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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

When England's Greatest Genius Took Over England's Best Team

Illustration for article titled When England's Greatest Genius Took Over England's Best Team

If there's one sports novel you should read, it's probably The Damned Utd, David Peace's 2006 account of Brian Clough's disastrous 44-day tenure with a Leeds United side that detested him as much as he detested them. On one level it works as a meticulous, if fictional, reconstruction of a crucial period in the career of one of European soccer's most brilliant and fascinating figures; on another, as one of the most insightful portrayals ever put to print of the insecurity, pride, and vanity that make up the greater part of nearly any successful coach's character. In the end it's a book less about soccer or even sports than about friendship and the darker side of genius.


The following excerpt tracks two early days of Clough's stint with Leeds as he thinks back to his days with the provincial Derby County side he improbably led to the top of the First Division and a deep run in Europe. It comes courtesy of Melville House, which is publishing the book in its first American edition.

Day Four

You drive down to a meeting with the Derby County directors at the Baseball Ground. The job's yours but it stil has to be ratified and confirmed by the full board, according to Sam. You've got the wife with you, the three bairns in the back of the Rover. You drop them by the swings in Normanton Park. You tell the wife you'll be back within the hour. You drive on to the Baseball Ground.

Sam Longson is waiting for you with the rest of the board: Sidney Bradley, Harry Paine, Bob Kirkland and three others who say nothing and whose names you do not catch. Turns out the board have been overwhelmed with appliations for the job, least that's what they're telling you. Turns out they have a shortlist of four—

Alan Ashman, Billy Bingham, Tommy Cummings, and you—

Turns out the job's not quite yours—

The Derby board do not even offer you a drink, so you help yourself.

'My injury finished me as a player and took away the thing I loved most in this world,' you tell them. 'But it did give me an early start in management at Hartlepools. Re-election had become an annual event for them, but I changed that. I cut the playing staff down. I got rid of the players who were crap. I brought in one or two who were slightly better than crap. Hartlepools finished eighth at the end of this season. I also built them a new stand as well as a new team and have left them solvent. But I didn't do it alone. I couldn't have done it without Peter Taylor, and I want him here with me at Derby. We come as a pair or not at all.'


They shuffle their papers and fiddle with their pens, these worried rich men.

'Me and Peter Taylor can turn this club around. We can guarantee you that you'll not finish as low as you have this season and, more to the point, we can get the public off your backs. But we can only do it together—


'Me and Peter Taylor!'

They are interested now, these worried rich men, thinking of walking the streets of Derby without abuse, thinking of holding their heads up high again with their wives on their arms, thinking of finally getting the appreciation they deserve. They nod in the direction of their chairman, these worried rich men—


They have been overwhelmed by you, the shortlist down to one—

'I remember when you played here with Sunderland,' says Sam Longson. 'Pointing here, pointing there. Shouting at this one, shouting at that one. Telling everyone what to do. Lot of folk said you were arrogant, but I said you were a leader. That's what we need here: a leader.'


'And that's what you'll get,' you tell him. 'I promise you that. But I want a contract because you've got seven directors here and, within a month, at least one of them will want us gone. I promise you that and all.'

'Mr. Clough,' says Longson. 'Your salary shall be £5,000 a year and your assistant's shall be £2,500. Furthermore, £70,000 will be available for new players and you shall both have contracts, don't you worry about that.'


Eight hours later you get back to Normanton Park; your boys are asleep on the swings, your wife and daughter curled up on a bench.


Saturday's come, with Saturday's stink. The sweat and the mud, the liniment and the grease. The steam and the soap, the sewer and the shampoo. The beer and the wine, the spirits and the cigars—


It's only a friendly, only a testimonial. But it's still a game, still my first.

I watch them climb up the steps onto the coach with their paperback books and their packs of cards and I count the hearts


Not one among them.

No one speaks and no one smiles. But the journey to Leeds Road, Huddersfield, is supposed to be a short one.


I sit down next to Bremner. I ask him, 'You get my telegram, did you?'

'What telegram?' he says.

'The one I sent from Majorca,' I tell him. 'The one I sent inviting you and your family to join me and mine for a few days in the sun. The one in which I said how proud I was to be the new manager of Leeds United.'


'No,' he says and looks back down at his paperback book—

The Beautiful Couple.

