Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cloughie Agonistes: The Greatest English Manager Finally Gets His Due

'The Damned United' by David Peace
Ivorismo Rating****

'Provided You Don't Kiss Me' by Duncan Hamilton
Ivorismo Rating***

'The Damned United'
Directed by Tom Hooper. W/Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall & Jim Broadbent

Ivorismo Rating**

Parkinson: You're a bit besotted tonight, aren't you,Cloughie?

Clough: Oh aye! Cheese and onion pie, meat pud, chips and a lot o' Boddies.

Freud: Ee-yuch! Disgusting! Your stomach is a wasteland.

Clough: I remember when there were no food on't' t' table, you big silly puff. I'll be as besotted wi' me own self as I want to be.

Parkinson:They do call you ol' big 'ead, don't they, Cloughie?

Clough: Oh aye! But I say, if tha've got it, flaunt it!

My long-term memory is pretty good. This previous conversation, although I may not be remembering it with any sense of absolute exactitude, took place on Granada's Mike Parkinson Show when I was home visiting Manchester in the summer of 1979. I never saw an odder group on the telly than that go-getter Manc journo host Parkinson, his musical guest, the squeaky-voiced jazz chanteuse, Blossom Dearie, Clement Freud, one of England's leading cultural critics, host of a witty cooking show and the absolute flaming progeny of Sigmund Freud, and, my favourite Englishman ever, Brian Clough. On this warm summer night, a fortnight or so after his Nottingham Forest club had won the European Cup for first time, Cloughie was in his pomp.

My Dad, another Mike, having betrayed my grandmother's Socialist memory by voting for Margaret Thatcher, was on a sort of mock-elitist guilt jag. The Sex Pistols were "Human Fecal Matter." Jeanette Winterson was a "Filthy Lesbian cow." Brian Clough, he insisted, always wearing that big rosy-cheeked grin, "always acting like he knows somet'' you don't," always disrespectful of the old guard of the game, wasn't a good coach. "He just got jammy twice!" silly old Mike said. This tirade only served to make me love the one and only Cloughie all the more.

Brian Clough died in 2004 as a result of decades of alcohol abuse. Irascible, truculent, snarky to the nth degree, possessing a dry, anarchic tinderbox sense of playful wit, viciously ambitious, dogged by an army of personal demons, with a personality shaped by the cruelty of childhood poverty and a personal playing career destroyed by injury, Brian Clough, like Robert Johnson before him, had a hell hound on his trail. Always self-promoting, always bragging, a regular guest on any late evening talk show willing to have him, Clough was like a character out of a late-1950s northern kitchen-sink, working-class novel by Alan Sillitoe or John Braine. He also, by the by, just happened to be able to coach top-flight football teams into giving reality to the nation's dreams.

The English love their game of football, but have produced only three successful managers in the modern game. The first two, Alf Ramsey and Bob Paisley, were referred to by Cloughie as 'Sir Alf Wank 'and 'Bobby Pisshouse.' The winning coach of two European Cup champions in 1979 and 1980, his Nottingham Forest team, populated with only British players, all of whom were purchased on the cheap or out of the club's academy, executed Cloughie's unique kind of exciting entertaining football. To be sure, the man only passed away five years ago, but Britain and football in general have undergone a complete renaissance since 1980. Televised all over the world, the English Premier League is a moneymaking machine dominated by foreign investors and players from all over the aforesaid world. This is not a bad thing, to be sure, but, in a post 9/11 world, many fans hark bark to simpler times. Clough looks great in retrospect. So much so, in fact, that they've erected statues of him outside the stadiums of his two best teams, Derby County and Nottingham Forest.

Along with the statues comes a mountain of hack biographies, a comically whitewashed, badly ghostwritten memoir and now even a movie. The only one of these pseudo-bios that reads really well is Duncan Hamilton's 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me.' At the same time, an exiled writer of thrillers, David Peace, has given Ol' Big 'Ead the starring role in what is absolutely the best football novel ever written. The fact is that Sports Fiction in general usually leaves me feeling nauseated after consumption. Books like 'The Legend of Bagger Vance,' 'Fat City,' 'Shoeless Joe,' 'The Natural,' 'The Dying of the Light,' 'Bang the Drum Slowly' and 'The Rise of Gerry Logan,' coat their characters in a thick sauce of clichéd syrupy sentimentality. Professional sports, however, is devoid of romance. It is a world populated more accurately by greedy, venal owners and equally greedy, vain, spoiled, hubris-ridden athletes and their agents. I can think of only one novel, David Storey's 'This Sporting Life' that deals in something resembling truth about professional sports. Storey's book is a classic of politicized Social Realism. The concept of the Angry Young Man at war with his social betters, still holds up well. Its harsh prose takes pride in its devout diligence toward plainness. By comparison, in 'The Damned United,' Peace has produced a master work that is muscular, sharp-witted and brilliant. His prose also allows for some moments of the deftest purple. No mean feat.

