual, splintered, often unpleasant and unnegotiable personality to pull success from such an unlikely hat as the Edwardian-style football club. Men like that can and do succeed elsewhere, in politics and business. But only in football are they truly celebrated.

Because England never came for him, there is a sense of something missing from Clough’s success. And the success he did have, vast as it was, helped to sustain the illusion that there was nothing wrong with British football, that all we had to do to catch up with Holland, with Brazil, with Germany, was find another Clough, another man who could crank the same rusting handle as hard as he had been able.

But we haven’t found another Clough. He was the last. Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away. Perhaps his greatest tribute is the sheer scale of the silence he’s left behind him.

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What We’ve Learned About Clough

Posted on 08 May 2009 by JamesHamilton

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.

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Why Aren’t English Football Managers More Intelligent?

Posted on 22 October 2007 by JamesHamilton

There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? to say that English football managers just aren’t as intelligent as their foreign counterparts. In a comment left on an earlier post, John Sinnott said “I’ve done lots of interviews with overseas players and managers and invariably they were always smarter and brighter and more analytical than their English peers.”

There’s a lot of truth in that. Here’s why.

English Education

Professional football emerged onto the scene at the same time as state education. Many Edwardian players were the first people in their family who were able to read. There are conditions specific to the Edwardian situation, but by the time Bobby Charlton was at grammar school in the late 1940s and early 1950s, intelligent, talented young sportsmen were being encouraged away from the playing field and towards white collar careers. Brian Clough’s long-time captain, John McGovern, was bound for university and a very different kind of life when Old Big ‘Ead intervened. Education creams off some of the brains that might otherwise have been inclined to football.

The Maximum Wage

The Maximum Wage for footballers was introduced in 1901 at a level of £4 per week. At the time, this was well in excess of what most players could hope to earn, so there was relatively little opposition to the move and much of that was weak. What’s more, £4 per week would remain a good wage in relation to what could be earned in mine, mill or factory. The maximum wage would remain good in such limited terms until after the Second World War. The effect on many contemporary players was small. But the long-term effect the Maximum Wage would have on the game was not. League football became permanently class-based. In 1901, it was far from unknown for an amateur player like Vivien Woodward to turn out for England. The Maximum Wage finally closed the door – which, it must be admitted, was already swinging to – on middle class players, or intelligent boys for whom there were other, more lucrative options by the time the 1950s consumer boom was underway.

That wouldn’t have mattered so much was it not for the unconscious creation of a management tradition in the ’10s and ’20s.

Only a Horse Can Become a Jockey

Edwardian Secretary-Managers weren’t always former players – there simply wasn’t the pool of ex-professionals in retirement that would exist a decade later. But by the 1950s, it was assumed almost without question that a manager would have played, preferably at the top level:

To be a good coach you must first have been a good player (Bill Shankly)

There are arguments for and against this position. A glance at the Premiership shows Arsene Wenger, Avram Grant, Sven Goran Eriksson, and Rafa Benitez amongst those who failed to reach the very top as players for one reason or another. Jose Mourinho, recently at Chelsea, was another.

Mourinho himself has argued that a good former player will have an instinctive feel for parts of the game that the intelligent non-playing observer will miss.

Whichever side of that argument you are on, one thing is clear. Management has not been a way back into football for Englishmen who missed out on playing. Becoming a player is the footballing equivalent of the 11+. Fail it, and you are gone for good.

Sir Clive Woodward was a brilliant young footballer, invited to trial by serious League clubs. His father disapproved, and packed him off to a rugby-playing navy boarding school. He’d eventually find himself in rugby, both as a player and a very successful coach, but when he sought to bring his expertise into his first sporting love, he was obstructed and rejected. Sir Clive Woodward is a case study in the self-imposed exile of English football from the possibility of bringing in intelligence and innovation, not from outside itelf, but merely from outside the ranks of former players.

Kinds of Intelligence

There is an urge – don’t you feel it? to assume that the kind of intelligence you possess is the kind those purblind other people need in order to progress. The same goes for your outlook: I’ve often pondered what a middle-class English football culture would look like. One where the kind of impulse that creates a Beagle 2, or a Concorde, held sway.

So when surviving England players from the ’50s and ’60s lay into “blackboard manager” Sir Walter Winterbottom for being too much the well-spoken scholar, it’s natural for me to want to leap to his defence, to say “you could all have done with a bit more of that.” Natural, too, to watch blurred 1970s interviews with Rinus Michels and to feel Holland-envy.

But football isn’t a Space Race or a work of art, for all that it can feel as exciting as the first and as beautiful as the second.

Footballers need to be barked at by sergeant-major types. (John Aston, ex-Manchester United)

He didn’t know how to handle players, how to talk to them. He spoke too well, too precisely, like a schoolmaster. Walter had this impeccable accent, whereas football’s a poor man’s game, players expect to be sworn at, a bit of industrial language. (Sir Bobby Charlton on Sir Walter Winterbottom)

Communication, in other words. You can have all the ideas in the world, but if you can’t take people with you, they are as good as none. It’s been part of Sam Allardyce’s success that he has brought in new ideas by the cartload, to Bolton and now to Newcastle, whilst making them sound like bootroom tradition. It’s not just intelligence, but intelligence properly applied, and less intelligence, well applied, will trump genius delivered by tactless, insensitive, arrogant means. The intelligence that writes a novel, or composes music, or builds a business, or creates technological innovation, is not the kind that holds a team together and makes the most of its combined, limited, strengths.

