Thursday, 26 March 2009

The political genius of Brian Clough

So how is your football-obsessive General Secretary going to persuade Next Left readers that last night's Brian Clough ITV documentary is a relevant subject for this political blog?

Very easily indeed.

1. For a start, there was my Fabian Executive colleague Austin Mitchell, in his Yorkshire television days, right at the centre of the most amazing slice of archive footage that they had: as the interviewer for the TV debate between Brian Clough and Don Revie, the predecessor whom he hated and who had gone on to be England manager on the very night that Clough had been sacked at the end of his disastrous 44-day spell managing league champions Leeds United.

Clough-Revie was Yorkshire's very own Kennedy-Nixon debate, said Mitchell: watching the footage (video), there was no hyperbole in this claim.

2. Interestingly, another former Fabian chair, Philip Whitehead, has a cameo role in the David Peace novel, The Damned Utd, as the MP tries to broker a peace deal between Clough, the board and the protesting fans after Clough resigns amidst acrimony having won the league championship for Derby. Oh, the European success they missed. Clough returned to campaign for his friend Whitehead in the 1979 election.

(Perhaps to secure the cooperation of the Clough family and Leeds players, I felt the programme was rather unfair on Peace's mesmerising novel. The Damned United film is reportedly rather different and somewhat warmer: something of a love story between Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor, who did not follow Clough to Leeds. (I have not read any of the David Peace books on which the major Red Riding adaptation was based: having watched the grim and gripping TV series, I now know that I couldn't face them).

3. Clough was, of course, a popular and populist socialist, if perhaps slightly less New Labour than Alex Ferguson. Clough twice turned down offers to be a Labour candidate. (I don't know the details: can anybody else illuminate us?)

And Clough remains relevant to Labour's fairness message today. He should also now be seen as the great champion of football's lost social mobility. Clough's achievement in winning the league championship with both Derby and Nottingham Forest, and then winning the European Cup twice with a small Midlands club on the basis of his mercurial talent, is no longer possible. If we study the causes and consequences of football's lost social mobility, it tells us something about opportunity and equality in society too. But that is a story for another time.

There. QED.

UPDATE: Alastair Campbell's take this morning. I think I've got more politics into mine?!


Stuart White said...

As a Derby County supporter from the age of 5, I am a great Clough fan. The saddest day of my childhood (so it must have been a very happy childhood, all told) was the day Clough decided not to return to manage Derby County. (These days I take my son to watch the excellent Oxford City.)

I think one can read the whole 'Damned United' saga as a morality tale in which two opposing political ideologies fight it out in the context of soccer. On the one hand, there is the Leeds Utd philosophy (as Clough saw it) of being the winner at all costs, even if this involves methods that Clough regarded as dirty, as 'cheating'. On the other, there is the Clough philosophy that you can do just as well, if not better, with hard work and fair play. Clough wanted to manage Leeds because they had come to represent the first philosophy and he wanted to demonstrate the superiority of his own by managing them on his terms. This is, I suggest, a microcosm of the wider struggle between those who favour a 'devil take the hindmost' social philosophy and those who believe in the socialist values of hard work and fair play.

Sunder Katwala said...


That's very interesting. That philosophical difference was part of Austin Mitchell's claim too about Kennedy (Clough) and Nixon (Revie). Well, that and the shady sweating, etc. That was one of the things about Clough. I was too young for his great European teams, but Forest were still one of my top couple of 'neutral' teams.

I don't know if you saw the (excellent) documentary. Having not seen anything of him for ages, I wasn't sure that Nigel Clough has quite the same magic. But perhaps ...

I am primarily an Evertonian, but also support Southend United, having moved from the north-west to essex. I did see Southend Utd win a famous (for us) league cup victory over 1st division Derby: I think Peter Shilton was playing in goal for you. I guess it must have been the v.early 1990s.

Stuart White said...

Unfortunately - or, perhaps, fortunately - my eyes were off the (soccer) ball in the early 1990s....

I should probably add that unlike John Milton, Bernard Crick, and the Clangers, Brian Clough probably can't be fitted into the democratic republican tradition. A shame.

holgate said...

Annoyingly, it looks as if the ITV video is blocked to people outside the UK. Or perhaps just to non-IE browsers. Pity.

Anyway, there has been a fair bit of pop sociology back home about what kind of local influences might create two very different personalities born half a mile apart.

(David Lacy picks up on it, though Dominic Sandbrook misses the fact.)

I'm dubious about that kind of argument, though if anything can be factored in, I think it's the ten-year age gap. Revie's insecurity and his attitude towards money and success is the product of harder times; Clough's bravado shaped by post-war optimism.

You can also look, perhaps, at the difference between Bell Street and Valley Road: the Grove Hill estate where Clough was born and raised was a newly-built escape from the back-to-back terraces where Revie grew up. My dad's family made that move in the 1940s: like most Grove Hill kids, he remembers Clough walking across Albert Park to the ground, giving and receiving lip in equal measure (and Clough remembered him, late in his life).

The fascinating thing for me in that interview, from the few clips I've seen, is the subconscious drama of accents. Revie's is rooted in his origins, what Harry Pearson calls the "tight jawed bronchial gargle punctuated with sharp vowel sounds". Clough's is (and always was) chameleon, absorbing bits of Yorkshire and gobfuls of the East Midlands. But there are moments in that conversation when it snaps back, and in those moments you see Revie treating Clough like an unrooted upstart, and Clough treating Revie as an obnoxious old relic.

Clough won the battle for the statue in the park, but Revie, I think, says more about the town.

Sunder Katwala said...

Holgate's sociological comments and the detail are very interesting. Thank you. One would like to resist the idea that geography is destiny; the case of the great Scottish managers also suggests there is something in it.

Stuart says: "I should probably add that unlike John Milton, Bernard Crick, and the Clangers, Brian Clough probably can't be fitted into the democratic republican tradition. A shame."

Very funny. And true. Clough was an egalitarian - "a bloody slice of cake for all" - but not much of a participatory democrat: "We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right". He clearly built strong relationships with his players: these seem to have often been autocratic and paternalistic, with fear used as a key motivation.

So perhaps that is an interesting challenge to democratic republicanism? Clough's means would seem more suited to Revie's ends than to Clough's. Yet in fact Clough's means achieve Clough's ends (the beautiful game; winning better) rather well. What do we take from this? That participation is somewhat less important with clear shared mission and goals? That Clough could get away with that two generations ago, but would not now? (Yet Ferguson deploys a not dissimilar philosophy, on both ends and means). That a democratic Republican Clough could have been more successful still? (But it is hard to imagine that being Clough). Or that there is little place for democratic republicanism in the culture of English football?

I would imagine that democratic republicanism as a footballing philosophy is perhaps most clearly expressed in the great Dutch teams of the 'total football' era? If that is right, perhaps that would again express its strengths and weaknesses if applied to the collective endeavour of football. At its best, brilliant, but often in danger of being lost to internal fractiousness, and of losing to the (non-democratic republican) German football team.

Sunder Katwala said...

On means and ends, perhaps Clough is less JFK but rather LBJ to Revie's Nixon.

Marcus said...

Brian Clough had been asked to stand as a Labour Party candidate twice, once in a Conservative safe-seat in Richmond, Surrey and the other time in Moss Side, Manchester. On both occasions he was asked in person by Harold Wilson.

He did canvas for the Labour Party in my neck of the woods (Derby North). My parents often talk about when they went to one of the local churches and Brian was speaking for the MP Phillip Whitehead (who was a good friend of the Cloughs).

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for the information. I think Clough could have taken Richmond, Surrey for Labour!