March 27, 2009 7:28 pm

Damned rebellion of English football’s Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali appears on the brown 1970s’ television set, feigning anger: “Some fella in London, England, named Brian Clough? I’ve heard that this fella talks too much. They say he’s another Muhammad Ali. Now Clough, I’ve had enough. Stop it!” And Ali points his finger straight at Clough, who is watching this in his living room in England.

Peter Taylor, Clough’s assistant, asks him: “Are you going to stop it?”

“No, I’m going to fight him,” quips Clough.

This is perhaps the scene in The Damned United – the new feature film about Clough’s disastrous 44 days managing Leeds United in 1974 – that comes closest to capturing the man. Clough was the most fascinating of English football managers, and the film’s screenplay is by Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen and Frost/Nixon, but The Damned United disappoints nonetheless. Still, trapped somewhere inside it is a great story: the story of Clough as the British Ali. Both men charged at their society head-on – and both got hurt.

They came from poor backwaters, Ali from Louisville, Kentucky; Clough from Middlesbrough, in north-east England. Clough had eight siblings, and a father who worked in a sweets factory. Like Ali, he discovered early that he not only had an athletic gift – scoring goals – but a mental one, too. He could read football and, above all, he was a brilliant public performer.

Though Clough invented the nickname “Bites Yer Legs” for Leeds’s brutal defender Norman Hunter, he didn’t quite have Ali’s way with words. Indeed, in his brush-off of the delicate midfielder Trevor Brooking, he borrowed from Ali: “Brooking floats like a butterfly – and stings like one.”

What Clough did have, though, was an actor’s mastery of staging and timing. A friend of mine remembers, as a child in 1979, visiting the newspaper shop outside Nottingham run by Clough’s brother. There, behind the counter, holding an open newspaper in front of his face, stood Clough himself. Beside him, perched on a pile of local newspapers, stood the glittering European Cup that he had just won with Nottingham Forest. My friend gaped. Clough never budged or spoke. But he knew the boy would remember the scene for ever.

Like Ali, Clough in his backwater had sniffed the 1960s. He felt that despite his youth and his humble origins, his gifts deserved greatness. Yet the world was always thwarting him. He was the only Clough child to fail his eleven-plus – the terrifying exam that determined whether a pupil would attend a serious secondary school or be tossed aside. He scored the fastest 200 goals in English football’s history and yet his Middlesbrough team got nowhere because, Clough later claimed, “a few crooks in our side used to sell matches”. Then, aged 27, he ruined his knee for ever, skidding on a frozen pitch.

He became a brilliant manager but kept running up against the previous generation’s expectation of deference. The film depicts his fights with pompous club directors, the British equivalents of the Louisville draft board that tried to send Ali to Vietnam. In 1974, the old men of the Football Association interviewed Clough for the post of England manager, and asked him what he’d do first if he got the job. “Sack the lot of you,” he supposedly replied.

Contemporaries saw his resemblance to Ali. Indeed, in David Peace’s novel that inspired Morgan’s film, a newspaper flies Clough to New York to meet the Champ: “Ali vs Clough – the Meeting of the Mouths – Ego vs Ego”.

And rebel vs rebel. The film never satisfactorily explains Clough’s loathing of his new club Leeds. Yes, he disliked their ugly violent football. More than that, though, he was a rebel who hated anything that was already there; and Leeds were entrenched as England’s best team.

In Peace’s novel, when Leeds sack him after only 44 days, Clough protests on television: “It’s ridiculous to suggest that I would deliberately go out of my way to destroy a team. . . I am no destroyer.” But he was. His urge to destroy – even himself, through drink – matched his urge to create. Ali, poet and boxer, would have understood.

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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