There are managers who can do both. Jose Mourinho would be considered an intellectual in many English circles if they knew more about him. But that doesn’t stop him playing a very effective leader of his band of brothers. The question is, do class vs intelligence issues keep the English Mourinhos out of the game? We can’t really know. I think so, probably. But it’s only my hunch.

English football is like the National Lottery

Steve McClaren is reported to be earning £2.5million per year as England coach. Premiership stadia are the newest and best in Europe, and so are many of the training facilities. Why isn’t football becoming attractive as a career choice to the middle classes?

Perhaps it is, but the trend is too new to show up. But I don’t think so.

Because, in a white-collar, middle-class world, football is a handle people can grasp when they want to make working-class claims. It’s the preservation railway of a long-finished class war. And middle class values of intelligence, change, creativity, aren’t welcome because, by and large, we don’t want them to be. Football’s always been an entertainment more than a sport for the English, and now it has that escapist quality; it’s a place where you can STOP being so middle class and can shout and swear and drink and just stop thinking for a little while.

And it’s fake money: there are only twenty Premiership coaches, and 81 English players, in the Premiership. Since 2004, the National Lottery has created nearly 500 millionaires in the South East alone. If we have such long odds on tapping into Lottery winnings, how much less chance do we have of cutting in on Premiership wealth in playing or coaching roles? Instead, the middle classes are in charge of the new football support industries – reporting, broadcasting, product placement, kit design, stadium development, market expansion. Sport medicine. Even catering. Everything except what is going on on the pitch itself.

So, why aren’t English managers more intelligent? Because there are too many ways in which you can not become a football person, and not enough ways in which you can change direction, and become a football man later on in your life. Because you have to have been a horse. And because, ultimately, we just don’t want this sort of change to happen. It would be like asking for a more intellectual version of “Play Your Cards Right.”

Football’s a heritage industry, and it ain’t that kind of heritage. Be careful what you wish for.

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England and the World Cup: A Longer View

Posted on 26 June 2006 by JamesHamilton

I’m not going to enter into any detailed analysis here, but these are some pointers as to why I think England have only one World Cup star on their shirts:

  • England’s best teams have almost always peaked outside World Cup years – the 46-48 side, the 60-61 team, and the 75-78 side that Revie never picked are just 3 examples.
  • Although the press and the fans prioritise World Cup success, the FA haven’t on the whole, preferring to see the England team as an enjoyable adjunct to the real business of maintaining the best grass-roots game in the world. Choosing the England manager has been a case of finding someone who will take care of far more than just the international side – one reason among others for the appointment of Bobby Robson and Ron Greenwood; similarly, the non-appointment of Brian Clough.
  • For the first half of the twentieth century – the half that gave Italy two of their three World Cups, and Uruguay one half of theirs – England were quite correct to focus on the Home Championship as their source of international competition. Between 1900 and 1920, other international matches – such as the Olympic tournaments – were far too one-sided. England, with a fully-fledged league system behind them, got into double figures frequently, and ended up sending an amateur team to the Olympics just to make things more competitive. Between 1920 and 1950, things were a little closer – but when Italy brought their “World Champions” to England, they resorted to thuggish tactics simply to keep England in sight. After the war, England became far more involved in international football, but before 1950 the story was much the same – easy victory. It’s forgotten that England’s defeats abroad – to Spain, for example – were defeats for what was almost certainly a badly hung-over team who were treating the trip as a holiday yet playing hyped-up super-motivated opposition for whom the game was the highlight of their lives.
  • What’s seen as England’s fallow period since 1970 was in fact very short – lasting perhaps from 1972 and the Netzer game at Wembley, to 1977 and the defeats to Italy. It’s a period coinciding with Ramsey’s decline and Revie’s failure to pick a team from perhaps the best generation of skilful, inspiring footballers England’s had since the War. The anxieties and lack of confidence that were born in that period are still with us today, and are reflected in the bizarre, Cassandra-esque reporting of international matches. I believe that England teams have, until Eriksson, played at 5-10% below their real ability as a consequence of this. By contrast, our success in European club football in the 1970s raised confidence and expectations to such a degree that a mediocre side such as the Aston Villa of 81-2, or the talent-limited Forest teams of 78-9, could expect to win European cups and do so, repeatedly.

It sounds strange to say it, but behind all of this is an unexpected truth: we have cared less than other countries about winning the World Cup. Mexico have gone home already, but their team had six months together to prepare; we negotiated an extra week. During tournaments, there’s a lot of huffing and puffing in the media, but the fact is that we can put up with not winning – and that’s why we don’t.

Four years ago, Clive Woodward decided that nothing was going to stand in the way of England’s rugby men winning the ultimate title, and that was the beginning of a quite extraordinary and utterly focussed effort that just – by the skin of the teeth – succeeded. Such was the mental energy expended that the side have since gone into colossal decline, and have no chance of defending their title next year. Likewise, the England cricket team won the Ashes through what appears now as a moment of decision – that it mattered at the ultimate level to win, and it mattered now. Since then… it’s all gone away. In both rugby and cricket teams, the vital players have been missing through injury almost ever since.

If England win – and they seem to have a similar outlook to the rugby and cricket teams – you can almost guarantee four years of total mediocrity afterwards. You can probably guarantee it anyway – Erickson’s successor has been chosen, not to win trophies, but to facilitate the development of a new generation of English coaches. It needs doing, but it’s not a goal shared by the press or the fans.

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