It was one of the great footballing rivalries of all time. Don Revie and Brian Clough, despite their shared Middlesbrough ancestry, waged a ceaseless war of words in the early 1970s while their Leeds United and Derby County sides battled it out ferociously on mud bound pitches. Now Roger Hermiston, former Yorkshire Post reporter and - until recently - BBC Radio 4 Today programme's assistant editor, has written a book about these two great, if flawed, characters. Here he explains what motivated him to do so and how he set about it.
I was the reporter working the night shift for the Yorkshire Post in Leeds on Friday 26 May 1989, when the news came through that Don Revie had died of the crippling, incurable motor neurone disease with which he’s been diagnosed two years earlier.
I had about an hour to make some calls, piece together the salient facts of his life and then file my story, which was obviously destined for the following morning’s front page. Whatever the wider world may have thought about him by then, Revie remained a hero in the eyes of the city to which he had brought so much football fame and success.
It was obvious where to start. Billy Bremner – ‘ten stone of barbed wire’, as one writer once memorably described him – had made his debut for Leeds alongside him at the age of 17, and then, when Revie became manager, had made sure his writ ran large on the pitch as his inspirational captain.
Bremner spoke passionately to me that night about the man who became like a father to him. “The Guv’nor was a master tactician, a superb manager. But more important than that, he was a good guy. He was totally honest and fair, and never bad-mouthed anyone.”
Armed with additional quotes from little Bobby Collins, Revie’s midfield ‘enforcer’ in the 1960s, and Allan Clarke, his goalscorer supreme, and having worked in the obvious biographical details of his career as player and manager, I sent the story off to the sub-editors. It was a remarkable night on the sporting front – Arsenal were winning the Football League championship in sensational fashion on the last day of the season, defeating Liverpool at Anfield with a last minute goal from Michael Thomas.
One line in my piece intrigued me – “Don Revie was brought up in Middlesbrough”. At that time I was unaware of his connection with the town, such was the power of his association with Leeds which seemed to put everything else into the shade. As my father’s family came from Middlesbrough, it interested me even more.
Years later, when I turned away briefly from making news programmes for the BBC and delved into the world of football in the 1960s and 1970s, I discovered that another complex, controversial football character had been born only a few streets away from Revie. What’s more, it was none other than Revie’s managerial archrival and most outspoken critic – Brian Clough. A story of these two Middlesbrough boys seemed rich in potential.
In Tom Hooper’s compelling film The Damned United (from the book of the same name by David Peace, a fictional account of Brian Clough’s 44-day tenure at Leeds United) there’s a scene where Clough – played by Michael Sheen - is looking forward to the FA Cup encounter between his own side, lower second division Derby County, and Leeds, managed by Don Revie and riding high at the top of the First Division.
Clough muses about the similarities between himself and the more experienced Revie, by way of both their personal lives and their footballing careers. He tells his faithful sidekick Peter Taylor: “We grew up just a few streets apart, you know, in Middlesbrough, close to Ayresome Park. He’ll have known my street, Valley Road - probably bought sweets from Garnett’s factory where me Dad worked. Best manager in the country, Don Revie. Played for Sunderland, like me, a centre-forward, like me, and England, like me. Peas in a pod, me and Don. Two peas in a bloody pod….”
An imagined monologue, perhaps, but Clough/Sheen’s screen speech is firmly supported by the evidence. They were born a short distance away from each other in Middlesbrough, in 1927 and 1935 respectively, on either side of the town’s (former) Ayresome Park stadium. The historian Richard Overy has described the two decades between the world wars as “The Morbid Age”, a period familiarly associated with poverty, unemployment, the slump and the rise of Fascism. Middlesbrough, one of the “new towns” of the Industrial Revolution, was ravaged by the Depression more than most because of its reliance on heavy industries, and Revie and Clough both grew up in a climate where jobs were scarce and life was a perpetual struggle.
One of Revie’s boyhood contemporaries, the journalist Peter Thomas, described his upbringing more evocatively than anyone. “His was the harsh background of a Middlesbrough still touched grey and dark by attitudes of Victorian Methodism, where every rich man had his castle and a poor man at his gate”. Not to be the poor man at the rich man’s door was what drove Revie on throughout his life.
Through talent, desire and determination both of them went on to become highly successful – if not exceptional – professional footballers: Clough flourished as a free scoring centre-forward for Middlesbrough and Sunderland, Revie usually in a more “deep-lying” version of the same position at Leicester, Hull, Sunderland and Leeds United.
