Brian Clough, 26th December 1962

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 5, 2019

Boxing Day 1962 and Sunderland’s Brian Clough grimaces in pain at Roker Park. Chasing a through-ball from Len Ashurst, Clough collided with Bury goalkeeper Chris Harker. The frozen pitch left his face covered in blood, the contact tore both his cruciate and medial ligaments in his knee.

Twenty-four Second Division performances that season had brought twenty-four goals but now, at 27, his career was effectively over.

Viewed from the perspective of what happened next, it has always seemed like a roadbump on the journey to managerial immortality. Clough would finish his career with league titles won for Derby County and Nottingham Forest and, of course, having captured back-to-back European Cups with the latter. In those few moments, though, after Clough had tried to get to his feet only for his knee joint to give way, and as Bob Stokoe had stood over him, taunting him with accusations of play-acting, that future would have been impossible to imagine.

In those seconds, Clough’s life would have seemed altered forever. He had no formal qualifications, he’d even failed his eleven plus, and the ICI factory would have been looming in the distance. Players of Clough’s era weren’t tbe beneficiaries of vast insurance payouts, neither did their meagre wages offer any sort of protection against misfortune; injury more often than not meant a return to the wherever it was that they had come from and, more often than not, that was a bleak place with no chanceo of social mobility.

Clough would spend the next three months in plaster and, once it had been removed, eighteen more months relentlessly toiling for an illusory fitness. He ran the steps at Roker Park and the sands of Seaburn beach. He would play again, appearing three times for Sunderland in the opening months of the 1964-65 season, but his darting pace was gone and by that Christmas his retirement was a formality.

By October of 1965, Clough had been appointed by Hartlepools and his ascent to legend had very quietly (and modestly) begun. In the between time, he had also gained his first coaching experience, managing Sunderland’s ‘A’ team in the interim between semi-official retirement and leaving the club. Given the speed of that timeline, the transition sounds painless enough. Needless to say, that’s a selective reading of a period which evidently took an extraordinary toll on him.

Brian was a very sick and sad young man. He hated ever member of the club from first team down to the A team because they could do something he couldn't - go out on a Saturday and play football. Boy, was he bitter. George Hardwick (from Nobody Ever Says Thank You, by Jonathan Wilson)

Bitter and likely heart-broken. In early January 1963, his wife Barbara suffered a miscarriage. During his recovery, she would then give birth to their eldest son.

As with almost everything to do with Clough, his injury is often presented as a necessary evil – as almost the architect of his managerial creed and a temporary inconvenience which afforded him a head-start within his true calling. There’s some validity in that, but it rather glosses over the human cost of the experience. Within the same month Clough had lost his career and his first child and, within a year and a half, he would find himself facing the prospect of raising a young family without a job. Depression was inevitable, the dilution of his self-worth also a given, and it’s hardly a surprise that this period of his life would bring him into contact with his great nemesis, alcohol, for the first time.

His face reflected a dreadful year. If it had been any longer, he'd have gone to pot. He was a no-hoper: jobless, boozing, and on his way out. He'd been having a really rough time. One minute the world was at his feet, the next his career was at a dead-end. It was an overweight and a careworn Brian Clough I was looking at. Peter Taylor (on encountering Clough at Hartlepools), With Clough By Taylor

Now imagine Peter Taylor’s description without the European Cups and the happy ending. That’s where the resonance of the photograph lies – not in Clough’s private misfortune, significant as it was, but in the many, many other instances in which life didn’t compensate the fallen player. For them, the bitterness and sense of doom which evidently overwhelmed him in those months would never have lifted.

Further reading:

Duncan Hamilton: Provided You Don’t Kiss Me.

Peter Taylor: With Clough By Taylor.

Jonathan Wilson: Nobody Ever Says Thank You.

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