I am first off the coach and the reception is warm. I sign autographs for the kids and shake hands with their dads—


It's only a friendly, only a testimonial.

Through the doors. Down the corridors. Round the corners. Up the stairs. Into the boardroom. Into the bar. Into the spirits—


The handshakes and the backslaps—

Then Jimmy is in my ear—

'They're waiting,' he whispers. 'They want to know who's playing.'

'Bring them up here,' I laugh. 'Get a few pints down them.'

'Come on, Boss,' he pleads, his eyes wide and his palms out—

I finish my drink. I light another fag. I follow him out of the boardroom. Down the stairs. Round the corner. Down the corridor—


To the doors of the visitors' dressing room. To the sound of silence—

I put out my fag. I take a deep breath. I open the door—

To the visitors' dressing room. To the stink of Saturday—

'Stewart, Reaney, Cooper, Bremner, McQueen, Hunter, Lorimer, Bates, Clarke, Giles, and Madeley,' I tell them and leave them, leave them to their dressing room. Their silence. The stink of Saturday—


'Mr Clough?'

I turn round; Bates stood in the corridor outside the dressing room.

'You bloody deaf, are you, young man?' I ask him. 'You're playing. Now go and get your fucking boots on.'


'I know,' says Mick Bates. 'But where do you want me to play? I'm usually in midfield but, with both me and Paul Madeley playing today, I was wondering if I should play further up, in front of Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner?'

'Look, you'll do what I bloody tell you and play where I fucking say,' I shout. 'Now fuck off back in there and get your bloody boots on before I change my mind and have you fucking cleaning them all next bloody week!'


I walk off down the corridor. Round the corner. Up the stairs—

I take a seat in the stands to watch the game. My first game as manager of Leeds United. The Champions of England. But they are not my team. Not mine—


They go a goal behind. Then the Irishman volleys one back—

I look at my watch. It's not there. Still missing.

Half-time, I'll take off Norman Hunter and stick on Trevor Cherry and then they'll pass better and score a winner, but I'm already looking through my address book—


Because they are not my team. Not mine. Not this team, and they never will be—

They are his team. His Leeds. His dirty, fucking Leeds and they always will be.

Not my team. Never. Not mine. Never. Not this team. Never—

They are not Derby County. Never Derby County.


There's a beard and a smell about Peter when he answers the door, dark rings around his eyes and fresh whiskey on his breath.


'Lillian's not bloody left you, has she?' you ask him.

'You never called,' he says. 'I thought you'd forgotten about us.'

'Forgotten?' you laugh. 'I didn't get back to the bloody house till midnight.'

'So?' he says.

'So, what?' you ask.

He wipes his mouth and he says, 'Don't make me beg, Brian. Please…'

'Beg?' you laugh. 'You'll never beg again. We're in! Bloody in!'

'Both of us?' he says. 'They agreed to take me and all?'

'Course they bloody did,' you tell him. 'Me and you.'

He's still smiling but now he's asking, 'How much?'

'£2,500 a year, with £70,000 for new players.'

'£2,500 a year each?'

'With £70,000 for new players,' you tell him again, and now he's jumping up and down on his doorstep and hugging you like you've both just come up on the bloody pools, and you're opening up the carrier bag in your hand and taking out the two bottles of champagne and the packets of cigars—


'We're on our way,' he's shouting. 'You and me; Clough and Taylor!'

Day Five

Sunday is the loneliest bloody day of the fucking week for the manager of a football club. The manager's office on a Sunday bloody morning, the loneliest fucking place on earth if you lost the day before—


Leeds won yesterday—just, thanks to Michael Bates—but I'm still the only one here today in this empty office, on this empty corridor, under this empty stand—

No on here today but me. No one here but me. No one but me—

In this empty ground, in this empty city, this empty land—

No wife. No kids. No Peter Taylor.

No fucking Taylor. No Judas—

Just me and the ghost of troubled Don—

Behind every door. Down every corridor. Round every corner.

I leave the office. His office. I walk down the corridors. His corridors. Round the corners. His corners. Down the tunnel. His tunnel Out into the light and onto the pitch—


I take my cigs, I take my drink. Across the blades, across the lines—

The cigarette which takes the skin off my lip. This drink which dulls the sting. Every single blade of grass of consequence every single of chalk an authority—


Upon the empty, deserted pitch beneath the empty, deserted stands—

This pitch where I played and only won, where I've managed and only lost, beneath these stands where I've heard them jeer and heard the swear, heard them whistle and heard them boo.


