Brian Clough made his debut for Middlesbrough at what looks like a relatively late age. He was twenty when first picked, and it took him the best part of two seasons to establish himself as a regular selection. National Service and his own late physical development held him up.
It meant that what Clough clearly regarded as his proper career didn’t get underway for a full seven years after he had left school. There are signs in accounts of his behaviour at this time of the great frustration this caused him. As the only sibling in a large family not to go to grammar school, he’d have spent those seven years watching all of those closest to him following recognisable career paths while his own life threatened to foreclose. Before football came for him, he’d failed his apprenticeship, got into some minor trouble, taken on dead-end jobs and been forced to confront the fact that this scenario might not actually ever end.
Becoming a proper Middlesbrough player changed all of that completely, at least in the short term. Clough went from being a relative failure within his close family to becoming a well-known citizen of the town, doing well in a prominent role. Middlesbrough F.C. was, as we’ve seen, unusually important in what was a relatively new place on the map. Football gave Clough something to go for, a chance to excel.
That chance to excel was important to him from the off. This time, we can believe Harold Shepherdson’s recollection of a young man who, after years of boredom, fear and frustration, has been given something to enthuse about:
He had that amazing aura of self-confidence. Every morning at training, he seemed to time his entrance for the maximum effect. He’d throw his cap on to the rack-stand in front of the others and then start talking to them about football. He was so dedicated, so desperate for success.
One of the great temptations to which football history and biography is subject is to look for the man in the child. To look for Cloughie in Clough, in other words. The person Shepherdson describes could be any one of a vast army of young men with “front” in the north of England in the late 1950s. It’s not a hard act to put on. It might even be seen as a necessary act to put on – Clough might have been pleased to be a footballer at last, but the job of establishing himself in the first team meant elbowing older men out of the way. And there were a lot of them. Clough was one of at least five recognised strikers at Middlesbrough.
Roaring boys are almost always deeply insecure. Clough had reason to be insecure, after seven years of drift. But he comes across also as intelligent, and courageous enough to display his intelligence in the football environment that was and is so deeply hostile to such things. In his first full year as a Middlesbrough player, Clough showed no sign of having any intrinsic hostility to his situation either at his specific club or his class situation generally: the flat cap was a deliberate trademark, worn proudly by all accounts as a symbol of his background and his pleasure in coming from it.
Clough was more of a reader than most players – photographs exist of him sitting in the changing room with a newspaper open on his lap – and had wider interests than football, for all that the game received his full, unusually deep, attention. In the mid and late 1950s, newspapers were the main media as far as sports were concerned – this was still the newsreel era insofar as filmed soccer action was concerned, although not for much longer. Journalists and journalism was absolutely part and parcel of a football professional’s life, and most of the north east’s top players would have counted journalists among their acquaintances and friends. Some of those journalists would have been in the game themselves, most notably Len Shackleton and Charlie Buchan.
Clough was unusually articulate, and not just for a footballer. As such, his thoughts were of value, and even before he became a regular selection for Middlesbrough a pair of journalists for a national newspaper sought to take him under their wing. As Clough recounted later:
Charlie Summerbell (of the Daily Mirror) was the hardened journalist, and Len (Shackleton) wasn’t. Len used to tag people onto his shoulders, so to speak: he did the same thing when he was a player. Shack was an amateur in journalism, and he used to go around with Charlie. So, whenever Len wanted to talk to me about anything, there was always a couple of them.
Shackleton used his contacts to fix Clough up with his first car – and his first pay rise:
I was battling away with about four centre forwards at Middlesbrough and I was fourth on the list, believe it or not. I was on eleven quid a week during the season, and seven pounds during the summer, something like that; but Dougie Cooper, a centre forward they thought could play – big lad, strong shoulders, typical build of a centre forward – and somebody else, they were on eleven quid all year round. I was a rabbit by comparison, and people used to say I got knocked off the ball too easily. The only thing was, Dougie Cooper couldn’t score goals, and I could. So Len told me to ask for a rise, and when I asked him on what grounds, he said ‘Tell them you’re just as good a player in the summer as he is.’ I would never have thought of that, but Len did.
Clough’s enthusiasm, intelligence and thrust seem to have ensured that he was quickly unpopular in the Middlesbrough dressing room, but it’s important not to overstate that. 1950s clubs had large squads, with up to four people competing for each first team place. With no substitutes, you were either in or out, and, once in, you could be very hard to dislodge. Out, you had to contend with the fear of what would happen to you at the end of the year. With the maximum wage and restrictive player registration rules in place, every player learned every summer whether they would be retained by their club, and, if not, had to hope that the club would also agree to their transfer elsewhere. This was not always the case. A club could retain your registration, preventing you from signing elsewhere, but not offer you a contract themselves. Up until the 1950s, this had represented a reasonably good deal for young working class men, although it hardly made for a progressive, developing game overall. By 1955-6, conditions of industrial employment were improving fast (this film on the subject was shot in 1958) and pressure was beginning to be applied, by Middlesbrough’s Wilf Mannion amongst others.
But in the context of Clough’s popularity in the dressing room, it must be recognized what a dog-eat-dog scenario he was operating in, with such limited experience. There were thousands of players unpopular with their colleagues up and down the country, and he was just one.
Nevertheless, it must have been frustrating for him. He’d have known of some of the exciting changes taking place in English football’s First Division, especially in the case of Matt Busby’s young Manchester United side. The coaches who would dominate European club football and bring success to England were either still playing or in early management careers – the first since Chapman to regard management as a career in that serious, change-orientated manner – and were already showing their influence and openness to new ideas. From Stan Matthews’ Brazilian-style boots to the Revie Plan and Joe Mercer’s attempts to update football training in schools, interesting things were going on and Clough was part of none of it.
Bob Dennison, the Middlesbrough manager, was, like most Second Division managers of the time, still very much in the mould of the old secretary-manager, a figure whose job was to liaise between the players and the board, pick the team, but leave decisions on play and tactics to his experienced pros. Middlesbrough continued, as was typical, to play the W-M formation devised in the 1920s by Buchan and Chapman. Dennison seems to have been a peacemaker by temperament, not a bad thing in the circumstances. Middlesbrough weren’t going anywhere under his tutelage, but they weren’t going down either.
So when Clough requested a transfer after only nine games in the first team – and went to the papers about why he was already dissatisfied – Dennison’s response was to make Clough club captain. Over the next three years, Middlesbrough were to record 20-30 more goals per season than in pre-Clough days. Clough’s transfer request was the act of a young, still deeply impulsive personality, but for all that Dennison was no Busby or Cullis, Dennison’s calming the waters was a great thing for his club and sign that chest-thumping confidence is not always the only thing a manager needs in order to do the right thing.