Harry Pearson reviews the latest biography of Brian Clough, that includes an analysis of the great manager's approach to tactics
Just as evangelical Christians are supposed to address difficult situations with the words "What would Jesus do?" there is an apparently burgeoning legion of football folk who react to any player-related crisis at a club by asking: "How would Cloughie have handled this?"
This question is inevitably followed by wry chuckling, because the prevailing feeling is that, when faced with a recalcitrant Carlos Tévez or sulking Cesc Fàbregas, the late Brian Clough would have responded by smacking them one. And since quite a lot of people feel footballers these days are in need of a smack, the legend of Clough is burnished some more.
Predicting how Clough would react to anything was a good deal more difficult than those creepy media Keepers of His Flame would have us believe. Perhaps he would have thrown a tennis ball at the player, tripped him up with his squash racquet or taken his wife out to "an Italian restaurant next to the Trent".
Anything was possible, as Jonathan Wilson's mighty new biography of the man from Valley Road demonstrates. It is a 565-page opus that would surely be hailed as definitive were it focused on any other sporting personality, with the possible exception of the equally noisy Muhammad Ali. Books on Clough, however, appear at a rate of what seems like six per month, making it – like the Champions League – an exceptionally hard competition for anyone to dominate for long.
Despite sharing his subject's northeast upbringing, Wilson, a writer who has made a specialism of football tactics, does not initially seem an easy fit with Clough, a manager who claimed to have no interest or belief in tactics whatsoever. As Wilson points out, however, while apparently rejecting tactics, Clough was more than happy to expound on his "philosophy", "which was tactics by another name". Clough and Peter Taylor, the author says, had a rare ability to boil down tactical planning to a few concise instructions to individual players. "It seems basic, and each individual component was, but multiply those components together and the total was devastatingly effective." Or as as Paul Hart puts it in perhaps fittingly paradoxical-style: "He was a great, great coach, just not as we know coaches."
Clough shared a knee-jerk aversion to the T-word with a number of top English players of his own and previous eras. Len Shackleton, a predecessor of Clough's in the Sunderland forward line, is one notable example. These players tended to react with ill-disguised hostility to the sight of anybody drawing formational diagrams on a blackboard. Perhaps, as Wilson suggests, the xenophobic Clough saw tactics as the preserve of sneaky foreigners or, worse still, Don Revie.
Clough's main contribution to coaching was to select players who fitted together and could fulfil the roles he had fixed for them. Forwards, for example, needed to receive the ball with their back to goal and either turn the defender or hold play up until midfield support arrived. He didn't want anything else from them, which is why Trevor Francis spent much of his time at the City Ground playing on the wing.
Clough's day-to-day involvement with the players was minimal, often consisting of him walking past the training pitch while out with his dog and yelling the occasional instruction or rebuke. On the touchline during matches he appears to have been no more dynamic, Wilson noting that comments picked up on the TV during Forest's UEFA Cup semi-final with Anderlecht consist more or less entirely of him yelling: "Come on. Come on. Come on."
Clough's approach was "about commonsense, about stripping the game down to its simplest components", Wilson observes. "It was his psychological ploys that made him unique." Unlike tactics, or even philosophy, the exact way these worked is altogether harder for Wilson, or anybody else for that matter, to explain. When it came to man-management Clough was a law unto himself. Influenced primarily by old-school disciplinarians Harry Storer and Alan Brown, he ruled his teams by fear, though his means of frightening people were not as straightforward as the infamous punching of Nigel Jemson might indicate. It seems that Clough's unpredictable and erratic behaviour – which was at least partially fuelled by drink – was often his most powerful weapon.
As Wilson points out, Clough became a victim of his own loudmouthed media persona. In that, of course, he was not alone among his contemporaries. World Cup TV punditry transformed Malcolm Allison from one of the most innovative coaches in England into a strutting medallion man. Becoming "Big Mal" the TV personality destroyed Allison the coach. Clough survived the attention and prospered, at least partly because younger players had grown up watching him on the box and were in awe of him. Though the price he paid was, by the end of his career, plain for all to see.
Brian Clough – Nobody Ever Says Thank You
by Jonathan Wilson
From WSC 299 January 2012