Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The Damned United

Into university first thing to discuss a proposed doctorate, all the nitty gritty of focus and scope. No snow at all, but full sunlight on bare road, with some spots of delicate black ice, thin as the thinnest glass, gently frazzled, like an old oil painting with craquelure. Yes, and slippery.

Then home to make notes on another doctorate I had read some weeks ago and made scribbled notes about on scraps of post-it sticky paper stuffed here and there inside the thesis. That took most of the day.

Now it is evening and my eyes and back are well past the strains of the violet hour. A whole day thinking and turning scribbles into a draft for a sensible report.


In odd moments I thought back to David Peace's book about Brian Clough, The Damned United. Reviews: Guardian here, Observer here, and some bloggies here. And here is one registering Clough's widow, Barbara's, hostile reaction.

As is well known, the book is concerned primarily with the real Brian Clough's doomed forty-four day period as manager of a team he hated, Leeds United. Unusually for a work of fiction it carries a bibliography at the back to show Peace has drawn on available material in the form of other books about or including Clough. In other words it draws attention to his own book's non-fiction, documentary aspect.

I was not entirely swept away by the book. I don't know whether I even liked it very much. Technically it alternates between Clough at Leeds, day by day, and Clough at Derby County, building a top quality European side from nothing. Clough is generally shown to be a proud, vain, obsessive, deeply vulnerable, insecure, childish man who gets drunk whenever he is down, which is frequently, and who shamelessly exploits those around him.

I have no idea whether he was like that, of course. I only know the fiction Peace presents us with. I am prepared to believe - in a fiction suspension-of-disbelief sense - in the depiction of claustrophobic, nefarious, and poisonous board-rooms and dressing rooms. I think Peace is good at showing the delicate balance between admiration, envy, loathing and contempt in Clough's attitude to the previous and hugely successful manager of Leeds, Don Revie. I think he is good at portraying a certain kind of partnership-friendship-mutual dependency between Clough and his sidekick, Peter Taylor, and he is good at male group loyalty. I don't mean he is great, I mean he is feasible and vivid.

But Clough, as I remember him, was witty and smart as well as deliberately provocative, and Peace gives me not the least idea why he was any good as a manager, either in human terms or technically. And Clough was outstandingly good. In fact he was a genius. Fair enough, Peace might think that football talk will bore a non-football reader, but I think it is important in presenting a real, identifiable figure in fictional terms. And, after all, it is a little patronising to football and footballers to assume their craft is somehow beneath the reader. And Clough, the fiction, should be feasible as a fictional manager of genius.

He makes absolutely nothing of the way he carried his favourite players round from team to team - John O'Hare and John McGovern come to mind. It would be good to know what he saw in them and they in him. There must have been a strange and potent relationship between them that is key to the character and his public success, but we see nothing of it. Not in the fiction, though the fiction requires it.

And strangest of all we are left at the end of the book with a sense that it is all over for Clough, that tragedy has caught up with him, so it is quite impossible to believe that he recovered and led a completely new team, Nottingham Forest, to heights even greater than Derby's, often using players of seemingly average ability. Not only did he carry that team to heights, he kept them there.

It wasn't just because he got pissed with them and swore at them a lot which is what Peace might lead you to assume. And here, because we know Clough was not a fiction, but a real man in real time and space, fiction breaks against fact, and, for me, actually breaks. Simply breaks.

There is a vast chunk of Clough missing in Peace's book, and it is not football but the human life, or that part of human life in which football is involved, which is, in the end, simply human life, as much human life as if Clough were a nuclear physicist, a spy a multiple murderer or a philanderer, the Don Juan of Derby. No wonder Barbara Clough loathed it. She must have felt that a part of her own life had been stolen from her and appropriated for someone else's use.

Indeed, it is fiction not biography, so it says on the cover. It is that tricky area where a writer with a sense of what constitutes tragedy takes a real figure and adapts him for the purpose. All fiction appropriates to some degree. It is just that the appropriation seems more brutal, less convincing on this occasion.

Incidentally, that is the Nottingham Forest badge he is wearing on his blazer in the photo. He looks some way short of tragedy. John McGovern is, I think, the head peeping out behind him, Peter Taylor is the older one and, in the background, is Viv Anderson with a haircut that makes him look like Danny John-Jules, the cat in Red Dwarf. I'm not all high culture and rock 'n' roll.


Billy C said...

I liked Brian Clough. Looking from the outside that is. Yes, he had his faults and many were transparent. But, there's no doubt he was a superb football manager and that is all I knew of him. "Clough is generally shown to be a proud, vain, obsessive, deeply vulnerable, insecure, childish man who gets drunk whenever he is down, which is frequently, and who shamelessly exploits those around him."

