This Too Shall Pass

If you haven’t already seen it, here’s my piece from the inaugural issue of Bandy & Shinty.

We’re on FB (/bandyandshinty), and Twitter (@bandyandshinty). Issue 2 is out at the end of November – so put £4 to one side, and do yourselves a favour.

TTFN x


 

We’re laughing, because it’s Classic Clough ™.

Me, my best friend, and his parents – bunched around a television, 120 miles from Wembley.

None of them are Forest fans. Sheila doesn’t even like football. But they all love him.

Everybody loves him. And everybody’s laughing.

Ninety minutes from the Holy Grail – the only thing left for him to win – and he’s pulling Terry Venables along like a dog. Their hands are locked, and their arms are swinging, and Brian Howard Clough looks defiantly relaxed. Venables has this thin smile, and you can see that he’s just going along with it. Obviously, it wasn’t his idea; obviously, this isn’t his day.

And that’s how it starts: with Clough being Clough, and with everybody laughing.

That’s how it ends, too. Only this time – two hours later – it’s the Clough that he’s become. The Vegas Clough; the Jake LaMotta one. There’s no charm in it, and no humour – just confusion. Confusion, and worry. And everything from before – the man, and the unbeatable football team I’ve assumed Forest are, and even the sounds of our own laughter – are now just echoes.

Echoes of distant days; as we move into extra time, and the camera fixes on him. Fixes on Brian Howard Clough, doing nothing.

He’s frozen to his padded leather bench, in his famous green jumper, with his arms folded. Muttering nothings, to no one. And that cruel, staring camera just won’t move on. He’s lived his life in front of it – kept us guessing and grinning, all the way through – and now we’re just waiting for him to do something. Me, and my best mate, and his mum and dad, and the cameraman, and the players, and Britain. We’re all just waiting.

None of us have said anything for a while. It’s Sheila who finally breaks the silence, when she wonders – in that way that mums do; just as the least-informed person in the room always seems to ask the biggest question – why he isn’t doing anything? Why he doesn’t get up?

But he doesn’t. He stays in his seat, and Forest lose, and it changes everything.

 

 

“He remained unmoved, fatalistic till the end. This time, there was no raging against the world. He was never a ranter and a raver on the bench, but here his undemonstrativeness was interpreted as resignation, perhaps even exhaustion.”

Nobody Ever Says Thank You, Jonathan Wilson

 

Most people just said he was pissed. That was the official line.

And to be honest, I’d rather it were that. I’d rather think of him drunk, than beaten.

Duncan Hamilton asked him about it, afterwards. About why he’d stayed on the bench; why he’d done nothing.

“I knew we weren’t going to win,” Clough said. Simple, and flat. “Whatever we did that day, I knew it wasn’t going to be enough.”

That sentence: the fucking state of it.

Resignation, perhaps even exhaustion.

The hunted words of a man in the death-grip of a Bad Day; who could only sit and watch as fate swung away from him.

Tired, beaten words, from a man well-versed at bending the world to his will. The man who looked into a lens after Cologne – into the eyes of an entire country – and dared them to write us off. He said us, but he meant him. Those narrow eyes; that humourless smirk. I’ve proved you bastards wrong before, and I’ll do it again.

He’d got plenty of things wrong in his time. But he’d never surrendered.

We didn’t just lose the Cup that day; we lost Him. The proper Clough. When he came out of the tunnel, holding Terry’s hand, those were the last gasps of him – two sturdy fingers, flourished at anyone and everything. It’s my day, and we’re doing it on my terms.

But his race was run. You spend a lifetime proving people wrong, and when they’re finally backing you to be right, there’s nothing left. You can’t quite heave yourself over the line.

That was the problem, in hindsight. It was Clough’s Final, not Forest’s, and it simply meant too much to everyone. Spurs beat us, and never really broke sweat. But back then, on the morning of May 18th 1991, Clough’s Will was the iron-clad guarantee that he – and we – would get what was right. It was what the universe demanded. It was a formality.

I’d seen us three times by then, and I’d watched the semi-final on the tele. We’d won all four games, and scored sixteen goals. Each match was played under a brilliant, unfailingly blue sky, and Forest were incredible, and not one of them – not Southampton, Sunderland, Chelsea or West Ham – put up anything like a fight.

And maybe if I’d seen us lose, just the once, the impact of that day would have been different. A little softer. Maybe the Cup Final wouldn’t have stayed with me, in the way it has. Would the sky really have fallen in if Sunderland had turned us over? No… and what’s more, I’d have had the chance to guard myself. To know that sometimes, it’s simply not your day.

