A man worth knowing

I’VE been reading Duncan Hamilton’s book on Brian Clough, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me. I don’t need to tell you it’s good: it won the William Hill sports book of the year award in 2007.

At the back of my edition is a supplementary section, featuring a short article by Hamilton reflecting on the book’s reception, its critical and commercial success and the inevitable comparisons with David Peace’s extraordinary novel The Damned United.

Hamilton, I should perhaps explain, was a local newspaper journalist in Nottingham, responsible for covering Forest through all but the first two of Clough’s 18-and-a-half years as their manager. He saw the generosity, the eccentricity and the temper. He saw the glory of two European Cup triumphs and the sad decline which culminated in relegation from the Premier League. Hamilton is, perhaps more than any other journalist, qualified to write a portrayal of Clough at Forest.

During almost every interview to promote his book, Hamilton was asked if he recognised the Clough portrayed in The Damned United. Hamilton replied that he didn’t, but qualified this by suggesting that it was hardly surprising. In his eyes, the scarring nature of what happened to Clough during those 44 days at Leeds, together with the financial security of a pay-off worth around £850,000 in today’s money, changed him – made him a wiser, more secure man.

Hamilton is not the only person who struggles to reconcile the Clough of Peace’s novel with the Clough he knew. And the film of The Damned United, which goes on general release this Friday, has reopened old wounds. Clough’s widow Barbara condemned the novel, and rejected an invitation to the preview of the film. Johnny Giles called Peace’s work ‘outrageous and wrong’. BBC radio journalist Pat Murphy claimed he had seen 17 factual errors in the film. Martin O’Neill, in his customary measured way, suggested that the movie was less than accurate in its portrayal of Clough’s long-time assistant Peter Taylor.

I first read The Damned United when a friend loaned me his copy. Taken in isolation, it is an extraordinary novel; beautifully written, stuffed with compelling characters and almost unbearably claustrophobic. I was impressed enough to go out and buy my own copy. One of the first things I noticed was that it was a page shorter than my friend’s edition.

That was because certain passages regarding Giles had been edited out. In February last year, Giles took the publishers to the High Court, claiming that the book had wrongly cast him as a key figure in Clough’s sacking at Leeds in September 1974. Giles won the case, an apology and substantial legal damages.

Peace and his publishers should, in my view, have foreseen such difficulties when the novel was published in August 2006. Writing an historical fiction about Clough was possible because the dead cannot sue for libel. But to weave the living into the story – and to give Giles such a prominent role without attempting to gain his approval – was asking for trouble.

So it was intriguing to hear Giles interviewed by Murphy for Radio Five Live last week. Giles’ indignation at Peace’s novel is obvious throughout the conversation. But although Giles maintains – with reference to his High Court victory – that he had no role in Clough’s dismissal, it is clear that the pair did not see eye to eye.

“He’s upset a lot of people, particularly the Clough family, with a portrayal which, from my experience, is totally fictitious,” Giles said right at the start of the interview. “I was portrayed in the book in a fictitious way, having conversations with Brian Clough that never happened.”

Later on, though, Giles – who describes Clough as a ‘genius’ during the same interview – does acknowledge that the two men had differences of opinion during their short time working together.

“I had my individual difference with him, but that’s beside the point,” Giles told Murphy. “What he did for the game of football was great. He actually contributed in a big way. For that to be portrayed in this way by that guy [David Peace], who I don’t think is a football man, is outrageous.”

And Giles goes on to confirm that Peace was spot on with his account of Clough’s first meeting with his Leeds players, when he told them to throw their medals in the bin, because he had won them by cheating. For all the legal problems The Damned United created, and for all the upset it caused among the living, it has to be said that Peace did perhaps as good a job with the factual side of the novel as he could have done.

It is four-and-a-half years since Clough’s death, and yet he seems more alive than ever, thanks to Peace and Hamilton, thanks to the cinema, thanks to the ITV1 documentary which will be broadcast tonight at 10.35pm. Really, though, it is thanks to the man himself, whose managerial achievements and his compelling personality ensured an immortality of sorts.

Hamilton stated as much in the article at the back of his book. When he asked Peace why he had chosen to write about Clough, the novelist replied that he hadn’t. Peace’s original intention had been to write about Don Revie’s Leeds – but Clough took over the narrative until he became the central character.

Forest have fallen a long way since the Clough era. When I made my first visit to the City Ground in November, they were struggling near the bottom of the Championship. I was there for a match against Birmingham, then – as now – near the top. Two days before the game, a statue of Clough had been unveiled in the centre of Nottingham. Colin Calderwood, who would survive only a few more weeks in the manager’s chair, called on his players to take inspiration from Ol’ Big ‘Ead.

It seemed to work. Forest played above themselves that day, earned a 1-1 draw and should have won. I couldn’t resist opening my match report with a reference to the great man. “Brian Clough is still inspiring Nottingham Forest from beyond the grave,” I wrote.

Perhaps, though, it’s too easy to get carried away. Perhaps it would be more sensible to spend a few minutes listening to O’Neill, a man who spent six years playing for Clough at Forest.

In a lengthy radio interview with Murphy, O’Neill chooses his words carefully, but sums it up as follows: “Perhaps people who don’t know the characters would go and watch the film just for pure enjoyment and think that the Clough character portrayed in the film would have been a man worth knowing. And I think from that point of view, the film is basically OK.”

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