In separating the man from the myth, Jonathan Wilson's biography of Brian Clough is the first to do him justice
Thirty years and an entire cycle of footballing modernity on from his grandest deeds, perhaps the most interesting thing about Brian Clough is his enduring prominence. For a football manager whose claim to greatness is confined to a nine-year period that burned brightest at Derby County and Nottingham Forest, and whose career only briefly intersected with the grand self-propelling fame farrago of the Premier League, Clough remains the most insistent of pre-modern footballing celebrities. So much so that the first reaction on contemplating the 550 pages of Jonathan Wilson's absorbing and sure-footed new Clough biography – aside from the urge to stroke the unusually beautiful cover art – might well be: do we really need another Clough biography?
Even the title has some suggestion of this. Nobody Ever Says Thank You is a quote from Harry Storer, an early influence on both Clough and his co-manager, Peter Taylor. It was intended by Storer as a mediation on the thanklessness of football management, the inherent brutality of a job where the only certainty is the sack. But in Clough's case people have scarcely, if ever, stopped saying thank you: 13 Clough books, Clough memoirs and general Clough hagiographies have been published since 2007. At least three life-sized Clough statues have been erected in the past five years alone, suggesting that at the current rate of progress it will soon be difficult to enter any major urban public space, or even perhaps to open your front door, without the ever-lurking hazard of the bronzed Clough effigy erected overnight by members of the balaclava-clad Clough militia.
There is a distinction to be made in this case, though, and it is present on the front cover. Wilson's book is subtitled The Biography – not A Biography, or Another Biography – and it quickly becomes clear that the definite article is carefully chosen. Clough's career may be documented with overwhelming multiplicity elsewhere, but this is the first work to document properly his early life, and indeed the complete life, from childhood in Middlesbrough to the booze-sodden befuddlement of early old age. As such, it is the first complete biography and Wilson, whose father watched Clough play for Sunderland at Roker Park in the early 60s, is a natural choice to write it.
The other distinguishing factor of Nobody Ever Says Thank You is textural. In recent years, Clough's life has been portrayed via a combination of romantic memoir and myth-bound novelistic cipher, most notably in Duncan Hamilton's much-feted Provided You Don't Kiss Me and the fertile mini-industry of David Peace's The Damned Utd. This is the other prong to Wilson's twin-dissection: just as his Inverting the Pyramid looked both to explain football tactics and also to debunk received opinion, so here, at times, he takes his scalpel to the common store of Clough myths, the many baroque popular stories that have flowered up around those grand deeds, often from Clough himself. This is an attempt to tell the story, for once, without the volume tuned up to 11 and with the stopper still firmly lodged in the whisky jar.
Naturally, all the major events of a remarkable career are here. Wilson tells us in illuminating detail of Clough's debut for Middlesbrough; of his fascinatingly rancorous tour of Europe and subsequent omission from the England World Cup squad; of the blight of career-ending injury followed by giddy resurrection as a self-propelling managerial tornado in the Fourth Division with Hartlepool; of the grand successes of Derby County and his operatic ousting by chairman Sam Longson; and of the high-Clough triumphs of successive European Cups with Nottingham Forest, a time when the entire world seemed to bend to his crankish, wildly extrovert, contradictory presence.
Throughout, there is a sense of setting in order, of attempting to illuminate through detail rather than by raising the voice. Challenging one characteristically embellished incident involving Bill Shankly, Wilson points out: "the anecdotes are often good to start with but have been polished to greatness by manipulations over time... the legend has supplanted the facts". And so the book presents Longson in an usually sympathetic light, and reproduces almost in full the transcript of the hugely gripping exchange between Clough and his chief rival and enemy, Don Revie, on national TV after Clough's sacking by Leeds. And Wilson is right here: it is only the pictures of that encounter that tell us Clough won the exchange, trouncing the doughy faced, old man-ish Revie. On paper, Revie is the more coherent, Clough bereft of substance without his captivating personal style.
There are also some fascinating sections where Wilson takes his tactical specialism to Clough's teams, doubly significant as this involves another session of myth-busting. It is received opinion that Clough was a tactical vacuum, that his public scoffing at the theory-bound arm of football was to be taken at face value, his own achievements drawn from little more than the force of personality and localised inspiration. Wilson refutes this strongly, if with no great detail – though a more thorough proof of Clough's dedication to "hard" tactics would have required a section-sized digression of its own, not permitted by the rhythms of biography. What Wilson does give us is a methodical, non-hysterical, beautifully detailed Clough; a perfectly crafted mixer to go with the heady, emotive, intoxicated Clough‑ernalia of recent years.