Too much Clough could kill him

by , March 10, 2009

With the release of The Damned United forthcoming, it seems nobody can restrain themselves from jumping on the bandwagon. Soon our television schedules and newspaper supplements will be full to bursting with Cloughie. As we head towards Clough overload, I can’t help wondering if Brian has now become the Princess Diana of football folklore, guaranteed to bring in viewing figures and sell papers with each unearthing, but not guaranteed to actually tell us anything new.

Over the weekend I noticed trailers for Brian Clough documentaries from both ITV and Sky (and no doubt the BBC will have a go too). I think it’s safe to say that the bulk of these programmes will be comprised of archive footage of Clough’s Forest and Derby teams boldly going where no provincial Midlands clubs had gone before, and talking head reflections from professional Clough raconteurs like John McGovern and Kenny Burns.

But how is that going to be different from the respectful paeans broadcast four and a half years ago? Well I also think it’s safe to say that these films will, like the film that has inspired them, focus rather more heavily on the disastrous 44 days at the eponymous Damned United. Fair enough – it’s a fascinating and engaging period in the great man’s life, as David Peace’s book demonstrated.

What troubles me is that these documentaries are being advertised as re-examinations of his life, as if they will be uncovering a previously unseen side to Clough, a dark side. The problem is, there isn’t a dark side left to be uncovered. We already know everything there is to know about Brian Clough, good and bad. It would be impossible to slander Clough with anything he hadn’t already discussed in public himself. We watched his painful battle with alcoholism, we read about his guilt for the way he treated Justin Fashanu, we saw him contrite but forthright after punching fans on the pitch. In short, we’ve seen it all.

You see, while these ‘re-examinations’ will set out to shock us akin to revealing that Princess Diana had a crack habit, all they will inevitably do is re-enforce what we already know – that Brian Clough was a deeply complex character who sits somewhere between God-like figure and arch rogue. Few reading this article would deny that he was one of the greatest sportspeople the world has ever seen, but just as few would deny that he was also known to wantonly flaunt the rules of his sport in order to get his way. He was both a bitter alcoholic and messiah to the people of Nottingham and Derby. The two facts aren’t mutually exclusive.

I suppose I should accept that this latest flurry of Cloughmania is just, as I said above, cynical bandwagon-jumping. How else do you explain the Evening Post putting the ‘news’ that the Clough family are upset about the Damned Utd – a book published in 2006 – on the front page last Saturday?

But how much re-examination can one man’s life stand? Whether the documentary-makers want to celebrate him, demonise him or just cash in, all they are really doing is building up another layer of myth around him. The more they try and get under the skin of Brian Clough, the further they actually get from him, the more they diminish the man behind the myths.

You see, Brian Clough wasn’t a superhero or a supervillain. He was someone who loved his family, who sometimes lost his temper, who went through good and bad times in his job, who drank too much, who had a wicked sense of humour, who had principles, who sometimes compromised on those principles, who had regrets, who had dreams. Sounds pretty much like your average bloke to me.

If you forget that Brian Clough was just an average bloke who just happened to have exceptional talent, you forget why he was so loved in this city. It’ll be hard to keep hold of that when in a few weeks’ time you can’t move for Clough – and it’ll be all Super-Brian because average blokes don’t make for good films or telly programmes. But fortunately, back in the 1970s, they did make for good football managers. No amount of re-examination is ever going to change that.