Book Review: Nobody Ever Says Thank You (2011) by Jonathan Wilson

At the end of this biography Martin O’Neill is quoted, in paying tribute to his former manager, that Brian Clough would be insulted to be summed up in three volumes. Jonathan Wilson manages to cover Clough’s brilliant career in 550 pages.

Nobody Ever Says Thank You is a comprehensive survey of Clough’s life in football. It is broken up into five logical parts covering the main phases of Clough’s journey (with some spectacular epigraphs provided), but in practice I read through it season-by-season over the forty or so years from 1953-54 to 1992-93.

This does give the book a linear flow along with the cyclical quirk of history repeating itself: Clough’s method and strategy achieved similarly spectacular results in meagre timeframes at Hartlepools, Derby and Nottingham Forest.

Wilson’s style is to provide a deep foundation of detail, which is periodically embellished by observations and insights. The detail is provided by painstaking newspaper archive research, which takes us through the results and contemporary reports virtually game-by-game over forty years. Over five hundred pages this becomes heavy going (although mercifully it thins a little during the post-Peter Taylor lost years between 82’ and 88’) and as a result the book isn’t one to zip through, perhaps more to dip into at the various phases of Clough’s life.

The quotes, anecdotes and reflections are as entertaining as you would expect and fascinating – I found Stan Anderson, Johny Giles, Colin Todd, Mark Crossley and Lee Glover’s to be the most interesting (and Dave Mackay’s reminiscence of the differences between life at Tottenham and Derby to be striking). Clough’s uniqueness is focused upon through the course of the book: his inner drive and attitudes are explored in his initial days as a prolific goalscorer, then his charisma and genius are laid out in his early jobs at Hartlepools and Derby. He then self-destructs before (almost literally) resurrecting himself at Forest. He then plays out his working life in a kind of (booze-soaked) limbo, still achieving results beyond comprehension (especially given that Forest have long since returned to earth with a thud).

Wilson doesn’t, I feel quite get the measure between providing facts and insight; his detail heavy approach obscures the readability of his prose. Thus the most rewarding passages of the biography are the digressions offering insights into Clough’s philosophy, his strategies (for example the preference for mental over physical preparedness), his contradictions (Wilson is even handed in dealing with Clough’s constant hypocrisies and his terrible behaviour along with his kindnesses and empathies) and his relationships: his man-management of players, which worked to perfection at Derby but is then diametrically tested to destruction at both Brighton and Leeds; and of course the crucial partnership with Peter Taylor.

The high points of the book are the interregnums: the period of doubt and fear after his injury on Boxing Day 1962 (Clough’s present and future, as he vainly tried to build his shattered knee running up and down the Roker Park terraces, appeared Sisyphean) and a dozen years later, the disastrous 44 days at Leeds. Wilson relates how Clough blundered repeatedly, in neglecting and alienating the Leeds squad and doesn’t flinch in implying that his anxiety and self-doubt overcame his legendary self-confidence.

Nobody Ever Says Thank You is a very good biography that calmly and diligently handles a majestic subject. It has flaws, but covers the life of Brian Clough proficiently enough and I agree that it is worthy of being a standard work.

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