:: Article

Dazzled by the enigma

By Joe Kennedy.


Jonathan Wilson, Brian Clough: Nobody Ever Says Thank You – The Biography, Orion, 2011.

Over the last half-decade, Jonathan Wilson has established himself as the thinking man’s thinking man’s football writer. Starting out with Behind the Curtain, a travelogue which probed football finance and politics in post-communist Europe, his greatest achievement to date has been 2008’s Inverting the Pyramid. This work explained with painstaking precision the tactical alterations made by those coaches and managers who have had the Nietzschean gall to shrug off received wisdom about how to play the game. After publication, it stealthily attained the status of indispensability among those who hoped to understand the shop-floor jargon of the TV experts.

Wilson’s expositions of the development of formations, a topic with theoretical underpinnings which are, to the layman, almost as impenetrable as those which justified Schoenberg’s switch to twelve-tone, gave football writing an intellectual clout it had never previously possessed. There have been quasi-existential accounts on the supporter’s lot from the likes of Nick Hornby, and insightful anthropologically-informed studies such as Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy, but what Inverting the Pyramid achieved was closer in nature to The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’s virtuoso demystification of twentieth-century composition. If Fever Pitch’s readers also kept Larkin by their beds, one sensed occasionally that Wilson’s knew their Adorno.

It’s odd, then, that his latest book considers a manager who asserted his tactical indifference repeatedly. For Brian Clough, a stubborn and often contradictory man whose greatest achievement was leading provincial Nottingham Forest to consecutive European Cup titles, games were won or lost on attitude and efficiency. Memorably, Clough derided the volume of ‘crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes’, a dismissal of armchair Napoleons which also seems like a proleptic swipe at Wilson’s fanbase. With this in mind, it seems possible that the subject of this biography was chosen not just for its inherent interest value, but to test the validity of a thesis.

All managers emphasise either form or content. Tacticians, who put their faith in the former, tend to be characterised in England as bloodless and even a little untrustworthy, a suspicion which chimes uncannily with Anglo-Saxon scepticism towards, say, Le Corbusier or Alain Robbe-Grillet. Those who believe that results hinge on content – the talent, morale, and performance of individuals within the structure – are given an easier ride, perhaps because their attitude seems less of an adulteration of the sport’s chaotic history in the rural hinterland and on the public school playing fields. Around the time of the codification of the rules, in 1863, football was predominantly approached as a forum for machismo and individual achievement. The more socialistically-minded Scots developed the passing game at the end of the nineteenth century, but the theorisation of tactics – football’s modernism, if you like – took place on the continent and in South America.

Personally and professionally, Clough was a figure who projected multiple ambiguities. Most of these have been chewed over exhaustively in the media and in previous books: he was simultaneously generous and dismissive, a man who was equally as capable of coaxing a would-be suicide from a bridge parapet as of thumping a young player for making a mistake, and – perhaps most notoriously – a self-declared socialist who harried a star signing for his homosexuality. Wilson enquires into all of these areas without turning up answers more satisfactory than tautological nods to the ambiguousness of the ambiguity, to the contradictoriness of the contradiction. It always seems that what he really wants to solve is the problem of Clough’s failure to fall into either the formalist or man-motivating camp. Watching old footage, it’s clear that his teams played with a neatness and intelligence which both showed up the long-ball style which dominated English football in the seventies and eighties and seemed to speak of hours spent in front of a chalkboard. Yet neither Clough, who specialised in psychology, nor his long-term assistant Peter Taylor, whose ability to spot a player in the transfer market has arguably gone unsurpassed ever since, immersed themselves in tactics.

Wilson’s keenness to get to the nub of the problem is evident in the earlier parts of the book which deal with Clough’s childhood and playing career. There’s a strong account of his upbringing in 1940s Middlesbrough, a story dominated by its subject’s chippy anti-authoritarianism (similarities abound with John Lydon and Mark E. Smith, oddly enough), but the recounting of game after game for both his hometown club and neighbours Sunderland lacks the analytical dexterity which emerges later on. Off-pitch activities are narrated well, particularly Clough’s initial meetings with Taylor, then Boro’s reserve goalkeeper, but Wilson encounters a vintage football writer’s dilemma in trying to convey Clough’s ability to his readership. Strikers, however prolific, are much harder to rhapsodise about than the fleet-footed jinkers and midfield schemers who manufacture their goals: foreplay has always been more poetically interesting than what follows it.

The writing really picks up following Clough’s career-ending injury, sustained on an icy pitch in a Christmas fixture that should never have been played. After a failed comeback, he took a managerial job at Hartlepools, and Wilson uses this event to launch into a beautiful portrayal of a gone north-east of conniving aldermen and small-town politicking. This is followed by the tale of Clough and Taylor’s move to Derby County, whom they took over in the lower reaches of the old Second Division and, through a combination of astute transfer policy and perspicacious kidology, led to the First Division championship.

Those who have read David Peace’s brooding reimagining of Clough’s ill-fated stint at Leeds United will know what follows. In a turn of events which matched the conspiratorial nature of national politics in the seventies, Derby’s board, threatened by what seemed to be a nascent personality cult around their manager, gracelessly edged him out and stood by their decision in the face of a surreal reinstatement campaign and the threat of player strikes. Clough pitched up at Brighton for a short period, then took over Leeds, the reigning champions and a club whom he’d criticised repeatedly for their tactical negativity under their former manager, fellow Teessider Don Revie. His spell in West Yorkshire was brief and unhappy: Wilson looks at this period with pragmatic even-handedness, rather than the occultist poetry which Peace derived from it.

Clough’s zenith was at Nottingham Forest, and it’s in that club’s back-to-back European Cup victories that the author seems most determined to locate hints of a sharp tactical mind. The games which led Forest to the finals, and those climactic struggles, are combed over for evidence of managerial shrewdness and grand strategy. There are a number of instances where Wilson’s usual stoic style slips into vaguely triumphant declarations that these things were going on all along. However, the writing never seems to capitalise on these: it’s as if, despite the reams of primary source research that have manifestly gone into this book, it remains dazzled by the enigma. Inverting the Pyramid was, so to speak, a dog with a bone, hammering home the significance of tactics until even the most anti-formalist of readers started to become convinced there was something in the idea after all. This work, while extremely illuminating about many aspects of Clough’s life – particularly his relationship with Taylor – and often sublimely written, can’t quite seem to wrap itself around the puzzle which may well have instigated it in the first place.


Joe Kennedy writes criticism and poetry, and has taught literature and journalism at various levels. His articles and reviews have appeared in 3AM, The Quietus, and the Times Literary Supplement, amongst others, and he blogs at A Drawing Sympathy.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 16th, 2012.