• Steven Kent

Brian Clough: The Boro Years

There are not many tributes greater than a statue erected in recognition of one's exceptional achievements, and in the town of Middlesbrough, this honour is bestowed to remarkably few. Amongst those given this homage are the town’s founding fathers, industrialists Henry Bolckow and John Vaughan, who gaze across central Middlesbrough, the once-thriving, steel producing, industrial giant they helped establish. The ironopolis, which ‘built the world’.

Joining Blockow and Vaughan is Victoria cross recipient and WW2 hero Stan Hollis, whose statue stands outside the entrance to Albert Park, rifle in hand, commemorating his extraordinary D-Day heroics. Venturing past Company Sergeant-Major Hollis and through the gates of Albert Park, you are greeted by one of Middlesbrough’s favourite sons, none other than Brian Howard Clough.

Immortalised as a seven-foot bronze statue, 24-year-old Clough is depicted on his way to training, with boots slung over his shoulder. The tribute was unveiled in 2007, with the Clough family in attendance. The town's Albert Park, one of Clough's favourite places, was a stone's throw away from his childhood home 11 Valley Road, a place he called “heaven”. Young Brian spent many hours of his childhood playing football, tennis and cricket in the park. Later as a young man, he’d walk through the sprawling landscape on his way to training and match days at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park.

Most only remember the middle-aged Brian Clough as seen on TV, the charismatic outspoken manager with cutting wit and brash but charming humour. Winner of back to back European Cups with Nottingham Forest, the green jumper, ‘the manager England never had’, Old Big Ed’ himself. But before Brian Clough the manager came Brian Clough the player.

Lean and athletic, with a sharp haircut and sticky-out ears, a centre forward for his boyhood club, the original fox in the box. This is the Brian Clough that stands cast in bronze in his beloved Albert Park. Confident and outspoken even as a player, with the talent and goals to back it up, Clough is third on the club’s list of all-time top scorers, with a phenomenal 204 goals in six seasons.

Born 11 March 1935, despite growing up in a crowded household with seven siblings, Brian Clough once described himself as ‘the kid who came from a little part of paradise’.

After leaving school at fifteen, Brian followed his mother's advice of going for ‘a nice job’ at the local ICI plant. Starting as a messenger boy, he later became a fitter and turner. It soon became apparent this wasn't the life for the football-obsessed youngster who declared, ‘If I had one scrap of ambition when I walked through those gates, it disappeared without trace’.

Luckily the talented Clough was spotted by local scout Ray Grant in November 1951. Brian was recommended to Middlesbrough Football Club who snapped up the sixteen-year-old not long after. Signing professional forms a year later, the club paid Clough the sum of £1 per week. After completing two years of National Service with the RAF, he returned to Ayresome Park to become a regular goalscorer in the club’s reserve team.

Following relegation from the top flight in 1954, second division Middlesbrough had failed to gain promotion at the first attempt, ending the season a disappointing 12th position. The club was also coming to terms with the departure of talisman, Golden boy Wilf Mannion, who Clough and his brothers had grown up idolising. Even as an adult, Clough would find himself awestruck in the presence of the great Mannion around Ayresome Park.

At the start of the 1955-56 season, along with Boro’s generally inconsistent form, the team was also struggling to score goals. And with the twenty-year Clough scoring for fun in the reserves, it was only a matter of time before the talented centre forward was given an opportunity. His prospects were helped by Boro’s reserve goalkeeper Peter Taylor, who had the ear of manager Bob Dennison. Taylor informed Dennison that Clough should be given a chance, and was the answer to the club’s problems finding the back of the net. Goals were never a problem for the free-scoring Cloughie.

Since a pre-season Probables v Possibles game, Taylor had been impressed with

Clough, who was equally good at finishing with both feet, had excellent heading ability and was collected in front of goal. With Taylor telling Clough that he ‘was the best player at the club’, the striker was in full agreement.

Clough, by this time, had become firm friends with Taylor, and with both unable to drive, would walk to training together. The pair would also often take the bus to watch football all over the northeast. Whilst sitting on the front seats of the top deck, the conversation always revolved around football between the two.

Every so often the duo would persuade teammate Lindy Delapenha, one of the few players to own a car, to drive them to games. The three of them would sometimes drive as far as Newcastle and Carlisle in Delapenha’s maroon Ford Anglia.

Finally, Clough was given his big chance, and wearing the coveted number nine shirt, made his first-team debut in a 1-1 draw away to Barnsley in September 1955. Following his debut, Clough who was by now on £11 per week, played the next five games for Boro, scoring his first goal in a thrilling 4-3 win away to Leicester City.

By the end of his first season, after nine appearances and three goals, Clough, to further his prospects more quickly, asked the club to terminate his contract and allow him to move elsewhere. With the surprise request turned down, Clough started the 1956-57 season in spectacular form as first-choice centre forward, scoring ten goals in his first seven appearances.

