A couple of months before my dad died, I told him that I’d agreed a deal to write a biography of Brian Clough. His memory had gone by then, but when I asked if he remembered Clough, he looked at me like I was an idiot. “Of course I do,” he snapped, and mentioned a hat-trick Clough had scored for Sunderland against Grimsby in 1962.
Like most of his generation of Wearsiders, my dad mythologised Clough. That always struck me as a little odd. He wasn’t my dad’s type of player (he wouldn’t have been mine). We both had a suspicion of poachers, wondered whether impressive goals-per-game records - and Clough, still the quickest player to 250 league goals, has better stats than most – actually signalled sharpness in front of goal or whether it were really a sign of selfishness.
It wasn’t just that, though. Growing up as a Sunderland fan, I could never quite understand why Clough was so popular, how a player who had played only a season and a half for us before suffering his career-ending injury could have had such an impact. That was one of the questions I set out to answer in my biography of Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You, which comes out on Thursday.
Partly, I think, it was good PR. Whether because he meant it or because it served his battle with the club’s board, it’s hard to say – and his willingness to engage in political machinations should never be underestimated - but Clough always spoke warmly of Sunderland and Sunderland fans.
But to an extent the brevity of Clough’s time at Sunderland is the point. Nobody had time to get frustrated with him; there was no long tailing off into retirement or sense of betrayal as he joined another club. More than that, Clough offered an excuse, a ready alternate reality. If he hadn’t wrecked his knee on Boxing Day, Sunderland would surely have been promoted in 1962-63 and would have attacked the First Division with momentum and a sense of self-belief. Given the readiness of the board to invest, there might a return to the glory days of the thirties.
Even after the injury, there were intriguing possibilities. What if the board hadn’t got rid of Clough? Could he have risen as a manager at Roker Park, perhaps working with George Hardwick? Perhaps then it would have been Sunderland lifting the European Cup rather than Nottingham Forest. But Clough was ousted, leaving a bitterness that conditioned his attitude to football’s hierarchy that lasted for the rest of his career.
He famously said he would put on a nappy and crawl over broken glass if he thought it would get him to manage Sunderland, something that always kept alive the possibility that he might return. Actually, he was offered the chance twice and turned Sunderland down on both occasions, but it was in his interests always to keep Forest on their toes.
And to an extent it was in our interests, because it allowed us to dream. That was what Clough did: although he was unfulfilled as a player – repeatedly missing out promotion with Middlesbrough and Sunderland – he offered the possibility of something better. As a manager, of course, at least in the seventies, he delivered on those dreams repeatedly. He made what should have been impossible possible.
Jonathan Wilson’s biography of Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You, comes out on November 10 and is available from Amazon
Jonathan Wilson is also the editor of The Blizzard, a Sunderland-based quarterly football journal that brings together the best writers from across the globe.