Bittersweet tale of Clough’s contradictions

Anton Rippon reviews the latest addition to the growing set of books about Brian Clough – Duncan Hamilton’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me

First a confession: I must be one of the few people who couldn’t get on with David Peace’s widely regarded book, The Damned United, which allegedly covers Brian Clough’s infamous 44 days at Leeds United, but, in fact, dwells on his Derby days as well. True, many people who knew Clough intimately claim that his voice booms with uncanny accuracy from the pages of Peace’s book. But I like my fiction to be fiction and my facts to be facts.

Then again, I hardly knew Brian Clough, so who am I to judge? On the first occasion we met, he misheard my name and spent the rest of the evening calling me “Tom”, and he stuck to that on the few occasions we met subsequently. However, I did know Duncan Hamilton rather better.

For many years, Hamilton covered Nottingham Forest for the Nottingham Evening Post, which meant that he did enjoy more than just a passing acquaintanceship with one of the greatest, and most eccentric, football managers of all time.
Hamilton and Clough became friends (or maybe it was almost a father-son relationship), so when the journalist was persuaded to write a book about the manager, the result, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me is a vivid, often painful memoir of Clough’s triumphs and subsequent decline into the dark pit of alcoholism.

The pair meet for the first time on a late winter’s afternoon in February 1977, in Clough’s dowdy office at the City Ground, when Hamilton is working for a short-lived local newspaper, Nottingham Sport. The 18-year-old reporter is wearing his only suit (“a pale grey check with matching waistcoat, and lapels as wide as angel’s wings”) and carries a brand-new notebook, three pens (“in case two broke”) and the list of questions he’d typed up on his mother’s kitchen table using the Imperial typewriter that she’d bought for him on weekly hire-purchase from the Empire Stores catalogue.

Actually, it is Clough who asks most of the questions. Establishing that Hamilton’s father is a Labour-voting miner from the north-east, and that his mother always has his tea on the table, Clough is satisfied with the young reporter’s credentials, and a bond is formed. He even offers to help the teenager cure his stammer.

It is at these meetings in Clough’s office, on the team bus and in various hotels, that much of the book’s action takes place, as Clough pontificates on all manner of subjects, pours out his innermost feelings, and sings Frank Sinatra songs. And poor Hamilton never knows which Clough he is getting. One day he is welcomed like a favourite son, the next he being called “shithead”.

Eventually, he learns to read the signs from a distance and saves himself a lot of aggravation and not a little embarrassment.
The bitter regret of Clough’s resignation from Derby County is a recurring theme as Old Big ’Ead can’t stop thinking that everything Liverpool won in the late 1970s and early 80s, Derby would have won instead, had he not stormed out of the Baseball Ground.

The break-up with Peter Taylor is particularly painful reading. The pair teamed up as Middlesbrough players in the 1950s because Clough needed a father figure at the club, while Taylor needed a protégé. When the pair go into management together, however, there is always lingering resentment from Taylor that the assistant is consistently paid a lot less than the manager.

It gets petty. After Clough’s receives an inscribed radio as the local paper’s Citizen of the Month (he apparently talked a man out of jumping in the River Trent), Taylor marches into Hamilton’s office, hands over his own battered set, and demands the same.
The catalyst for the fall-out is Taylor’s autobiography, apparently written without Clough’s knowledge but blatantly riding on the back of the master, even down to the title. Clough tells Hamilton, not all that convincingly: “I don’t mind anyone making a few bob out of me. But not when I haven’t given them permission to make it.”

Taylor, meanwhile, is unhappy at his fee from the Evening Post for the second serial rights and begins giving Hamilton classified small ads for small household objects he wants to sell: “You got the book cheap. I deserves some free,” he grumbles.

There is a spat between Clough and Taylor about who should take home the leftover wine from the team coach (“His garage must look like a French vineyard,” mutters Clough). When Hamilton wonders why Taylor keeps taking the team to Scarborough for the day, Albert, the coach driver, reveals that Clough’s assistant has a flat there; he’s too mean to hire a furniture van, so it’s a wardrobe last week, table and chairs this.