That would have been useful.

Or maybe if my knowledge of Clough was better framed, and a little deeper. If I’d seen the signs of what he was becoming, by then. That slow transition from pathological self-esteem – the kind that moved mountains – to the volatile grump of the late ‘80s. The curmudgeon. The man who belted his own fans, and picked his teams to prove a point.

But I didn’t know any of that, and I hadn’t seen any of it. The 1991 FA Cup Final was the first game I ever saw Forest lose, and for weeks afterwards, I just didn’t know what to do with it. I was ten years old, and it was the single most traumatic thing I’d ever experienced. It was the first time in my cosy, simple life that things hadn’t panned out exactly like they were meant to.

And it stayed with me.

What’s striking – watching the game back now – is the discomfort with which Des Lynam and Jimmy Hill are discussing him, afterwards. Their eyes are on the floor and they’re saying that staying in his seat was unusual, and unorthodox, and un-everything: but nobody has the heart just to say that he was obviously, painfully knackered. It’s all over him; in his blotches and his blemishes, and those sunken, swollen eyes. The look of him, that day: it spoke for itself.

For the first time, we saw a real person. Not a cartoon, or a ringmaster.

I wanted him to rage, rage against the dying of the light – but he was empty. He was done. In that moment – and for the first time – I glimpsed the man behind the hero. It happens to all of us, sooner or later, and once it does, you can’t unsee it. Whether it’s a football manager, or a parent, or anyone in your life who’s meant to be unbreakable; whether it’s the argument you weren’t meant to hear, or the tears you weren’t meant to see. It stays with you, and it changes things.

That harrowing sense of their own weakness. It’s as real and as necessary as it is tragic.

It was the first time I ever saw Forest lose.

But it was more than that – much, much more. It was the first time I gave any thought to the business of growing up.

The first time I saw someone infallible fail; the first real bite I took from something I’d loved without condition.

I didn’t know, until that afternoon. And my life was smaller and neater for not knowing.

From the final whistle, I felt like crying. And when I finally did – the first and only time I’ve ever cried over a football match – it was for him; not Forest. It would have been about 1am, and I was suddenly, violently awake. Alone, with the heavy sadness of it – what’d happened, and what it all meant. I remember looking out of the window, and seeing my dad’s car back on the drive. He’d put a programme next to my bed, and I couldn’t even bring myself to touch it. And that’s when I started crying.

Quietly, and not for long – but I cried. It felt like the whole world – the world that had demanded a Forest win, only the day before – had shrugged, and moved itself on, and was now sleeping peacefully. For what’d happened, and for the wind it’d knocked so emphatically out of me, everything seemed so terribly normal.

I was awake till morning, thinking about it. Not about what it might mean, in the scheme of things – I wasn’t old enough for that – but simply how it felt to lose. Big, and vicious, and unlike anything else I’d ever known.

There are people in this world – rugby fans, mainly – who like to talk football down. And whilst, on the face of things, it is just “twenty two millionaires kicking a bag of air around”, to refuse its lessons is to do the game a disservice.

Because it helps you to grow up – it recalibrates your expectations of life. And if you’re fortunate enough to have grown up safe, sound and untroubled, you need something like that. Something to toughen you up a bit; something to show you that every now and again, wishing and wanting isn’t enough. However right it feels, and however much sense it makes; things will go wrong, because things involve people, and people are one bad day away from being fucked.

And that’s football. Where else are you going to find defeat served up so frequently, and so vividly, so soon into your life? Where else are your heroes so inevitably slain? It takes the whole experience of life, and concertinas it: it ages people quicker, and it moves them on more regularly, and all you can really do is hold on to their better days, and hope that something decent’s round the corner. In football, as in life – what else is there?

It’s important to know. Important to get as far as you can past any sense of fair, and to get there as quickly as possible. Because if life was fair, Forest would have won the Cup that day, and Clough would have retired with his full set of honours, and we’d have been spared two more years that none of us wanted or needed. Clough, and Forest, and the fans, and everyone who’s determined to suspend the man’s myth in 1979. To eternalise him as That, and Then.

It’s important: important to know that every now and then – however hard you try, and however emphatically the stars are aligned in your favour – things just swing away from you. Just as they did for Brian, that day.

It won’t stop you watching. It won’t stop you joining in. You’ll just do it with your eyes a little wider the next time; stepping a little more carefully as you go.

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