Thursday, 8 December 2011

CLOUGH AT LEEDS: AN IMPOSSIBLE JOB?






It is among the greatest, and most well-thumbed, of English football stories, Brian Clough’s tumultuous 44 days at Leeds United in 1974, an episode amply covered by the fine film The Damned United – although not without some dramatic licence being taken by the screenplay vis-à-vis the book, which itself takes a liberty or two with the facts, such as they are. Had An Impossible Job not been the name given to the equally great documentary about Graham Taylor’s attempt to qualify England for the 1994 World Cup, it might have served as the title of Tom Hooper’s film. Mind you, irrespective of whether or not Clough could have succeeded there given the bad blood, it’s fair to say you’ve probably got off on the wrong foot when your opening address to your new charges (after having spent a week observing them, not, as the film has it, on the day of his arrival – late – from a holiday in Mallorca), the reigning champions, begins “The first thing you can do for me is you can take all those medals and you can throw them in the bin. Because you’ve won them all by cheating.” 


The new 550-page Clough biography, Nobody Ever Says Thank You, by Jonathan Wilson, the eminent football writer and author of the award-winning Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, covers these six-and-a-bit weeks with forensic thoroughness and balance – two of the more salient traits of Clough’s genius as a manager. Of course, this colossally ill-conceived pep talk didn’t emerge from nowhere: its pre-history rooted in a barely concealed mutual loathing between Clough and Don Revie, the man he replaced at Leeds. Two years prior to his unexpected arrival in West Yorkshire, Clough had confirmed himself as the bright young thing of English management by taking a provincial Derby County from Division 2 to the First Division title (a feat he would repeat along the A52 at Nottingham Forest), while Revie’s appointment as England manager in the summer of 1974 ended thirteen-and-a-half highly successful years at Elland Road. If not quite a winning machine in the way that Liverpool 1975-90 or Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United have been, they were nevertheless phenomenally consistent challengers for major honours at home and abroad – indeed, the medals that Clough told them to bin included two top division titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup, and two Fairs Cup wins (precursor of the UEFA Cup, now the Europa League), while they also lost three FA Cup finals, one Cup-Winners’ Cup final, and a Fairs Cup, as well as finishing Division One runners-up on five occasions. 

Although both Revie and Clough were sons of Middlesbrough, they were the proverbial chalk and cheese, both temperamentally and as footballing ideologues. The superstitious Revie was a stickler, obsessed with compiling tactical dossiers detailing the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, an approach scorned by Clough who was almost entirely hands-off, a mercurial motivator who believed tactics confused players and thus never discussed the opposition, regarding his principal task making the team relaxed – only after having first asserted his authority over them, of course, and only on match days – whence the frequent mid-season jaunts on which he took his teams.

Revie’s Leeds team were notorious for their gamesmanship, cynicism and roughhousing, traits much in evidence in the famous 1970 FA Cup final replay with Chelsea, arguably the most savage football match seen on these shores. When reviewed by David Elleray in 1995 through the lens of then-current refereeing standards, he concluded that Leeds would have incurred seven bookings and three dismissals (Johnny Giles, Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton), while Chelsea merited the small matter of thirteen yellows, including three each for ‘Chopper’ Harris, Dave Webb, and Charlie Cooke. Charlton had gone by the time Clough arrived, but the team still had Bremner, Giles, Norman Hunter and Paul Madeley to get intimate with the opposition.



Despite evidence of what might charitably be called moral flexibility, particularly concerning money, Clough certainly saw himself as a standard bearer for a noble vision of the way football ought to be played. If that involved a degree of romanticism and self-deception, then there is no doubt that, for all the anti-authoritarian streak, Clough held fast to lifelong principles when it came to not haranguing referees, and thus believed Revie’s teams played outside both spirit and letter of the law (indeed, he even suspected – with some evidence – that Revie had tried to bribe referees). In fact, he spelled out his distaste for the “cold” and austere Revie’s teams in a Sunday Express column in the summer 1973, arguing that they ought to have been demoted by the FA for their indiscretions and infractions the previous season – “persistent misconduct on the field” – rather than merely given a suspended fine, particularly as, a couple of years earlier, Clough’s Derby had been fined £10,000 by the FA and banned from competing in Europe for a year due to administrative misconduct. Clough spared neither Revie nor the mandarins at Lancaster Gate: 