Boro’s new first-choice number nine didn't have to wait long for his first hat-trick, hitting three away to Nottingham Forest in a 4-0 win in November and scoring four against Huddersfield Town, in a 7-2 thrashing of the Yorkshire club. Joining Clough in attack were fellow local youngsters Alan Peacock and Billy Day, along with Jamaican right-winger Lindy Delapenha, who went on to provide many chances for Boro’s rising star.

Scoring a phenomenal forty goals in his first full season, Clough had helped the club improve on the previous season's 14th place finish, climbing to a respectable sixth place. If Middlesbrough could have tightened up in defence and achieved more consistency, they would have been capable of mounting a serious promotion challenge.

Unfortunately, Middlesbrough’s inconsistent form continued throughout the 1957-58 season, partly down to injuries to Alan Peacock, Lindy Delapenha and defender Ronnie Dicks, who all missed significant chunks of the campaign. The most consistent thing about Middlesbrough was Clough's scoring record, registering a total of forty-two goals in as many appearances, as the club finished 7th.

The ambitious youngster speculated he needed a move to further his career, after missing out on promotion a second time and being overlooked by England for the 1958 World Cup.

In a meeting with Bob Dennison during the summer, the disgruntled Clough handed in a transfer request, which was instantly turned down. Furthermore, news of the claim was “leaked” to the press, some say by Clough himself. This is likely true, due to his close relationship and popularity with local sports journalists.

In a compromise, Bob Dennison made the unhappy star, team captain, which also meant more money. The news went down well with the new skipper, but not with half of the first team. The dressing room was instantly divided, with predominantly the older players on one side and the younger lads on the other. The captaincy rebellion was said to have been led by Brian Phillips, with support from Willie Fernie, Ray Bilcliff along with former skipper Bill Harris.

Even after training, when the squad would make the short walk from Ayresome Park to Rea’s Cafe on Linthorpe Road to sip milkshakes, players sat on separate sides of the room. The self-assertive and opinionated Clough had by all accounts upset a number of his teammates with criticism of their performances and constant instructions, with some thinking he had too much to say for himself.

The opening day of the 1958-59 season saw Middlesbrough record an astonishing 9-0 victory, at home to newly-promoted Brighton Hove Albion. As expected, Clough was on the scoresheet, hitting the back of the net five times, the first of five hat-tricks he would score during the season. Despite a promising start, the team struggled to win matches, at one point going on a horrific run of two wins in fifteen games, which virtually ended any hopes of promotion.

With the season petering out and Boro’s usual inconsistent form and poor defence preventing any chance of success, the highlight of Clough's season was his marriage to his wife Barbara, in April 1959. Described as the most important day of his life, the wedding ceremony took place on a Saturday morning, at St Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough. The pair had initially met in Rea’s cafe and unbeknown to them both, had worked together previously, at ICI. The wedding was followed by a hurried reception, which Clough was forced to leave early, in time to face Leyton Orient in the 3pm kick-off, at Ayresome Park. Boro won the game 4-2 and to top off his big day, managed to get his name on the scoresheet.

Following his wedding and a four-day honeymoon in London, Brian and Barbara moved into a clubhouse in Middlesbrough. With Barbara working in a building society until five every day, and Clough having the afternoons free after training, the Boro top scorer could often be seen cleaning the windows of the house. He would also clean the windows for the couple next door. Ever the modern man, Brian would cook and serve a meal for when Barbara arrived home.

Despite Clough scoring forty-three goals (plus twenty from strike partner Alan Peacock), Middlesbrough only managed a disappointing 13th placed finish. Again the club missed out on promotion due to inconsistency and defensive errors, much to Clough's continued frustration and dismay.

Finally, in October 1959, Brian Clough was picked to play for England, making his debut in a 1-1 draw away to Wales, with Chelsea striker Jimmy Greaves scoring for Walter Winterbottom's side. A week later, Bob Dennison along with the whole Boro squad, attended Wembley Stadium to see Clough earn his second England cap. The game ended in a 3-2 defeat against Sweden and despite failing to score, Clough hit the crossbar in the latter stages of the game, just missing the chance to equalise.

For reasons unknown, Clough was never picked again to represent his country and in his own words was ‘cast aside at the age of 24 by a manager who didn't know his job’. Some say this was down to him playing second division football, with other stories suggesting it was down to his criticism of Walter Winterbottom's tactics, along with his extremely vocal analysis of his teammate’s performances.

Not long after returning from international duty, Taylor informed Clough of the news that several players had signed a round-robin petition, to have him removed as team captain. The petition was handed to manager Bob Dennison and the club’s board, by a group of players. They were said to find the opinionated Clough far too arrogant and overly critical. In the wake of the petition being presented, the board hastily arranged a meeting between themselves, the manager and the whole first-team squad, including Clough. It was agreed by all parties that he would continue as team captain.

