By Duncan Hamilton
Fourth Estate, 2007
The judges of this year’s William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award were truly spoilt for choice. The definitive biographies of Bobby Charlton and Shane Warne; the previously untold tragic tale of the 1979 Fastnet sailing race; the extraordinary story of golf’s founding father and son; and an American account of football fandom this side of the pond.
And yet despite the strength of the opposition, “the judges were as close to unanimous as any panel is ever likely to be,” said Graham Sharpe, spokesman for William Hill. The winner: ‘Provided You Don’t Kiss Me,’ Duncan Hamilton’s opus magnum on the life of the inimitable Brian Clough.
If only all sports biographies had to be written to such a standard. Amid the mind-numbing string of ghost-written ‘My Side’ autobiographies typically siphoned from the Premiership cash cow, Hamilton’s work – much like his mentor – is a brutally honest and brilliant critique of arguably the finest football manager England has ever produced.
Brian Clough was a phenomenon. His playing record of 204 goals in 222 appearances before a knee injury forced him into early retirement is impressive enough. His managerial career is the stuff of legends, guiding first Derby County and the Nottingham Forest, both mediocre second-division teams, to become division one champions, and managing Nottingham Forest to two European Cups. And yet these achievements do not even begin to tell the story of the man.
Football fanzine When Saturday Comes noted during his tenure that ‘Forest’ was an acronym for Friends Of Really Eccentric Socialist Tyrant. Clough was the definition of maverick. “Clough’s eighteen years at the City Ground was a period of madness punctuated by wonderful bursts of sanity”, Hamilton states, and then goes on to prove it.
The ego, the drinking, the rages, the obsession with money, the unpredictability, the humour, the fall-outs, the stubbornness – all are depicted in what at times could well prove a difficult read for those in the East Midlands or the North East for whom Clough provided some of the seminal moments of their lives.
But above all though, there is the sense of a man in love with football. Both as a player and manager, Clough believed himself to be God’s gift, and with a CV as rich as his, it does beg the question why an England career never really materialised.
The likes of Stuart Pearce, Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill are a testament to Clough’s ability to recognise and nurture footballing talent; and in Hamilton, it appears the Old Big ‘Ead could pick hacks as well as players. The former Nottingham Evening Post writer arrived at the Forest training ground as a stammering, anxious teenager, undoubtedly unaware that the interview he was about to conduct would dictate the course of the subsequent two decades – and beyond – of his professional life.
From there, Hamilton became an integral part of the Clough regime, and in time one of his most trusted confidants. For many, this is a book that has been crying out to be written and Hamilton was uniquely positioned to write it, although in truth it may have taken the death of its protagonist to allow the author the literary freedom to do him justice.
If nothing else, someone should slip a copy onto the desks of those choosing the next England manager. Talk of taking risks and appointing a man who ruffles feathers but get results is once again in the air, and while Clough, might have been a PR disaster waiting to happen, in his pomp he was a footballing mastermind.
Who knows? Should the FA make a bold move, perhaps in twenty years’ time we will read another worthy biography. On both counts, we can but hope.
Michael Beattie is a student in Sports journalism at London College of Communications.