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Dacre’s press gang, the real Brian Clough and my time with the Foxes

Jon Holmes' diary.

Several hundred years ago, in my first week at Leeds University, minded on a career in journalism, I joined the student newspaper. The editor of Union News was a serious young man called Paul Dacre. He quickly set me to work on the tale of a minor assault on the student union porter Sid. From there, I graduated to interviews and features. Most of the entire year’s budget was devoted to the three editions to be entered for the university newspaper of the year awards. Page-three pin-ups, “Leeds Lovelies”, were introduced. The final edition of the autumn term carried the strapline “Not only a Leeds Lovely but a Christmas cracker, too”.

It all seemed to me at the time a proper, grown-up journalistic experience and I thought it only right that every day should end with the consumption of vast quantities of alcohol in the “local” – in our case, the union bar. It was just along the basement corridor from the newspaper office, which was filled with cigarette smoke and lavishly equipped with a couple of typewriters. Why, one of our number could even touch-type. Not once did Dacre join us for a pint. When we swept the boards at the awards, he came into the office afterwards but only to announce he was “off to get a degree” and would see us. I didn’t see him again for 25 years.

Like a virgin

Writing of Leeds reminds me of Brian Clough and David Peace’s novel about him – The Damned Utd. I first encountered Clough early in my career as a football agent (journalism having been swiftly discarded as financially unsound), when, acting for the England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, I became involved in Clough’s efforts to sign him for Nottingham Forest. Negotiations took several days.

Dressed for most of the time in squash gear, Clough performed like a dazzling stand-up comedian and all-round entertainer, appearing and disappearing on a whim, to the amusement and bemusement of his staff, the intrigued footballer and his callow adviser. Financial sophistication was not high on the Clough agenda, which for his part seemed to involve paper bags and large wads of pound notes. Brian and his sidekick, Peter Taylor, dismissed me as a “financial virgin”.

The Damned Utd concentrates on the 44 turbulent days Clough spent as Leeds manager in 1974. It captures perfectly the man’s rage at the football establishment, his descent into alcoholism and his love/hate relationship with Taylor. In reality, these were probably more features of his life later, after he’d fallen out with Taylor. I once had an argument with Hugh McIlvanney, our greatest sports journalist, about Peace’s novel. Hugh took the side of Johnny Giles, who was cruelly portrayed as the main villain of the Leeds dressing-room cabal that did for Clough at that club. Giles successfully sued the author. The film adaptation, though enlivened by a brilliant impression of Clough by Michael Sheen, was a sadly neutered version of the book.

Hello, playmates

Peace is now completing a novel about another charismatic and entertaining football manager, Bill Shankly. “Shanks” was an oldtime enthusiast who transformed an ailing Liverpool team into the late-20th-century footballing superpower. I am indebted to McIlvanney for this story about the day Bill introduced his new Scottish signing to the press with the words: “This is my centrehalf, Ron Yeats. Take a walk around him. He’s a colossus. With him in the side, we can play Arthur Askey in goal.”

Driving home the point

For more than 50 years, I have made the journey home after matches from Filbert Street, the home ground of my boyhood club, Leicester City, although the ground moved 400 yards along the side of the Grand Union Canal about ten years ago. In the old days, the police turned the nearby Upperton Road into a one-way thoroughfare in order to clear the traffic as quickly as possible and speed us on our way. Recently, however, “health and safety” people have taken an interest and cars are held in the stadium car parks for half an hour after the final whistle. A series of barriers has turned the journey home into an obstacle course worthy of It’s a Knockout and many long-term supporters have been encouraged to stay away.

Half a mile away, the recently extended Leicester Tigers rugby ground, Welford Road, sits between two of the busiest roads in and out of the city. The ground has turnstiles a few feet from the thronging traffic. Their car parks do not seem to be subject to the same restrictions. Police overtime at football matches is paid for by the club. Surely, I suggested to my former policeman friend, this hasn’t encouraged the overzealous application of health and safety considerations? His expression was not so certain.

Sky-blues thinking

During another phase of my life, I passed a short spell as chairman of Leicester after the club fell into administration. Laughingly, I describe myself as the most successful chairman ever, because we lost only one league game during that six-month period and gained promotion to the Premier League, which merely goes to show that chairmen contribute little to clubs other than money.

In the final throes of the promotion push, the Foxes played Coventry at their old Highfield Road ground. I had been tipped off that the directors’ car park was a tight affair, so, rather than risk my oversize estate car, I borrowed my daughter’s ageing Golf, equipped as it was with a rather fetching nodding pig on the dashboard and a swivelling Elvis figure dangling from the rear-view mirror. I swung the Volkswagen into the spot reserved for the visiting club chairman, only to be joined seconds later by the Jaguar limousine of Geoffrey Robinson, socialist millionaire MP, former proprietor of this organ and long-time Coventry City benefactor.

As I walked over to make myself known, Robinson gave me a look that can only be described as dismissive. Fortunately, we ran out 2-1 winners. I resigned as chairman at the end of the season and am happy to rejoice in the status of supporter. Whatever happened to Geoffrey, and Coventry, for that matter?

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez