The history of football is the history of great men. That’s still true, despite the efforts of the likes of Simon Kuper and Leo McKinstry. The majority of football books are concerned with the exceptional, the miraculous, and if they can’t find it in real life, then it will be invented and then embellished. Reality, in the form of real people, real events, realistic judgements and points of view, are not of interest for the most part. They aren’t what we come to football for. That makes thinking about football and writing about football difficult.
It’s especially hard when thinking and writing about Brian Clough. It’s like dealing with Churchill: people hang such meaning on the man. Somehow, if Churchill isn’t “Churchill”, then England isn’t England – and heaven help you if you establish that England wasn’t England, in the period of the past when it matters most to people that it ought to have been. Not a few of the most potent myths of English football have been projected onto Clough. Football fantasy squats on him like a red-top grass mohican.
Clough is “old school,” he comes from a time when football was (insert inaccurate fantasy of the past) and he would have (insert another fantasy) if he’d been (insert another fantasy). Modern football is (insert gripe) and old big ‘ead would spin in his grave if he knew.
And add whatever you want about tradition, and about native culture, and about passion and commitment, but what none of that can change is, that when Brian Clough was born in Middlesborough in 1935, that town was little older than Milton Keynes is now.
He wasn’t born poor. His house still stands, not because a famous man came into the world there, but because it’s what it was in 1935, a comfortable, reasonably modern semi-detached house on a good estate. His family were moderately prosperous, holidaying every year at Blackpool, and bright – Brian was the only child to fail his 11+.
Depending on whom you believe to have been the best football managers in British history, there are some interesting parallels to draw. Of a list made up of Clough, Herbert Chapman, Sir Bobby Robson, Jock Stein, Sir Matt Busby, Bob Paisley, Bill Shankly and Don Revie, all are born of mining stock in Scotland or Yorkshire or County Durham, except for Clough and Revie, who both hail from Middlesborough.
When you are born in 1935, the first thing you remember properly is World War II, and it’s strange how little part war plays in anything written by or about Clough. Middlesborough was blitzed hard. It was an important port, with significant iron and chemical industries – an urgent target for the Luftwaffe. We don’t know if Brian’s father had to fight, or any of his brothers – nor if friends or family in the town died as a consequence of enemy action.
Brian’s 11+ failure, coming just after the end of the War, combined with Middlesborough’s relative geographical isolation (it was easy for imported goods to find their way out of the town, less simple for bright, frustrated young men) meant that his future was almost certainly in some kind of manual, industrial role, at least to begin with. Like many young men in Middlesborough, he hated the prospect, and saw football as a way out. Life in industry – and to some degree, financial hardship – yawned frighteningly beneath him until he was well into his thirties.
It’s customary at this point to begin an account of the hero’s early footballing life. In Middlesborough at that time it would have been the same account for every young boy. The town was new, as we’ve noted, built purely for its port and its iron ore, and there was unusually little else there. Other industrial towns might have had things left over, churches, castles, ancient central precincts to tell you that there was more to life than work and football. Middlesborough didn’t, really, and its football club, there in the middle of town at a time of rationing, enjoyed a monopoly hold on the imagination. It really did stand for the town, and it’s rare to meet a ‘Boro alumnus for whom it has no meaning or importance.
It had a monopoly on other things too, and used it. Like most clubs, it hung on to the season ticket receipts for the aborted 1939-40 season, then charged an entrance fee for wartime games. Like all clubs, the standard contract of the time and the maximum wage then in force enabled it to keep a large professional squad, with first and final say over their lives and careers. When Clough signed professional forms in 1952, after an inauspicious career in local football, the maximum wage was still reasonable value compared with what he might have had in industry. But only just, and not for much longer.
Middlesborough had its pick of the local talent, which, according to eyewitnesses, was unusually rich during Clough’s early lifetime. Wilf Mannion, who was an early colleague of Clough, came, like Clough, from a family of potential players. Mannion was a Gascoigne of his time, yet felt himself not to have been even his own family’s best player. Better footballers, now unknown but then prominent local figures in the area’s many small clubs, would turn Middlesborough down in the light of its often callous, penny-pinching treatment of its squad, its disregard for their loyalty, its failure to use what it had.