Which brings us back to Brian Clough. A World-Class striker for Sunderland F.C.--the scorer of 251 goals in 274 performances--he had his leg shattered at 26 by a vicious tackle. Already bumptious and shiningly charismatic, with a Mephistophilian chip on his shoulder, Clough, the abrasive one, paired himself with an easygoing tactician friend, Peter Taylor, and set about managing the only club who were willing to hire him, Fourth Division Hartlepool United. In two seasons, Clough had improved Hartlepool, who for more than 22 years had been anchored in the very basement of the league, to a spot at the top of the table. This was when Derby County came calling for him.

Clough took a mixed bag of mediocre players and way-over-the-hill small-time veterans, pruned away the no-hopers and forged them into a force to be reckoned with. Derby County were a small so-so competitive club with ambitious ownership when he took over in 1967. The rest is all legend. Building a team from scratch with a mixture of tough veterans and ambitious youth from other small town teams, Clough took Derby from the Second Division to the First within three seasons. After coming second to his nemesis, Don Revie of Leeds United in 1971, Clough led the team to the First Division championship in 1972. Constantly at odds with the Derby County board over his side-career as a T.V. pundit and the limits of a thrifty transfer budget, Clough began repeatedly agitating for a big job at one of the richer clubs like Manchester United or Spurs. Ultimately, inevitably fired for insubordination, Clough and Taylor agreed to coach at Second Division Brighton. It was then that Leeds United, a very rich club with a penchant for thriftiness, stepped in and made him successor to their coach, Don Revie, who took the England job after the firing of the aforementioned Alf Ramsey.

Hired by Leeds, Clough found himself suddenly in charge of the champions of England. His long time best friend and assistant, Peter Taylor, however, wanted no part of a move to Leeds and stayed at Brighton. Thus began Clough's short-lived sojourn at Leeds United. Only in charge for 44 days, Clough somehow managed to alienate everyone at the club and yet get them to pay off his contract. Free again, Clough was offered the job at perennial Division One also-rans, Nottingham Forest. After making up with Taylor, Clough led Forest to successive championships and two European Cups. Again, what made Clough remarkable while winning all these trophies, was his ability to locate cheap, talented lower division players and put them together with veterans who were past their best and win things. Only Bob Paisley had more success, but his was partially a result of his being part of a free-spending, ambitious club culture at Liverpool which was at odds by about a million miles from any situation Clough ever found himself in while coaching penny-pinching, low-budget obsessed clubs like Derby and Forest! Openly, wantonly jealous, Cloughie would say of Paisley and his free-spending Liverpool F.C.: "If I 'ad Bobby Piss'ouse's brass, my team would be more infallible than the bloody Pope!"

Peace's second 'serious' novel comes from a very different place to his previous work. The Red Riding Quartet' 'eventually grew out of his obsession with the Yorkshire Ripper case. In 2003, Peace was named 'Best Young British Novelist' by Granta magazine. His fifth novel, 'GB84', set amid the historic 1984 miners' strike, was published in 2005 to much critical acclaim. Peace’s sixth novel, 'The Damned United' (2006), focuses on the forty-four days Brian Clough spent battling the forces of evil at Leeds United F.C.. Like 'The Red Riding Quartet,' it reads like a thriller.

The novel is rendered as a first-person narrative by Clough about the disastrous 44 days in 1974 when he took on the manager’s job at Leeds United. After taking charge at the country’s most ruthlessly successful side, Cloughie found himself at odds with an organization and a bureaucracy put in place by his predecessor, Don Revie. Imagined from the inside, Clough’s battles with intransigent players, an interfering chairman, a Uriah Heapish board of directors and the soul-destroying unpredictability of the game itself, develops an odd poignancy that echoes beyond the boundaries of sport, or the usual first-person monologue clichés. At one point, journeying to a match on the outcome of which his job may depend, he reflects how, “Saturday comes again, welcome or not, it comes again like it always does, welcome or not, wanted or not, another judgment day — The chance to be saved, the chance to be damned.”