I haven't read the book so I accept your opinion on it, but then why did so many of his players have such deep affection for him? Were they easily impressed or did they see a side of him that struck the heart chords so loudly that they would do anything for him? Martin O'Neil always speaks highly of him and who better to give him a reference? There is a bit of truth in what many say about this complex human being, but on the whole, he can't have been such a bad guy. I'd prefer him to Revie any day. Now there's a man I could never take to. :)

Paulie said...

John McGovern's insights were fairly muted, but he saw BC at Hartlepool, D*rby, Leeds and Forest - in a few biogs you hear him talk about the contrast when he went to Forest. It does kinda bear out Peace's contention about the Leeds spell - that he was just out of control.

The picture you've found is magnificent tho' innit?

Dubois said...

Clough may have been a great manager and I too remember his days at Forest but before we get too carried away do not forget the way he treated Justin Fashanu which still leaves a bitter taste.

Poet in Residence said...

No wonder Clough took to drink. Those stuffed shirts at the FA weren't interested in the philosophy that footballers should actually be able to play football and that fans should actually behave thesmselves at football matches.
At Leeds, when Clough said "throw your medals in the bin" it was because Leeds was known as a side which played what was euphemistically called the "physical game". Players like Leeds' Norman "Bites Yer Legs" Hunter were used to advertise the growing Lager culture. It was ok to be a football toughie. A lager lout. Smash a few train windows. So what?
I recall hearing a certain red-haired Leeds manager saying as he left Ewood Park, a ground with a family fan base tradition, "Leeds fans disgust me!" following their disruption of the minute silence for the late M. Busby.

George S said...

The funny thing is I was at art college in Leeds during the Revie years and went to Elland Road sometimes. The team played some lovely football. They were a tough lot when they first came up from the Second, but within a few years they had become a very attractive team, more attractive - at best - than Liverpool, so I think Clough's hatred was not to do with how they played near the time he took them over but what they had been like a good few years back.

I liked being in Leeds. I liked the people and I liked the landscape. I even liked those big bullying Victorian streets.

There were some volatile players there - particularly Bremner, but Hunter too and, sometimes Jackie Charlton - but they were no 'dirtier' than, say Birmingham City. Clarke and Gray and Madeley and Reaney and Lorimer were all excellent and could be marvellous to watch. I thought Madeley was one of the most elegant players I had seen. Terry Cooper was a superb attacking full-back.

Hunter was savage. But it was a time of savage players of the sort that would not be tolerated now. Peter Storey at Arsenal springs to mind as well as Ron Harris at Chelsea, and I don't think Alan Kennedy at Liverpool was an angel. There was also Trevor Hockey at Birmingham who was probably the most vicious defender I ever saw.

But then you also had the Marshes, Worthingtons, Bowleses, Hudsons, Osgoods, and in fact Duncan Mackenzie, the one in Peace's book - who were graceful and brilliant. Predecessors for Matt Le Tissier. Not Giggs. Giggs was an entirely new kind of player in the 90s. Le Tissier was old school.

I can't remember how Clough treated Fashanu. At Nottingham Forest? Did he buy him from Norwich? What happened there, Dubois?

There was a madness to Clough, and I take Paulie's point that he was probably out of control at Leeds.

I don't mistake Clough for a model of any sort. I only think that he must have been outstandingly good in some very important regards Peace fails to bring home.

Dafydd John said...

I don't know if it's in the book, but my favourite Clough story is when he is reported to have said:
"That Frank Sinatra, he met me you know!"

Dubois said...

To put it mildly and politely, Cloughie didnt like gays and Clough ended up banning Fashanu from the training ground. (Fashanu went to Forest from Norwich City, first million pound black player). There is a lot of stuff about Fash and Clough but there was more to Fash's downfall than just what Clough said but it didnt help.

My favorite Leeds team memory is Charlton and Bremner fouling goalkeepers when corner kicks were taken and scoring goals as a result.

Gary Sprake was the Leeds goalkeeper and it was said that the only thing wrong with him was he made a mistake every game. This was probably unfair but this is all I can remember about him. I was very young at the time, of course.

Poet in Residence said...

George, Dubois' mention of Sprake reminds me of another goalie, one that yer Unc. Gabriel would be a fan of. It was the Rovers goalie Butcher (sorry can't remember his first name) who single handed took them down to Div. 3 - many called him Dracula - yes he couldn't handle those crosses. When a cross came over he used to come out flapping like a woman pegging out washing on a windy day.

Dubois said...

After I mentioned Sprake I remembered another one and almost wondered if I was getting muddled but then decided I wasnt. Peter Bonnetti was the other one. A great goalkeeper and good looking too I think. I always felt sorry for him when he was blamed for Chelsea losing.