Jim White

Why Cloughie would still cut it

Jim White

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With more advanced publicity than the return of Jonathan
Ross, The Damned United is released this week. And it's worth the fuss. Witty,
nostalgic, intelligent, with a brilliant central performance from Michael Sheen,
it is unquestionably the best film about football ever made (and yes, that does
include There's Only One Jimmy Grimble).

Ostensibly a dramatisation of David Peace's novel about
Brian Clough's 44 days of failure at Leeds United in the late summer of 1974, in
fact only the situation and the title have been borrowed from the book.

Whereas Peace's work was an internal monologue, driven
by paranoia, soaked in whisky and doused in more effing and blinding than a Roy
Chubby Brown DVD, Peter Morgan's film script is much lighter, funnier, warmer.

The Clough who emerges is a generous family man, a
kind-hearted soul whose only serious flaw is the scale of his ego, a beast on
which he finds himself impaled at Elland Road.

The movie's reading of why it went wrong for Clough
there - that he completely misjudged the mood of the players, that he foolishly
confronted them rather than trying to win their confidence, that he was cast
adrift without the genial restraining influence of his sidekick Peter Taylor -
seems entirely logical.

At its conclusion he has clearly learned from his
experience (if nothing else he has sought reconciliation with Taylor). It seems more
likely that the character who emerges from the film would have gone on to win
the European Cup twice rather than the nervy, angry, embittered soul we are
confronted with in the book.

But whatever reading you have of Cloughie, one question
will spring to mind as you walk out the cinema: would he survive in the game
today? Would his eccentricities, his aggressive attitude to his masters, above
all the ever open nature of his mouth be tolerated?

To my mind there is only one answer: for sure. Any club
worth its salt would want a man of his scale at the helm. If Cloughie were
around now he would be at the top of the game, almost certainly leading one of
the Champions League clubs, even if he had been obliged to drag them into the
elite by the boot straps.

Here's why. Phil Brown is one the Premier League's
brighter young managers. From a distance, he appears to be a man in thrall to
the modern way, driven by Prozone stats, bleep test results and body mass index
returns.

But whatever the benefits of sports science, he
acknowledges that 95 per cent of a manager's job remains influencing a player's
mental condition. It is, he insists, all about psychology. And Cloughie was a
master of psychology. Self-trained perhaps, but he knew exactly how to motivate.

You get a hint of some of his wiles in the film. There
are two particular moments when his pre-match team talks are so good they should
be framed and hung up on the wall. He was - as Brown suggests you have to be - a
consummate actor. His stage was the dressing room, his script wholly
extemporised. What he did was keep everyone on their toes. Players loved him
because he entertained as much as anything. For men who fear boredom above all
else, Cloughie was a delight because there was never a dull moment with him.

Sure, in the modern world he would have to reign in some
of his excesses. Whisky is no longer tolerated as managerial fuel. Plus it is
probably no longer appropriate to floor your centre back with a single punch at
half time. But, as the film suggests, Clough was someone who knew how to learn.
He learned from his time at Leeds. He learned
the failure was as much his fault as anyone else's. He vowed not to make the
same mistake again. And he didn't, adapting his act perfectly to the conditions
he found at Nottingham Forest. Of course a man that naturally
cunning would be able to adapt again.

An obsessive, an actor, with just a hint of madness in
his eyes: there are many of today's managers who share the Cloughie blueprint.
You could name five in the Premier League alone whose bearing has more than a
hint of the great man.

And that is without mentioning the most successful
Clough clone of them all, the one currently in charge of Italy's
leading club. There is no doubt about it, Clough would have survived all right,
for this one simple reason: genius never goes out of
fashion.

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