The quality of the football at Middlesborough was often squalid: ‘Boro were content to go nowhere as a second division club and did nothing to develop its players or its team. This was not unusual for the time. The ground was squalid too: Ayresome Park is one of the least mourned of the old stadia that have been replaced with proper facilities since 1992. The club was owned and run by wealthy local businessmen, with little connection to, or concern for, the people who kept the turnstiles clicking week after week.
Until the end of the maximum wage and the advent of television, a football club was a cash cow, nothing more. At the end of their careers, players might hope for, but not always get, a testimonial (clubs were notorious for dodging out of that particular contract clause on the weakest of excuses – Preston North End even tried to rob Tom Finney of his) and a long twilight career which they’d spend running a little shop or a pub. That was the reward for 10-15 years of providing top-level entertainment and being a professional sportsman: there were many who did not get as little as that. Wilf Mannion was one of them. By the early 1970s, only 15 years after retiring, he was a shrunken old man, eking out his life in genuine poverty.
Clough was a late developer, physically, which was one thing that delayed his professional debut until 1956. National Service was the other. Clough spent little time he spent away from Middlesborough in his early years. It’s unlikely that he left the town at all (apart from a fortnight’s holiday in Blackpool once a year) before his call-up papers arrived, and it isn’t clear that he went terribly far away even then.
In fact, it would be a long time before he left the area in any real way at all. He’d travel with Middlesborough F.C., of course, and then with his other (still local) club Sunderland. He’d play in two England internationals. But after Sunderland, his first management job would be another parochial north east of England affair, Hartlepools United. Later, Leeds, Derby and Forest would keep him in the top half of England as he worked to keep them in the top half of the table. Only his brief sojourn in Brighton (and his frequent foreign jaunts and London broadcasting gigs at that time) took him really far away from home.
Clough’s National Service doesn’t fit the bread, wine and miracles of most accounts of his career, and we know precious little about it. He went into the RAF, and although he played football extensively, we know he failed to make the RAF representative team and was upset at the failure.
So there was no warning that a talent had appeared in the land: no one remembered seeing the young Clough play and predicting great things. Harold Shepherdson, later England trainer under Ramsey, knew Clough’s father (a foreman at a sweets factory next to Ayresome Park) and claimed to remember the young Brian declaring that he’d play for Middlesborough one day. But there were too many Clough brothers; too many other boys saying exactly the same thing. Can he be believed? Would he really remember?
If Clough’s nascent football career stalled, or if it was ended by injury, industrial life yawned beneath him. It would pull him straight back to hell without murmur or appeal. He knew it, and the prospect frightened him. His first job, as a messenger boy for ICI, held nothing for him, and he loathed it. But he was lucky all the same. Good enough to be signed up by Middlesborough at 15, a year after leaving school. Good enough to be kept on (National Service might well have saved him at that point, keeping him off the club’s wage roll and out of sight and mind when it came to contract time as his physique finally began to grow). Other boys of his age had other outcomes.
It has to be remembered that Clough wasn’t Cloughie then: he was just one more loudmouthed, opinionated young boy, one amongst many, who’d continue to make more enemies than friends until good fortune (and the intervention of influential friends) pulled him out of the hole his personality was digging for him. Most people like him stayed in the hole, and kept on digging, and were made redundant when the bad times returned to Middlesborough, left jobless, short on funds but not on bitterness.
Anthony Daniels has said – and it’s well said – that there is no torture more exquisite and unendurable than that experienced by the intelligent child trapped in a working class environment. One might tip the hat here to Clough’s own tributes to his upbringing, to Ferguson’s lauding of the values he took from Govan, to the industrial nostalgia industry. But few went back, who weren’t compelled to. Clough grew up at a time of unusual prosperity in Middlesborough, and yet the choices open to an intelligent, thinking young man once 11+ had come and gone were so few and so bad.
It was something he was always intensely aware of, and that awareness would set the tone for the best part of his career.