Brian Clough touched rock bottom in the summer of ’65, just as the Sixties entered their most swinging phase. The retiree player and sacked Sunderland youth coach only felt like swinging out against the world that had dealt him such cruel blows. By his own admission, he ‘went berserk for a time… drank heavily and was hell to live with.’ He didn’t act ‘very manly’ and ‘nearly went off the rails.’
Adding to his worries, he had another mouth to feed. His wife Barbara had given birth to their first child Simon in June 1964. And she’d now fallen pregnant again. Indeed, the summer of 1965 was – in his own words – ‘when the fear crept in.’
Given his unique Jekyll & Hyde character, Clough had few friends in the Sunderland dressing room, and even fewer in its boardroom. But he did have a sea of compassionate admirers among the club’s fans.
At a loss and with time on his hands, Clough became involved with those organising and playing for the local trainee teachers’ football team. Final-year student Grant Shearer, President of the Athletics Union at Sunderland Teachers’ Training College, says Clough coached three sessions for them in September 1965.
Clough would invite him and his fellow trainee teacher Russ Postlewhite to his bungalow on St Nicholas Avenue to watch Shoot, the local weekly TV football highlights programme. He’d tell them, ‘Come around on Sunday and tell me how the team has done.’ His dedicated wife Barbara, nicknamed Squibs, would get a brew on, while 15-month-old Simon made himself heard.
Given what had happened to Clough prior to their meeting, Grant describes him as ‘very bitter’ about his injury. They’d sometimes meet Clough at the nearby Barnes Hotel for a Sunday roast. He recalls one occasion when the ex-player drove 200 yards from his home in his carpet slippers and his entrance separated the throngs of AFC Sunderland-worshipping lunchtime drinkers like Moses’ parting of the seas. Served immediately at the bar, Clough ordered an orange juice.
Russ Postlewhite lived with Grant in digs opposite a children’s hospital on Barnes Park. Their young landlady Mrs Mason was married to a largely absent seagoing engineer, their home providing board and lodging to students such as themselves. They returned one afternoon to find her breathless through excitement. She’d answered a knock on the door only to find local hero Brian Clough on the front step. Starstruck Mrs Mason relayed his message to her two lodgers, ‘Tell the boys, suited and booted and down my house by 7 o’clock.’ They’d often arrive at his bungalow and enquire, ‘Where are we going Brian?’ They’d drive to venues such as Newton Aycliffe Boys Club and rub shoulders with Sunderland’s reserve team players. The events were often football talk-ins, where oddly, Sunderland first-team players were largely absent.
But wherever they went, there were packed and eager-to-listen audiences. Clough was a terrific speaker and those in attendance were either transfixed or roaring with laughter. On other occasions the boys would simply babysit for Brian and Barbara Clough, although he’d rarely tell them where he and his wife were going out.
Sunderland had promised Clough a testimonial. To avoid a boring ‘milk-and-water friendly’, he planned a Tyneside versus Wearside battle in what he pledged would be his final appearance in a Sunderland shirt, and promised, ‘I will referee. I will linesman. I will help sell the programmes. But no one will see me play in a match again.’
Clough set about assembling the best players possible for his send-off game. Yet if he expected any charity from ex-playing colleagues, little was forthcoming. Years of rubbing people up the wrong way meant that the crocked centre-forward encountered a wall of coldness. When he came to call in favours, despite the tragic ending to his career, he found he was a Billy Few Mates.
One shining example was Sunderland left-back Len Ashurst. Clough blamed his ex-colleague for the ‘bad ball’ he’d been chasing when he smashed into the outrushing Bury goalkeeper on Boxing Day 1962. Roughly a month before the testimonial game, Ashurst had walked out of a Sunderland Rotary Club event. Salty-tongued Clough turned a speech into a ‘tirade’ in which he ‘slammed’ Ashurst and each first-team player in turn by listing all their faults.
It was during these weeks that two job offers determined Clough’s new career path. One came from West Bromwich Albion to coach their juniors, although that would mean a move away from his native North East. The other came about thanks to ex-Sunderland legend and Sunday People back-page columnist Len Shackleton.
The accepted version of events is that football fixer ‘Shack’ brokered Clough’s first managerial appointment. Either he suggested to a club chairman that Clough fill his vacant managerial post, or he persuaded him to apply. Whatever the sequence, there were ‘hints’ that a job at North-East football’s poorest relations ‘could be his if he cares to go for it.’ He was due to have informal talks with their chairman.
A crowd of 31,898 crammed into Roker Park on Wednesday 27 October 1965 to pay tribute to one of their own. One local newspaper paid homage to ‘the greatest post-war goal machine the game has seen’. For another he’d been the ‘terror around the six-yard line’. A Sunderland XI faced a Newcastle United Select XI composed of United’s defence and five guest stars. These included Arsenal’s George ‘Geordie’ Armstrong and George Eastham (a former United player), as well as Liverpool’s Ian St. John. The Newcastle XI trounced the Sunderland XI 6-2, but the result was irrelevant. As were Clough’s two goals, the second a generous late penalty gift from the referee. The more important business took place after the game.
In the ground’s crowded refreshment room, Sunderland chairman Syd Collings announced that Clough had accepted the vacant manager’s position at Hartlepools United.
The Football League’s newest and youngest manager then declared in his own imitable way:
‘If you want to see some good stuff from Saturday onwards, get yourselves down to a little place called Hartlepools. It won’t be a little place for very long.’
His bragging then extended to telling Collings:
‘We will be meeting you three seasons from now.’
‘In which division?’ the quick-witted chairman fired back.
We can assume that the tongue-in-cheek and immodest Clough was planning three successive promotions from the Fourth to the First Division.
Yet his most immediate task would be keeping Hartlepools in the Football League. They’d applied for re-election in five out of the previous six seasons. The 30-year-old had coached Sunderland’s youth team but had agreed to take on football’s toughest assignment with zero management experience.
But Clough wasn’t daft. He’d pondered all available lifelines before taking the job. Len Shackleton’s offer and advice had been the first. Given a 50/50 choice between coaching youngsters at West Bromwich Albion or being top dog at Hartlepools, he’d chosen his native North East. Straight after his testimonial – and Clough being Clough – he’d never thought to ask the audience. Given the scale of the challenge, his most vital lifeline was phoning a friend.
Extracted from Alchemy by Christoper Hull