Both, too, were capped by England – albeit on just a few occasions. Revie marked his debut in October 1954 with a goal against Northern Ireland; he went on to win six caps. Clough’s first game came five years later against Wales; he only played once more, and in neither game did he display anything like his true potential.
Then, as young managers in the early (Revie) and late (Clough) 1960s, they both took clubs languishing in the doldrums (Leeds United and Derby County) and moulded them into championship winners.
So much similarity, then, in background, career path and achievement. But peas in a pod? Emphatically not. These two sons of the Tees shared little else in common, and were as different in character as Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. A bitter rivalry developed between them, which in turn enlivened and then arguably blighted English football in the late 1960s and early 1970s as their sides fought it out for the major honours in English football.
That personal animosity often appeared to spread throughout their respective clubs. After Clough had made another of his barbed comments about Leeds when he was Derby manager, it prompted this unusual response from a normally reticent Revie: “Clough is the last man I would like to be stranded with on a desert island.” The feeling was almost certainly mutual.
This symmetry in their professional lives reached its conclusion with the remarkable events of the summer of 1974. Revie, who had just led Leeds to another First Division title, decided to leave the club he had nurtured like a family for thirteen years to become England manager, after the dismissal of Sir Alf Ramsey. Clough – to the utter disbelief of the football world – succeeded him at Elland Road. Three years later history repeated itself; when Revie resigned as England manager, one of the four main candidates to be interviewed for his job was one Brian Clough.
Clough, then, was forever following in the footsteps of the older man. To some extent, there was a natural jealousy, or envy, on his part at Revie’s achievements, and a consequent fierce desire to better him. The two men ran their clubs almost as their own personal fiefdoms, but they held very different views on how the game should be played, and how they saw the place of football in society; those ideological differences also provide an explanation for the bitter clashes.
Temperamentally, too, they were oceans apart, Clough an extrovert, a showman who was at home in the bright new world of television in the early 1970s, while Revie was all too often – in public, at least - appearing to live up to the caricature of the dour Yorkshireman.
Theirs was a gripping enough story even without being fictionalized or put on the big screen, a tale about passionate, driven, extraordinary characters who stood above and beyond their contemporaries, a rivalry in the classical tradition, one which could have leapt from the pages of Homer or Shakespeare.
Then there was my other reason for wanting to write a book about Revie and Clough. I wanted to explore my background and heritage, because the Hermistons were in the first wave of immigrants from other parts of the British Isles who came to help build this frontier town in the early 19th century. Some of my ancestors on my father’s side worked in the ironworks at Eston and helped forge Middlesbrough’s pre-eminent place in the Industrial Revolution.
My book then, in its early chapters at least, has a third character, the town of Middlesbrough itself, a town which invented itself almost out of nowhere, and fashioned generations of resourceful individuals with a fierce desire to make something special of their lives, men like Don Revie and Brian Clough.
The book traces events from Sunday, July 10, 1927 in Bell Street, Middlesbrough, when Donald Revie was born on an exceptionally hot summer’s day, and it finishes half a century later in the chill of a December day in 1977 with Brian Howard Clough coming down the steps of the Football Association’s headquarters in Lancaster Gate, West London, having completed the interview for his great rival’s job.
For Ipswich Town supporters – especially those now aged 50 and over, who were following the club in the late 70s – there will be added interest in the closing chapter ‘Not Worth The Aggravation’, as it chronicles in some detail that contest for that England manager’s job in the autumn of 1977. Clough, Ron Greenwood and Laurie McMenemy were all on the FA’s final shortlist – but so too, of course, was Bobby Robson. The book, with the help of letters and documents from the archive of the then chairman of the FA, Sir Harold Thompson, shows just how desperate the Ipswich board was to keep Robson at Portman Road in those days. Robson was in the process of turning Town into one of the most progressive sides in Europe, but Patrick Cobbold – for one – was perhaps being a little disingenuous when telling the FA that he didn’t think Robson was really very interested in the England job!
The lives of Don Revie and Brian Clough were, to a certain extent, shaped similarly by their experience of the harsher decades of the 1930s and 1940s. But, thirty years later, all that shared experience counted for nothing as the game of soccer was tugged and twisted in different directions while they fought for influence and achievement. At times it seemed like they were waging an all-out battle for the soul of British football.
* Clough and Revie – The Rivals Who Changed the Face of English Football is published by Mainstream and available in bookshops and online from this Thursday – April 7. You can order it via Amazon link here.