That sentence, typical of the incantatory rhythms and repetitions of Peace’s prose, sums up the weekly trial by football that Clough faces. Success or failure, justification or damnation, always hang agonizingly in the balance. A football manager may seem an unlikely sort of tragic antihero, but Peace’s eccentrically idiosyncratic imagination transforms Clough into something close to one. At the same time, Peace's deft use of the first-person monologue allows the reader a window into the peculiarly British obsession with class betrayal. The men who make up the boards of the football clubs Clough manages are self-made, bootstrap, mini-oligarchs used to using intimidation and a check book as a means to an end. All their bad behavior gets them when they attempt to bully Clough, however, is reprisals. As a committed Socialist, or so Cloughie insists, these men are not the kind of Tory Old Boy network it's easy to hate. They are worse. They are class traitors: Working Class men who have abandoned their roots. Indeed, Clough wastes no time in telling them this. He also goes on talk shows and tells the people, the fans, that the owners and certain players are a poison rotting the game from within with their relentless greed for cash and victory. Brian Clough takes no prisoners and makes no new friends.

Clough wins, but in his own unique way. He gets rid of players he doesn't want. He buys the players he wants, athletes who are a part of his unhidden agenda.

"Where is the consultation? Where is the conversation? The respect and the trust?" the Chairman of Derby County's board of directors wants to know.

"There wasn't the time," you lie. "There were other clubs knocking."

Thus, ultimately, Brian Clough manages to get himself fired at Derby, and moves reticently with Peter to Brighton; but, just can't take a return to third division mediocrity. Once Leeds United offer him the job, Cloughie has to take it. He may not actually like anything about Leeds United, but they are champions and have lots of money that he can spend. Working his anarchy from within the belly of the fatted beast appeals to him. Clough may have passed himself off as a committed socialist, but Peace's creation is a committed, ruthless anarchist if and when it suits.

Like a missionary, Clough wants to win, but in an entertaining, extraordinary way. One that goes against the Leeds United penchant for winning ugly. Most fans for other teams like the entertainment provided by crafty dribbling and ball-handling. Leeds United fans, however, genuinely love thuggery. A cynical, winning team for a cynical group of fans. Yet Cloughie will not compromise with any of them. They will do it his way. "The lads won't like it," a trainer tells him. "They don't like change. They like consistency."

"Tough fucking shit then," I tell him and head inside the place to the deserted, silent restaurant; deserted but for the first-team, sat staring into their tomato soup, waiting for their steak and chips."

In no time, the players, the fans and the board all despise him. "Leeds United hate Brian Clough. Brian Clough hates Leeds United. Dirty Leeds. Dirty, fucking, cheating Leeds. Don Revie’s Leeds. The cheating fucking Champions. Leeds United, the country's most hated club. Dirty Leeds. Dirty, fucking, filthy Leeds! They didn’t win it! They stole it! Pour another drink. Light another fag."

Peace delivers words and sentences which resonate and syncopate into lovely rhythmic little codas. Like the voice of the people forming a chill echo outside a cold, deserted Leeds' Elland Road stadium. Chop! Chop! In and out of italics, down that corridor, past those trophies, down them stairs, cutting between Clough’s glory at Derby and his damnation at Leeds, 'The Damned United' bobs and weaves, the minstrel telling his tale of spite, jealousy, camaraderie and recrimination. Twelve years of dues-paying and success are spoiled by forty-four days of Job-like, partially self-inflicted misery. Bereft of his erstwhile best-buddy, shotgun-rider, right-hand straight-man and scapegoat, Peter Taylor, Cloughie is on his own at Elland Road and the hair shirt he wears is of his very own design.

But Cloughie’s not listening. Down the corridor. Round the corner. Down the stairs. Cloughie has plenty of suggestions as to where they can stick said advice. Down the corridor. Round the corner. Down the stairs. Cloughie doesn’t believe in God. Up the stairs. Round the corner. Down that corridor. Cloughie doesn’t believe in luck. Pour another drink. Light another fag. Cloughie doesn’t believe in professional fouls, pressurizing the referee, diving, time wasting, getting people sent off, dossiers, tactics or strategy! Cloughie doesn’t believe in Don fucking Revie. He wants to burn his desk, his chair . . . his fucking legacy. Pour another drink. Light another fag.