The Football Association should have instantly relegated Don Revie’s team after branding them as one of the dirtiest clubs in Britain. As it is, the befuddled minds of the men who run the game have missed the most marvellous chance of cleaning up soccer in one swoop. By ‘fining’ Leeds and Birmingham £3000 they have allowed the ‘bad boys’ to laugh at authority. No wonder Don Revie was smiling broadly as he left the disciplinary commission’s hearing in London. I looked at his happy face smiling at me out of my newspaper in Spain. It just about spoiled my holiday to read that the £3000 fine has been suspended until the end of the coming season… If the FA had fined Don Revie £3000 and sent his football club into the Second Division, they would have cured many of the ills of the game at a stroke…

Twelve months later, Cloughie was the boss at “his football club”.

By any yardstick, Leeds’ appointment of Clough was baffling, given the choler spilled during the feud, the sheer rancour between the two men. Imagine Mourinho at Barcelona, or Ferguson at Liverpool. Clough had persistently used print and broadcast media to condemn Revie and Leeds (and he would relish laying the boot in when Revie abandoned the England job for Emirati money in 1977), and only the naïve and/or hopelessly optimistic could have truly believed that this crusade would not have fostered any resentment among the Leeds players. Leeds’ board’s ostensible reasoning was that they needed a big personality to fill the void left by Revie – something of a father figure to the players – although Wilson suggests that, for all his successes, he was never that well liked in the boardroom, opening up the fanciful though not completely implausible possibility that they might have wished to spite him by hiring Clough. As for Clough, his motive for accepting the job was, on the surface at least, quite clear: he had an obsession with the European Cup (Derby had lost the semi-final to Juventus in April 1973, cheated by a referee a matter of weeks after the passing of his beloved mother) and was here offered an immediate shot at glory. The bad blood notwithstanding, following Revie was an assignment that would have daunted many, but Clough was coming off nine months at third-tier Brighton & Hove Albion, a managerial wilderness, and despite a tendency to prevaricate over job offers (Peter Taylor invariably helping him to make up his mind) he evidently had the chutzpah to believe he could pull it off. Or so it seemed.



But why you would walk in and belittle your players? Surely he must have known that it was professional suicide. It is not as though there were many wallflowers in that dressing room, either. Wilson argues, convincingly, that Clough had been apprehensive, that despite the bravado, he was gripped by trepidation, one that more and more sought pacification through the alcoholism that would later render him all the more capricious and unpredictable. Truly, the Clough that stood and berated Bremner, Hunter et al was an emulsion of fears. Furthermore, and crucially, he was without right-hand man, Taylor, confidant, wit, and bulwark against intemperance, who had stayed at Brighton. 

At any rate, with an uneasy situation only worsening, a fractious meeting between players and board was held, during which Clough walked out to allow the squad to speak freely. A few days and one game later, Clough was fired and – with a little legal help – promptly negotiated a £100,000 pay-off that set him up for life financially, undoubtedly a contributory factor that settled him down for work at Nottingham Forest (even at this stage, Derby still had a dissident protest movement – called The Protest Movement – mobilizing for his return, well over a year after his charade of a resignation had been accepted).

That same afternoon, Clough went straight from Elland Road to the studios of Yorkshire Television where, after an afternoon supping champagne, he and Revie would participate in what Wilson calls “perhaps the most mesmerising conversation about football ever recorded on British television, a double header fascinating both in its surface detail and for the hostility that flickered constantly beneath”. The full version is available on YouTube [Part 1, Part 2, Part 3], but it is at the point in the interview covered by the clip below that things truly become interesting, host Austin Mitchell wisely keeping out of an exchange that is by no means unidimensionally rancorous, as Revie and Clough indulge in self-justification, condemnation of one another, mutual respect and even counsel.



