Last month football stopped to remember Brian Clough who passed away ten years ago. It seems rather odd to think that an entire generation of fans has grown up without him as a footballing reference point. As a player and a manager Clough was one of the great figures of the English game in the twentieth century. As a man, however, Clough was legendary: feared and revered, a perfect blend of talent, humour and outright arrogance. And he was, of course, the best manager England never had.
Clough made his debut for Middlesbrough in 1955 and quickly formed a deadly partnership - and lifelong friendship - with Lindy Delapenha, the first Jamaican to play professional football in England. Clough netted 204 goals in 222 league games for the club before moving to Sunderland in 1961. While on Wearside he bagged another 63 goals in 74 matches. Who knows how many more Clough would have scored were it not for the knee injury which ended his playing career at the age of just 29. This extraordinary level of success would continue as Clough made the transition into management. His Derby County side won the league in 1972. He achieved the same feat at Nottingham Forest in 1978, and subsequently secured back-to-back European Cup successes.
These accomplishments, astonishing as they are, formed only the backdrop to the very many articles which appeared to commemorate his life. It was Clough himself that took centre stage. As Daniel Taylor wrote in The Guardian, “Clough’s legacy should not just be measured by his European Cups and all the other trophies. It was the charisma with which he did it, with his own set of rules, and the way he mesmerised everyone in his company”. Pat Murphy, BBC journalist and friend of Clough’s, made a similar point: “what set him apart was personality - his ability to transcend his sport. Clough was a genuine one-off and there are more anecdotes about him than anyone else in the game.”
These anecdotes are at the very heart of Clougie folklore. Whether he was explaining his football philosophy (“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there”) or knowingly referencing his own egotism (“You know that Frank Sinatra, he’s met me”) Clough was never ever short of something to say. This was a man with no respect for reputation, prepared to skewer the pompous and self-regarding. And he was the only person to verbally spar with Muhammad Ali and come out with a victory. There are other elements integral to the Clough story – being ignored by the Football Association, his 44-day stint in charge of Leeds United, that green jumper – but all pale in comparison next to his ability to deliver a killer one-liner. Yet, strangely, while writers all remembered Clough’s wit and wisdom, few, if any, mentioned his politics.
In the 1970s the National Front (NF), an avowedly fascist organisation, had gained a small but all too real foothold in British society. They stood in local and national elections, picking up both votes and new recruits in the process. But it was on the streets that the NF posed their most serious threat, intimidating and viciously attacking black and Asian people. Racism seeped onto the terraces and black footballers were regularly abused, sometimes even by their own supports. Anti-racists struck back and formed the Anti-Nazi League in 1977. Clough, along with thousands of football fans, was a supporter – indeed he was one of the signatories of the ANL’s founding statement.
Similarly, Clough would offer his solidarity to the miners who went on strike in the 1980s. As a socialist he understood only too well that Maggie Thatcher’s plans to close the pits would decimate whole towns and ruin countless lives. Clough marched with the miners, refused to speak to “scab” reporters, made donations to their campaign and urged others to do the same: “all right-minded working class fans should contribute towards the miners’ fund.” And this was not the only time. He had taken Derby County players to picket lines in the 1970s and marched against pit closures in the 1990s. Just imagine the controversy if Jose Mourinho was seen protesting on the streets about unemployment or Arsene Wenger took part in demonstrations against the privatisation of the NHS! Not that anyone could or should try to paint Clough as a prolier-than-thou working class hero. He had, as we all do, the vices of his virtues. His later life was marked by alcoholism; Alan Sugar alleged that Clough “liked a bung”; his treatment of Justin Fashanu while at Forest was shameful.
But his politics were a key part of who he was and how he managed. Like Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly - the three Scottish managers who dominated British football in the 1960s and 1970s – Clough imbued something of his working class upbringing and his beliefs into the sides that he managed. No one player was ever bigger than the club; teams played their best football when they were a collective rather than merely eleven individuals.
In the modern game there are plenty of managers who seem to think that by criticising referees or the FA they are, somehow, speaking truth to power. Brian Clough set his sights a little higher than that. His targets were racial prejudice and Conservative governments. Those who want to honour his memory would do well to follow suit.