Brian Clough’s Squash Racket

Genius? Eccentric? Maverick?

Whatever qualities he might previously have attributed to his coach, one leading squash player must have sensed that he shared at least some characteristics with another famous Yorkshire-born sports coach. “Dad’s the Brian Clough of squash,” said World Number 1, James Willstrop just before the London Olympics.

James and Malcolm Willstrop

James and Malcolm Willstrop

Whether this disclosure came as a surprise to Malcolm Willstrop is unknown. When Clough was in his heyday as a manager in the 1970s, Willstrop junior had not even been born. But Willstrop senior would certainly have been aware of Clough’s achievements, not just as a manager but as a player whose career was tragically cut short by injury. He would also have been aware of his outspokenness, arrogance and lack of respect for authority.

And, although it was rarely mentioned in the mainstream media of the time, he may even have been aware of Clough’s attachment to something which embodied another of his sporting passions. 

His squash racket.

Clough the Footballer

“Beckham? His wife can’t sing and his barber can’t cut hair.” (Brian Clough)

The sixth of nine children, Clough was born in 1935 in Middlesbrough in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Following national service in the Royal Air Force from 1953 to 1955, he joined his home town club, Middlesbrough, scoring 204 goals in 222 league matches including 40 or more goals in four consecutive seasons. However, he was also prone to submitting transfer requests on a regular basis and had a tense relationship with some of his fellow players. He was especially irked by Boro’s leaky defence, which conceded goals as regularly as he scored them. After a 6–6 draw against Charlton Athletic, Clough sarcastically asked his team mates how many goals he would have to score in order for them to win a match.

Brian Clough, Trevor Francis and Squash Racket

Brian Clough, Trevor Francis and Squash Racket

While playing for Boro, Clough was capped twice for the England national team,failing to score on either occasion. Eventually, in July 1961, one of his transfer requests was finally accepted and he moved to Boro’s local rivals Sunderland where he scored 63 goals in 74 matches. Clough’s goal-scoring powers were showing no signs of declining.

But on Boxing Day 1962, disaster struck. Clough tore the medial and cruciate ligaments in his knee in a match against Bury, an injury which, in that era, usually ended a player’s career. Despite an attempted comeback two years later, Clough was forced to retire at the age of 29.

Even today, for players scoring over 200 goals in the English leagues, Clough holds the record for the highest number of goals scored per game (0.916).

But, with his playing career ended, Clough was not prepared to turn his back on football, or controversy.

Clough the Manager

“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.” (Brian Clough)

The story of Clough’s career in football management is an epic story punctuated not only with successful domestic and European campaigns, but also with controversies, clashes and  fallings out on a heroic scale.

That career started in 1965 with Hartlepool United and finally ended in 1993 with the relegation of his club, Nottingham Forest, from the English Premier League. Clough had won consecutive European Cups with Forest and League Championships with both Forest and Derby County.

Brian Clough Playing for Sunderland

Brian Clough Playing for Sunderland

But it was in the 1970s that Clough’s managerial career was in the ascendancy, first with Derby County and then, after a tempestuous 44-day reign at Leeds United, with Nottingham Forest.

Clough and the Racket

“We talk about it for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right.” (Brian Clough on dealing with a player who disagrees with him.)

It was during his time with Forest that Clough’s squash racket began to appear in an increasing variety of contexts.

Following his forced retirement as a player, Clough had kept himself fit, taking part in five-a-side games during training sessions and, until the early 1980s, playing squash. During his 18 year stint at Nottingham Forest, he played on the courts at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, a short walk from Forest’s stadium at the City Ground. His squash partners included Forest players, notably striker Garry Birtles, and members of the local press who routinely covered Forest’s home and away matches.  

But his attachment to his squash racket was not limited to his use of it on the squash court.

Intimidating Football Agents

Having been approached to join Nottingham Forest, England goalkeeper Peter Shilton recalls:

“I discovered how unconventional Clough was when my agents Jon Holmes, Jeff Pointon and I went to see him in his office at the City Ground in September 1977, after Forest had made an official approach to Stoke City for me. We hung outside his office for 10 minutes or so before someone informed us, ‘Mr Clough is ready to see you now.’ Jon and Jeff went in first and I was slack-jawed to see them both go sprawling across the floor. Clough had been hiding to one side of the door and as they entered he had angled a squash racket across their path and tripped them both up. I have no idea if he did this to gain some sort of psychological advantage in the negotiations or whether it was just a prank. It certainly threw Jon and Jeff.”