Consequently, short of dragging you to the book store, let me unequivocally announce that 'The Damned United' is not only the greatest novel ever written about football, it is the best book ever written about sports ever! 'The Damned United' throws reality and fiction into a blender, transmogrifies the accepted truth, hits a shot on the volley past a diving goalkeeper into the back of the net. Yes, please: Pour another drink. Light another fag.

In Duncan Hamilton's 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me', you'll find a nice nonfiction companion piece. Mostly concerned with what happened after the years at Derby and Leeds, Hamilton avoids the usual pitfalls of what I'll call hackiography. Still, lovers of abstract truth may not want to sway this way. Often this biography is one which makes Cloughie's irascibility seem somehow cute. It is the one which got the blessing of Clough's wife and kids Yes, it says, he was known to drink on duty, punch employees, generically referred to journalists as "shithouses", and extemporaneously produced brilliant epigraphs and one-liners, not to mention the rumours that he took a bung(bribe) whenever club transfers took place. No matter. Cloughie got results.

Playing the Boswell role we get Duncan Hamilton, once a teenage reporter on the Nottingham Evening Post, thrust into 20 years of what he calls "spurious intimacy" with the Nottingham Forest manager. During their first meeting, Clough insists they drink Scotch at 9.30 a.m. Later, having written that Forest's morale is low, Hamilton is paraded before the team and screamed at by Clough: "You're banned for ever from this ground. For ever!" Two days later, Clough calls him back: "Where are you, shithouse? I've got a story for you. Fancy a glass of champagne?" All can be forgiven, but no sleight will remain forgotten. Slowly, Clough becomes "like me Dad" to Duncan. Indeed, on hearing the young man stammer, Clough offers to phone him every day for a fortnight to help cure it. Quite how this would help cure the young reporter's affliction Cloughie never explains, but it seems to be an act of kindness.

Strategically, Clough was always very unpredictable as a coach. He lived to ignore the most commonly used tactics. He liked to buy good players and come on in an artificially gentle way to them, like some gentle guru, shocking everybody's expectations. One day, Clough catches Hamilton reading Freud's 'The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.' Disgusted, he goes on a prima donna diatribe: "I don't need a boring book by Freud to show me how to do all that... it only takes seconds to change someone's outlook with a word or two."

Hamilton witnesses triumph as Forest win two European Cups on a budget. Unfortunately, by 1993, he is observing "the disintegration of a man as well as a team." It's good, although sad reading. Cloughie can't cope with the modern footballer. The announcement by one of his star players, Justin Fashanu, that he's gay absolutely freaks him out. Later, red-faced and inebriated, Cloughie is in a state of agony over whether or not to buy certain players. After agonizing over signing striker, Stan Collymore, for weeks, Cloughie ultimately loses him to Liverpool and then goes on a true bender.

Hamilton gave up football writing after Clough retired, rendered somewhat cynical and bitter by some of the worst aspects he'd witnessed of Clough and his acolytes. Yet, in 2004, when he hears of Clough's death, he weeps like a baby. In an obituary, Hamilton writes that "Clough the vaudevillian obscures Clough the master manager" and that the public ought to forgive his faults because he "cared about the spirit of football and the need to play the game stylishly and without cynicism."

One book is a masterpiece. The other is at least a fun read. So, I wonder, what would Clough think of these lives of Brian? "Not bad for a pair of shithouses!" I'm sure he would say.

Last, but not least, is 'The Damned United,' the film. The performance by Michael Sheen as Cloughie is interesting, but odd. Obviously, the poetry of the book is lost. And Brian Clough, a big, lumbering 5'11" Centre-Forward is rendered as a sort of slightly fey, rapid-fire comic who dabbles in football. To be sure, Sheen and Timothy Spall, who plays the gangling 6'2" Peter Taylor as a sort of short fat Falstaffian foil, are creditable. Clough is a much nicer person in the movie. There are certainly not too many "Shithouses" utilized, to be sure, as Clough becomes another larger-than-life real English 'character' up there with Winston Churchill, the Kray Brothers, Margaret Thatcher, Billy Bunter and Fred Karno. Sheen can at least pass, dribble and kick the ball about a bit. You can take the kids to this one, to be sure, but keep your expectations low.

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