Was it really all played out in advance, then, inevitable from the beginning, a simple ‘fact’ that he never really stood a chance? Johnny Giles claims that the conventional wisdom – and the story perpetrated by The Damned United – is simply untrue, that the players would have played for Clough if for no other reason than naked self-interest. Put simply, Leeds’ players wanted success and were therefore open-minded about him. Clough effectively scuppered his own chances, though. It wasn’t long before he was turning up late, and he scarcely bothered with any of the preparation that the meticulous Revie revelled in. His laissez-aller approach was a culture shock for Leeds; they thought Clough amateurish, although Giles, magnanimously, says he later started to understand the logic of it all.

When all is said and done – and for all that there was some grudging respect for their achievements – it is indisputable that Clough held little affection for them or their methods and found it difficult to rouse himself to try and manufacture any. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that per se, but combined with Clough’s bombastic and confrontational nature, and the habitual suppression of his inhibitions by alcohol, it led to several immeasurably damaging diatribes, not all of which preceded his arrival in Leeds, that would have hardened Revie’s team against him, even if ‘only’ subconsciously. One such occasion was at a players’ dinner held in Roundhay, a suburb to the north-east of the city, at which Clough turned up two hours late in his tracksuit and, handing the Players’ Player of the Year award to goalkeeper David Harvey, observed “How the fuck you’ve won this, I’ll never know”.

But if it was going to be impossible, if the antipathy for Clough among the Leeds players, and supporters, were too deep-seated, then it could well have been rooted in a staggeringly disrespectful episode two years earlier, at a Testimonial Dinner for Peter Lorimer (Leeds’ Scottish attacking midfielder for 15 seasons) at which Harold Wilson, between his stints as Prime Minister, was present. Wilson – the author – picks up the tale:


Clough couldn’t have been more of an outsider. His battle with Revie was a long-running, persistent dispute of such consuming intensity that at one point even Harold Wilson was caught up in the fall-out.
    Wilson was one of five hundred guests at a dinner given in honour of Peter Lorimer in January 1973, when Clough was still manager at Derby. For some reason – inexplicable in retrospect – Clough had been booked as a guest speaker. Lorimer was presented with Yorkshire Television’s Sports Personality of the Year Award, and then left to prepare for a Cup replay Leeds were playing against Manchester United the following day. A couple of speeches acknowledging his contribution to Leeds followed, after which Clough stood up to speak. “I have sat here now for approximately two-and-a-half hourse,” he started, “and I’m not replying to anyone or anything until I have had a wee. And I’m being very serious – you get on your bloody feet, you get a beer, and then if you’ve not got to get up early in the morning, get back and listen.” When he finally got back, having – according to his autobiography – been waylaid by someone who wanted to talk to him about Edward Heath’s love of sailing, impoliteness rapidly became outright offensiveness. “I’ve come along to pay tribute to sport,” he said. “I’ve come along to pay tribute to Peter Lorimer … Despite the fact that he falls as many times when he hasn’t been kicked, despite the fact he protests as many times when he has nothing to protest about …”
    He got little further as the room erupted. Battling the hubbub, Clough called Bremner a little cheat, called for Leeds to be docked points for their cynicism, and, for the first time, made his crack about Eddie Gray having so many injuries that he’d have been put down if he’d been a racehorse. As members of the audience tried to shout him down, Clough accused them of being cowards, attacking him from a position of strength in a crowd. When one heckler began to make a coherent point, Clough harangued him for being a mumbler and disappeared on a bizarre tangent about England becoming a “nation of mumblers”.
    Through a mixture of rudeness and weirdness, Clough had ruined what had been intended as a night of celebration; Yorkshire Television refused to show any of the speech when they aired highlights of the evening. Although he eventually sent a bunch of flowers to Mary Wilson, Harold’s wife, to apologise, Clough initially insisted he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. “They didn’t tell me beforehand it was being filmed, he said – although it’s not clear why it would have been less offensive had he known – “they didn’t brief me on what I could and could not say and, in future, if they want a puppet to get up and say something to please everybody in the room I suggest they invite Basil Brush.”

Passage reproduced courtesy of Orion Books.





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