Clough and me

Clough ran ahead down the street with all the kids behind him, shouting, ‘‘We are the champions!’’

I once spent a day with Brian Clough, which was excellent, funny, informative and great fun – except for one little incident. Well, everyone else has got in their ha’porth, not to mention their books, documentaries, TV series. Strange how this Cloughfest has happened, five years after he died.

It was in the autumn of 1972, the season after Derby County, of all clubs, had won the League title.

I was supposed to see him at 12 in his office, but as I got there he drove off in his silver Mercedes, wearing a horrible green nylon shirt and felt carpet slippers, the clothes he’d been wearing all morning while watching his players train. He’d gone home, so I was told, to have lunch with his wife. Weird. Managers, then and now, never eat with their wives, not till they retire. He came back about two o’clock and I filed into his office behind a bevy of local hacks, all adoring him. One told me his income had gone up fivefold in the five years since Cloughy arrived – he was always in the news, or making news.

His office was large, with a bar running across one side. The hacks were given drinks by Cloughy, who then padded up and down, bawling out reporters when they asked stupid questions, rubbishing his enemies, such as Leeds United, and shouting obscenities at a TV blaring away in the corner. When they all left, I was ushered into a seat for my promised 30 minutes – which somehow stretched to six hours. Players came in, he made phone calls, then just before four o’clock, he said, “Bloody hell, I’m late,” and he jumped into his Mercedes again and we drove like mad to his home.

It was a birthday party for his oldest child, Simon, aged eight that day. Cloughy said, “Let’s have you,” and led all 14 kids out of the house – including his other son, Nigel (now manager of Derby, then aged six), plus daughter Elizabeth, aged five. Clough ran ahead down the semi-suburban street with all the kids behind him, shouting, “We are the champions!”

We came to a park, where he divided them into two teams. He was the ref, but gave the whistle to Elizabeth, telling her to blow it when instructed. He treated them all like professional footballers, bollocking them for mistakes, making them take throw-ins properly, even though their little arms were not up to it. “Do that one more time, Si, and you’re off.” Even his little daughter didn’t escape. “I’ve warned you, Lib. If you bugger around any more, I’ll take that whistle.”

His wife, Barbara, was clearly grateful when they all trailed back home, nicely exhausted. While they tucked in to their tea he led me into his front room, where he opened a bottle of champagne and told me how he’d always been a socialist and had been asked several times to stand as a Labour MP. I made some comment about him now being middle class. “You can say I live a middle-class life. You can say I’ve got a middle-class car. It’s only your opinion. But this house isn’t middle class. It’s bloody Buckingham Palace.”

I don’t think any Prem manager today would give such time to a journalist he’d never met before. Nor would he have done what Clough did earlier that day, when I was in his office. He called in Archie Gemmill, his team captain, and shouted at him, making him repeat stupid things he must not do again, humiliating him in front of a total stranger. Was he showing off, part of some feud with Gemmill I wasn’t privy to? Or was it because, despite all his many noble virtues and qualities, there was a nasty streak, not far away?

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue