Friday, August 07, 2009

Book review: Cloughie - Walking On Water

Cloughie: Walking On Water is billed as being the life story of one of football most extraordinary managers. That story has, of course, been told elsewhere by both Clough himself and others in fact and in fiction.

Walking on Water retreads some of this ground – the phenomenal goalscoring record at both Middlesbrough and Sunderland, the anguish of a career cut short, the sheer joy of seeing a football philosophy capture imaginations and hearts at Derby and Forest, the bitterness of rejection by England as a player and manager – but also provides Cloughie's final verdict on football at large.

Unsurprisingly he's unimpressed with a lot of what sees. Arsenal are compared to the Leeds United of his nightmares although by the end of their unbeaten run (a stretch which knocked Clough's Forest out of the record books) he has been converted and calling for a statue of Arsene Wenger to be erected outside the FA as a reminder to all of how football should be played.

Recent events give the pages dealing with Sir Bobby Robson and added poignancy and Clough's old spark and nous are evident in his summary of the way Freddie Shepherd mismanaged Newcastle. But his affection for Sir Bobby completely contradicts Robson's recollection of a meeting between the two early in their management careers.

Robson's anecdote (basically Clough telling him to "fuck off") nudges you to the conclusion that Clough, so vehemently opposed to indiscipline off the pitch, could be narky, ill tempered and vengeful off it.

That conclusion is borne out by the break up with his old partner Peter Taylor. Clough, in his twilight years, is full of the regret of age over how he allowed the feud to go on until it was too late.

The Taylor episode is one of a few mistakes Clough will admit to. Leaving Derby in a fit of pique, taking the Leeds job to prove a point, staying too long at Forest and, most tragically of all, not realising how in thrall he was to alcohol until it was too late.

Writing this late in his life Clough remains astute about many of the big issues facing football. His chapters on what makes a great manager are compelling, his dismissal of today's TV commentators and pundits are completely on the nose.

It's intriguing to imagine how Brian Clough would have fared in the modern game. He admits to being unable to handle the problems Justin Fashanu brought to Nottingham but would he have learned enough to adapt like a Ferguson or Robson?

Poor health brought on by his drinking meant his career was short but by then he was already past his prime. Would he have quickly become an anachronism in the brave new world of the Premiership?

We'll never know but as an insight into the philosophy and approach of unique manager Walking On Water more than passes the test.

A small stylistic point. John Sadler, acting here as ghostwriter, was a friend of Clough's and he's made a fair stab at capturing the Cloughie rhetoric on the page. Unfortunately it begins to jar quite quickly.

Like Mohammed Ali's poetry, with Brian Clough the delivery was everything. It can look hollow and self indulgent when written down.