The final bust-up comes when Taylor quickly returns from retirement to take over at Derby again. Walking along the banks of the Trent, he asks Clough to rejoin him at the Baseball Ground, but, of course, the Rams now have little to offer a manager who has twice won the European Cup. Taylor’s “poaching” of winger John Robertson is the final straw.

When Taylor died in Majorca in 1993, the pair hadn’t spoken for seven years. Back in his dingy office, Clough slumps in his chair: “What a waste. All those years we could have been sitting together, having a beer.”

It is beer, or rather white wine, champagne, whisky, gin and vodka that are Clough’s undoing. He’s always liked a drink but now it is out of hand. There is a sulphurous coach ride back from Second Division Blackburn where Forest have lost in the FA Cup. Clough, eyes narrowed to blazing slits, flecks of foaming spittle around his mouth, screams obscenities at his players, then orders the lights on the bus to be extinguished.

This is the same Clough who pays off the debts of people he doesn’t know, simply because he feels they’ve been hard done-by, buys drinks, and even entire meals, for strangers in pubs and restaurants. He even writes to the editor of the Evening Post asking him to pay £125 of his £500-a-time weekly articles straight to Hamilton, his ghost. “It’ll help you pay off your mortgage,” he tells the reporter, who, at the time, is earning £12,000 a year.

But then Clough famously thumps a supporter, on the banks of the Trent he whacks a fisherman across the calves with a walking stick, grabs Maradona by the testicles, and literally boots journalists he doesn’t like out of the main door of the City Ground. For much of the time, Hamilton is by his side, watching in horror.

The reporter is also in Clough’s office on the day he retires (sacked, actually, after a dreadful season that ended in relegation, manager and football team disintegrating together). The walls are stripped bare, the desktop swept clean. An untidy heap of bin liners and cardboard boxes contain 18 years’ worth of accumulated memories. “So, this is how it all ends,” Clough says distractedly to himself.

Hamilton’s superb book pours light on Clough from every angle: unspeakably rude; unfathomably kind; immensely witty; shy, and yet a man desperately in need of attention. He offers Hamilton a regular lift on the team coach, which, for the reporter, means hours of hanging round, so each time he buys a book to read. Clough always borrows it and never returns it; in the end, Hamilton buys two copies of everything.

The only one that Clough gives him straight back is Sigmund Freud’s The Psychopathology Of Everyday Life. “I don’t remember Freud winning a European Cup Final,” he snorts.

European Cups or not, Hamilton doubts that Clough would flourish today. For a start, he wouldn’t be able to take a small club like Derby or Forest from the second tier to the win top prize. He wouldn’t be able to cope with agents or bully mega-rich players. And although it is tempting to think that Clough’s starkly simple tactics (build the spine, keep clean sheets, put every player in his best position and just let him play) would succeed, in fact they wouldn’t.

The day after his final game, Clough invites Hamilton to his Derby home for Sunday lunch. Before the meal, the great man takes Hamilton’s four-year-old daughter into the garden and watches her play with the family’s dog.

“That is bliss,” he tells his guest. “If you want to know what life’s all about, it’s right here in front of your eyes. A lovely garden. A lovely bairn enjoying herself. Oh, so precious.”

Some time later, Hamilton pops back to see how Clough is doing. He looked thinner and paler, his slow body movements suggesting stiffening joints. Clough insists that he isn’t missing football at all, but Hamilton doesn’t believe him. When it is time to go, Clough sees his visitor to the door. “When you come back, we’ll sing a Sinatra song,“ he calls out as Hamilton climbs into his taxi. “You make me feel so young…” he clicks his fingers in time to the music playing in his head.

Finally, he takes off the tweed cap that he insists on wearing in the house, waves it, and calls out: “Hey, don’t forget me.”

In September 2004, Duncan Hamilton is deputy editor of the Yorkshire Post in Leeds, where Clough spent 44 days as manager of Don Revie’s team until he was sent on his way with enough money to ensure that he would never have to worry about such things again. A decade earlier (the year after Clough retired) Hamilton had decided to give up writing about football. Or even watching it. He was sick of the game.

Now he learns of Brian Clough’s death. A million images come swimming back. Eventually, he cries. And then, thank goodness, he writes this book.

Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years With Brian Clough by Duncan Hamilton (Fourth Estate, £14.99)