It starts to spit. To piss it down again. I take my cigs. I take my drink. I leave that pitch. I leave those stands. I walk back down the corridors. Round the corners and through the doors. To the office—

His fucking office—

I should be at home with my wife and kids, carving the roast and digging the garden, walking the dog and washing the car—


Not sat here in this office in my brand-new chair behind my brand-new desk, standing back up then sitting down again, picking up the phone and putting it back down, thinking about the week just gone and the one to come, planning and scheming, plotting and dreaming; every ground in the land, every manager the same—

Not home with the wife. Not home with the kids—

For when you're there, you wish you weren't…

No Sunday roast. No English garden—

When you're not, you wish you were—

Just a fat dog and a dirty car—

Because I'm never there. I'm always here.

Here in my brand-new chair behind my brand-new desk on the phone to Des Anderson, assistant manager at Derby County. I know they're still not happy, the players there. Not since we left. I know they'd all jump at the chance to play for me again—


John McGovern first. Then the entire first team, if I had my way—

My Way, indeed—

'How much?' I ask Des.


'Fuck off,' I tell him. 'You've got him on the bloody transfer list and playing in the fucking reserves.'


'Dave needs the money,' he says. 'It's as simple as that.'

'For what?' I ask him. 'I left him the best fucking team in bloody Europe.'

Des sighs. Des says, 'He wants Duncan McKenzie.'


'This lad at Forest. Twenty-eight goals last season. On a one-man strike now.'

'For what?'

'A better club,' laughs Des.

I put down the phone—

Who the fucking hell is Duncan McKenzie? Taylor would know, know everything about him. Especially a Nottingham lad. Chapter and verse. But he's not bloody here—


Fucking Taylor. Fucking Judas.

And he won't be at the Goldstone Ground either. Not on a Sunday. Not Taylor. So I call his house, his brand-new fucking flat beside the seaside. No answer—


Fucking Taylor. Fucking Judas.

Mike Bamber will have taken them all out for a slap-up Sunday lunch at his hotel. The Courtlands Hotel. Tayhor and his family. Bamber and his—


Oysters and smoked salmon. Champagne and caviar—

Dora Bryan on the next table. Bruce fucking Forsyth.

I pour myself another large Martell. The name on my cig pack—

Duncan McKenzie.

Whoever the fuck this McKenzie is, Dave Mackay wants him for Derby County, and if Dave Mackay wants him for Derby County, I want him for Leeds—


My Leeds. My new Leeds.

I get out my address book. I pour another Martell, light another cig and pick up the phone again. I make a few calls. Take folk from their roasts and their gardens—


Their dogs and their cars.

He's a popular lad this Duncan McKenzie. Bloody Tottenham want him as well. To replace Martin Chivers. Fucking Birmingham too. Very popular for a lad who quit football a month ago and has only trained with his local amateur side. Popular enough for Dave Mackay to have already offered Alan Brown £200,000 for him. Popular enough Alan Brown to have rejected it and all—


Popular enough for Brian Clough and my new Leeds United.

I drive back down to Derby on an empty stomach and an empty motorway. I show my face in the Midland Hotel and then out at the Kedleston Hall Hotel, where one thing leads to another, one drink to another, and I know I'm going to be late back home again, to another roast burnt, another garden overgrown, to another fat dog in another dirty car—


No son to my parents. No husband to my wife. No father to my kids—

But you can never bring it home—

Never. Never. Never.

Bring it home—


David Peace—named in 2003 one of Granta's Best of Young Novelists—is the acclaimed author of the Red Riding Quartet (1974, 1977, 1980, and 1983), which was adapted into a BBC television series that was released theatrically in the United States, and is currently being adapted into a major motion picture directed by Ridley Scott. Peace is also the author of the highly praised Tokyo Trilogy, which so far includes Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City. His book GB84 was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and The Damned Utd was called "probably the best novel ever written about sport" by The Times. His newest book, Red or Dead, was shortlisted for the UK's prestigious Goldsmith's Prize.


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