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Brian Clough, Bosnia & Bruce - Our Chat With Jonathan Wilson

There really was, and only ever will be one, Brian Clough.
There really was, and only ever will be one, Brian Clough.

The words "genius" and "legend" are bandied about football these days far too easily. Nyron Nosworthy accidentally does a Cryuff turn in the face of Wayne Rooney, he's a "legend"... A manager staring defeat in the face brings on two strikers with ten minutes to go, they both score, the team wins, he's a "genius"... please, don't insult us.

Genius or legendary status, for me, should only be bestowed upon those who really were a cut above anyone else in their generation. Diego Maradona was a genius, Sir Bobby Robson was a legend. Another who could quite easily fit on both lists once plied their trade at Roker Park way back when, Brian Clough.

This year, Cloughie would have been 76 (if I have my calculations correct), and next month the acclaimed writer Jonathan Wilson has a new book about 'Old Big Head' coming out entitled "Nobody Ever Says Thank You", so we took the opportunity to chat with Mr Wilson about Clough, his legacy and Sunderland AFC...

So the book "Brian Clough: Nobody Ever Says Thank You" is out November 10th, what sets it apart from other Brian Clough books out there?

Jonathan: There are dozens of other Clough books out there of course, and some of them are truly superb. But they’ve tended to be memoirs, journalists relaying their memories of Clough and interspersing it with bits of history. What there hasn’t been is a full autobiography going from birth to death, trying to take a dispassionate look at the anecdotes and the stories. That’s what "Nobody Ever Says Thank You" does.

What or when was the moment when you thought "this story needs to be told"...

Jonathan: I think probably when I realised Clough had got the date of his mother’s death wrong in his autobiography; something that, naturally, most others have followed. He claims it happened the day Derby lost (controversially) to Juve in the European Cup semi; actually it happened a month earlier on the day they beat Spartak Trnava in the quarter-final. That’s significant for two reasons: firstly, in itself, I think it suggests how closely related his mother and his desire to win the European Cup became for him – he was always desperate for her approval, and you can see how winning it became a quest for him after she’d died so that when Juve cheated him – as he saw it – they were also cheating his mother’s memory. But it also suggests just how inaccurate many of the anecdotes about Clough have become.

I'm sure you met many characters in the writing and researching of the book. Who or what was your favourite moment in that process, be it meeting someone, a story, a quote, anything?

Jonathan: In terms of oddness of the coincidence, I suppose it would be Jimmy Nelson. I was in Foca, a small village in eastern Bosnia, watching a street-football tournament set up to try to foster understanding between the different former-Yugoslav communities. I got bored, and wandered away from the pitches to a stadium a little way down the river. There was a youth tournament going on, and I saw one team had strung up their shirts to dry between two flagpoles. I thought to myself, "They look like Newcastle shirts; wonder who that could be?" and sat down to watched Crvena Zvezda v Levski. Immediately behind me I heard a booming Geordie voice, so I turned round and introduced myself: it was Jimmy Nelson, who’s now head of education at Newcastle’s academy but was a reserve left-back for Sunderland back in Clough’s day. He was very good company and had some great anecdotes.

We ended up watching Newcastle getting relegated together in a bar in the village, having had a bet that if they went down he bought the drinks; if they stayed up I did.

Personally, I feel Clough the player is often forgotten these days. His goalscoring record is almost unparalleled in world football. In your eyes, where does his playing career rank amongst the all-time greats?

Jonathan: It’s very hard to say. Nobody got to 250 goals quicker, but he only ever got one in the First Division, and certainly at Middlesbrough there sense was that the team was diminished by the focus on getting the ball to him (as you could probably argue Liverpool were with Michael Owen in his final season or two at Anfield). He did little in his two internationals, but then he seemed to play brilliantly every time he was called into a Football League XI or something similar. So I think he was a potential great rather than actually a great.

I think it's fair to say there's only one Brian Clough, and there'll never be another. However, is there anyone around now, player or manager, who you think "Well if anyone's going to come close to being like Clough, it's him..."

Jonathan: No. It’s just not possible with the way the game is today. Partly it’s money: his methods were ideal for mid-ranking clubs and in the seventies they could still win the league. None of the big clubs today, the ones with the chance of winning the league, would dare let him loose on the squad. And the freedom players have today mean thatmost would probably have one training session with him and decide to leave; most his players seem to have had a real love-hate thing going on with him – now I’m not sure players would stick that out. And by the end he’d become tactically outmoded – who knows whether the young Clough could have adapted to a world of 4-2-3-1 and Prozone, but the old Clough certainly couldn’t.

You're a Sunderland fella, as are we. How much of his short, but eventful SAFC career is covered in this book?

Jonathan: A lot. I was always a little puzzled why my dad so revered a player who’d only spent 18 months playing for us – and to be honest he wasn’t my dad’s sort of player – but when you see the context you realise he was the player who elevated a decent side into one that was within a goal of promotion in 1962 and probably would have gone up but for his injury the following season. And I think the way he was treated by the Sunderland board had a big impact on his personality: as he saw it, they effectively forced him out even though he was doing well coaching the youth side so they could collect the insurance cash; that left him very bitter, and I think made him feel that financially he had  to take what he could out of the game when he could.

Speaking of Sunderland, what's your assessment of the current situation, and do you think everyone is being 'hysterical' as Steve Bruce is often keen to mention?

Jonathan: Yes and no. The defence I’d offer is that he’s recouped £15m in 15 months, while trimming the wage bill. I thought Bent leaving might be a good thing and let us play three central midfielders, but we still seem stuck on 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1 with Sessegnon off a front man). All year – and this was particularly true of the Tottenham game last season) - we seem to play nice neat football for half an hour or so, but lack the precision in the final ball or finish to make it count (which is what Bent gave us), and then somebody makes a daft error or an opponent does something brilliant and we’re 1-0 down and up against it.

Certainly the number of late goals conceded last season is a big concern, whether it’s fitness or mental strength. Equally if you look at the equivalent games (where Swansea = West Ham; Norwich = Blackpool; QPR = Birmingham) last season we’re already five points worse off (and I can’t see us getting four points from the Arsenal and Bolton trips as we did last season either so it’s going to get worse in the next couple  of weeks). So, yes, there are reasons for concern, but equally there needs to be some context.

Lastly, if Sunderland now could have either Brian Clough the manager, in the dugout masterminding things, OR they could have Brian Clough the player, in his pomp banging goals in, which do you think we could do with more?

Jonathan: Well, if we’re missing Bent, I guess we want him scoring goals – then he can stay on and become manager in seven or eight years and we’ll have won the Champions League by the time I’m 60.

Many thanks to Jonathan for his time, and be sure to pick up a copy of "Brian Clough: Nobody Ever Says Thank You" when it comes out in all good book shops on November 10th 2011. If you can't wait, or want to save hassle later, check out The Guardian Bookshop, where you can pre-order it the book with £4 off the RRP. For further updates, and just top quality football info be sure to follow Jonathan on Twitter too, @JonaWils

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