The story of Brian Clough and Sunderland represents that age-old feeling amongst supporters - the feeling that we’re on the brink of something special, only for it to be snatched away from us at the last.
The most recent chapter being that of Big Sam; stolen by the FA –with Sam went Sunderland’s chance at glorious mid-table mediocrity. Mention of the Manchester City final at Wembley still brings a tear to my eye; 1-0 up and the better side, with success torn away by a Yaya Toure fluke. Clough’s Sunderland career was cut short by injury - he scored 63 goals in 74 matches for Sunderland. What if Sam had stayed? What if Toure’s shot come cross missed? What if Clough hadn’t gotten injured?
Although still highly revered by those who can remember his time at Sunderland, due to his injury Clough never quite made it to the God-like status bestowed upon the likes of Raich Carter, Kevin Phillips, Bob Stokoe, Niall Quinn and Jimmy Montgomery.
Clough had all the makings of a local hero, much like Raich Carter before him. And although Clough was born in Middlesborough he still understood North-Eastern mentality. Clough liked a drink, like most of us in the North-East, and was also fond of a good old swear-word - most of which were reserved for Leeds United, something I’m sure we can all sympathise with.
Clough scored goals for fun, he was outspoken and cock-sure in his abilities - comparable to Carter. Both Carter and Clough understood working class values. Like Carter, Clough also knew what it meant to play for a club like Sunderland.
Clough in later life once stated that he’d ‘been lucky’ in going on to ‘have a few bob’ with a ‘nice car and a nice house’ continuing that he didn’t ‘see any reason why everyone shouldn’t have that.’ Clough believed that ‘everybody should have a book, everybody should have a nice classroom to go to’, he believed that everyone should be afforded ‘the same opportunities’.
In 2017 and in the current political climate in which North-East finds itself in I believe the people of Sunderland can relate to Clough’s words. Clough empathised with working class people because it was a key cornerstone of his identity. Clough preached socialism throughout his life, even if it was his own unique brand of champagne socialism in his later days. It is this ability to understand of the people of Sunderland that would surely have immortalised him folk-law had he continued to play.
Clough’s managerial career is well documented in literature and film. His partnership with Peter Taylor was prolific.
A media profile as strong as Clough’s had never been seen before and his outspokenness was legendary; he was the Jose Mourinho of the 1970’s & 1980’s. Clough won the then Division One title with Derby after promotion two seasons previously. At Nottingham Forest, Clough won promotion from Division Two, a First Division title, two European Cups, four League Cups and a European Super Cup - a staggering amount of success given that Clough started with both Derby and Nottingham Forrest from the Second Division.
If Clough performed so well with Derby and Forest I am certain he could have achieved similarly at Sunderland had he become manager.
He was briefly youth team manager at Sunderland before undertaking his first managerial conquest at Hartlepool. It is no secret that Clough did not endear himself to the board of directors with his outspoken attitude and they made no effort to keep him - if only they could have seen the potential.
Could we be talking of Sunderland as double European Cup winners? The witless ‘have you ever seen a Mackem in Milan?’ jibe from our Geordie friends may have been avoided altogether. Clough worked with limited resources, improving talent already at his clubs; players like John Robertson, Martin O’Neil and Tony Woodcock. Clough would have been ideal for Sunderland purposes - he had everything.
Clough flirted with Sunderland too, stating that although Sunderland had turned him down for the position twice ‘he held no grudges’ and was ‘flattered’ by Sunderland’s reported interest.
Clough stated that he felt ‘sentimental as far as Sunderland town is concerned’ and spoke of how he would ‘consider any offer’ the Sunderland directors would make.
It seems as well that the Sunderland fans reciprocated Clough’s flirtations. In-fact, according to Jonathan Wilson in his excellent Clough biography ‘Nobody Ever Says Thank you’, a party of one-hundred Sunderland fans approached Clough and begged him to take over as manager following Nottingham Forest’s away win against Leyton Orient on the 13th of November 1976. 76-year-old Sunderland fan Joseph Briggs was allowed an audience with Clough who told Briggs that he ‘fully understood his feelings.’ However, for whatever reason a deal between Sunderland and Clough was never reached and Clough stayed on at Forest for the rest of his managerial career.
Football is all relative of course. Clough’s former clubs Brighton, Hartlepool, Nottingham Forest and Derby haven’t managed to replicate Sunderland’s ten continuous years in the Premier League. But wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the Sunderland history books looked back on a golden era of European glory with Brian Clough at the helm? Imagine marveling at his quick put-downs of anyone critical of ‘our’ Sunderland; feeding into our isolationist North-Eastern mentality.
Clough was a manager who understood the people of his club, comparable to Bob Stokoe before him.
Alas, Sunderland will never know. Brian Clough, initially as a player then once more as potential manager, is the one that got away.