Orchestrating the Unveiling of England’s First £1M Footballer

Joining Nottingham Forest from Birmingham City, striker Trevor Francis found himself waiting in Clough’s office well after the appointed time for his unveiling to the press. “It turned out that he had another engagement,” said Francis later. “He was playing squash over the road at Trent Bridge.” When Clough finally arrived, he was wearing a tracksuit and carrying his squash racket.

During the ensuing press conference, Francis was asked, “When will you be making your debut for Nottingham Forest?” Gesturing at himself with his racket, Clough replied, “When I pick him.”

Supervising Youth Team Training with his Dog

Nottingham Forest Youth Team player Sean Dyche recalls:

“The boss used to travel on the coach for FA Youth Cup games and loved the reserves, but on the training ground he let the coaches coach. He’d come down with his dog and his squash racket and his squash ball. He’d whack that around for the dog and stand at a distance, but every now and then, he’d notice something and you’d hear his voice across the training ground.”

Over the years, the racket clearly acquired a life of its own.

Touting for Squash Matches in Europe

Former Nottingham Evening Post Sports Editor Trevor Frecknall travelled throughout Europe with Forest reporting on their European Cup ties. He recalls that Clough always took his squash racket abroad on the off-chance that he could get a game should there be a court in the vicinity. The racket would also make regular appearances in the club’s hotel, at training sessions and even in the dug-out during matches.

And it also had another function…

Signalling the Need for Tactical Changes

Watching one first team training session before a European Cup away tie, Frecknall observed another use of the racket:

“On the third or maybe fourth occasion the fluency of the kick-about was interrupted by the ball disappearing into a mass of hardy shrubs, Clough raised his squash racket as the signal for the on-field trainer to blow his whistle and halt play.

Archie Gemmill

Archie Gemmill

Each time the ball had left the pitch, it was because Archie Gemmill’s passes were just too far in front of John Robertson on the left wing.

“Mr Gemmill,” Clough beckoned.

“Yes boss,” responded the little Scotland midfield player.

“I bought you to give the ball to Mr Robertson,” drawled Clough.

“Yes boss,” agreed Gemmill.

“As you’ll have noticed, Mr Robertson is a rather corpulent young gentleman with short legs that do not move as fast as some others in the club.”

John Robertson

John Robertson

“Yes boss.”

“So your job is to pass the ball to Mr Robertson’s feet,” Clough continued.

“Yes boss.”

“You’re sure you can still do that, aren’t you?”

“Yes boss.”

“Good, because if you can’t, we can easily leave you here and find somebody else who can give Mr Robertson the ball where he wants it.”

“Yes boss.”

“So long as we’re clear…”

“Yes boss.”

Clough the Legend

“When I go, God’s going to have to give up his favourite chair.” (Brian Clough)

Brian Clough died in 2004, two years before the appearance of ‘The Damned Utd’, a novel by British writer David Peace. The book, a largely fictional account of Clough’s 44 days as manager of Leeds United, re-ignited public interest in Clough’s career and his life. It was commercially successful but widely criticised by Clough’s family and former colleagues as being both inaccurate and unrepresentative of the man himself.

The Damned United poster

The Damned United poster

Three years later a film adaptation of the novel, ‘The Damned United’ appeared, directed by Tom Hooper and starring Michael Sheen as Clough. The film was generally well-received by critics but was again met with a chorus of disapproval from Clough’s family.

Yet the place of Clough in the pantheon of flawed British sports heroes remains secure, the realities of his life and times interwoven with stories of what he may, or may not, have done or represented.

So whatever James Willstrop’s may believe about his dad’s qualities, he can rest assured that one thing about Clough and his life is undisputed.

The man loved his squash racket.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wikipedia for background information on Brian Clough, David Peace’s novel ‘The Damned Utd’ and Tom Hooper’s film ‘The Damned United.’ Also thanks to The Guardian for its article on James Willstrop, and The Daily Telegraph for its article on Peter Shilton.

Thanks too, to The Daily Mail for its articles on Trevor Francis and Sean Dyke. You can read Trevor Frecknall’s recollections of Brian Clough in The Nottingham Post here, and find out more about playing squash at Trent Bridge Cricket Club here.

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