With news of the mutiny at Ayresome Park reaching the local press who quickly reported the fallout, Boro’s star man was headline news once again. The following day more drama ensued, as Clough handed in a transfer request to Bob Dennison, which again was rejected. It seemed Clough was hoping for a move to a big first division club who could satisfy his burgeoning ambitions. Manchester United, Wolves and Everton are all said to have taken an interest at one time or another.

With the request making the news, and the club’s top scorer linked with other clubs, the under-fire captain was abused by a small number of unhappy supporters as he led the team out the following Saturday.

At the end of the season, after helping the club record a fifth-place finish and scoring an incredible 40 goals, Clough again had a request to leave denied. News reports at the time suggested Italian side Fiorentina were taking an interest. Reluctantly Clough continued to lead the line for Middlebrough during the 1960-61 season, which would turn out to be his last representing his hometown club.

Following the repeated transfer requests, his public refusal to sign a new contract, and missing the start of the season through injury, Clough eventually lost the captaincy that had caused so much resentment and disruption. Despite the ongoing personal battles and tensions, there was never any question over the striker’s commitment or determination to do his best throughout his contentious and often controversial Boro career. Being such a capable and talented goalscorer, the exciting forward was always a crowd favourite during his time at Ayresome Park.

Clough's frustrations continued following the now-infamous away trip to Charlton Athletic in October 1960. Despite Clough grabbing a hat-trick, with some dubious defending from the Boro backline, Charlton managed an 89th-minute equaliser. The game somehow ended in an extraordinary 6-6 draw, with a pitch invasion occurring at the final whistle. On the train journey back to the northeast, a furious Clough sarcastically and now famously announced to a group of players playing cards in the next compartment, ‘If I can manage to score four goals next week, you never know, we might even win.’ To which one of his teammates quipped, ‘Yeah if we have a centre forward who can move around enough for us to find him with the ball, we could have a chance’.

Clough singled out two players in particular, Brian Phillips and Ken Thompson, whom he was convinced were guilty of match-fixing. The complaints from Clough about the suspicious defending continued. In one conversation with the manager, Bob Dennison let slip that Thompson had suggested that Clough ‘Ought to see a psychiatrist and if he did, they would cart him straight off to an asylum’. Dennison dismissed any allegations of match-fixing, as did director Harold Thomas when he heard the news.

In 1964, Clough's long time foe Brian Phillips (who helped lead the revolt over the captaincy), was sentenced to fifteen months in prison in a bribes scandal, which led Clough to believe he was correct about the prior max fixing allegations.

At the end of the 1960-61 season, with the club finishing fifth and missing out on promotion again, it was inevitable the prodigal son would have to be sold. With a disillusioned Clough refusing to sign a contract for the following season, Middlesbrough finally gave up hope of keeping the wantaway striker and placed him on the transfer list. It wasn't long before the Middlesbrough board accepted a bid of £55,000 from local rivals Sunderland, who were looking for a goal scorer to help them escape the second division.

Following a Mediterranean cruise during the 1961 close season, Brian and Barbara were greeted by Sunderland boss Alan Brown immediately upon their return to port in Southampton. With the news that a bid had been accepted from Boro’s bitter rivals. Brown asked Clough if he would like to sign for the Wearsiders. The instant reply was “yes”, as Brown told Clough, he would see him at Roker Park in a week.

After six seasons and 204 goals in 222 appearances for his boyhood club, Brain Clough had finally got his wish and made a move away from the constraints of Ayresome Park. Only Geroge Camsell and George Elliot have scored more goals than Clough for Middlesbrough, who is still the third all-time goal scorer for the Teesside club.

Having signed for his hometown club's local rivals, Clough was still surprised to be called a traitor by sections of the Middlesbrough faithful. During Clough's first season on Wearside, his impressive goal scoring record continued throughout the 1961-62 season, with 34 goals in 43 appearances. The move to Sunderland is said to have helped Clough's game evolve and flourish, with his passing significantly improving and the number of assists to teammates rising.

The following season with Sunderland chasing promotion and with Clough having scored 28 goals by boxing day 1962, disaster struck against Bury, at a packed Roker Park. In icy conditions on a rain-soaked pitch, the courageous Clough was through on goal and collided with goalkeeper Chris Harker, tearing his cruciate ligament in his right knee.

It was almost two years before Clough would play first-team football again, making a comeback in 1964. By this time Sunderland was a first division club, giving Clough the chance he craved in England's top flight. Unfortunately, he would only go on to make three appearances, scoring one goal before hanging up his boots and announcing his retirement in September 1964 at age 29, following a game with Aston Villa at Roker Park.

Following his retirement from playing and assisted by his good friend and ex-teammate Peter Taylor, Clough went on to manage Hartlepool United, Brighton Hove Albion and Leeds United, along with Derby County, where the pair won the first division league championship in 1972. However, it was with Nottingham Forest, that the Clough and Taylors managerial partnership reached legendary status, winning the first division title again and back to back European Cups in 1979 and 1980.

Brian Clough passed away in September 2004, aged 69.

By Steven Kent

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