This article originally appeared on ESPN
The scene was as sad as it was subtle.
Towards the end of Brian Clough’s final season as Nottingham Forest manager in 1992-93, he was rewarded with the freedom of the city. Duncan Hamilton gives an account of the day in his exceptional book ‘Provided You Don’t Kiss Me’, which covers his years reporting on Clough at Forest, and there is a poignant pay-off. After hours touring the city and talking about his career, Clough turned his attention to someone he hadn’t actually talked to in 10 years.
“There’s just one regret today,” he said to Hamilton, out of nowhere. “I wish me mate had been here with me.”
The journalist didn’t need to ask who. Clough was referring to his former assistant – some might fairly say co-manager – Peter Taylor. They had won the European Cup together in 1979 and 1980, but couldn’t have ended up further apart. The last time they spoke was 1983, after a series of disputes. The saddest part of all was that, in the years before Taylor’s 1990 death, “mate” was the last thing Clough would have called him.
“We used to be friends once,” he had told Hamilton before. “We never will be again. And that’s final.”
At this juncture, it’s far easier to imagine Roy Keane or Alex Ferguson saying something like that about their own failed relationship, rather than lament it in the way Clough ultimately did his.
You only have to look at the words of the last week or last year, as the former Manchester United men offered corrosive public criticisms of each other to go with their autobiographies.
This is not to say Keane or Ferguson were friends, or that their partnership was the same as that of Clough-Taylor, but there are common strands. Those strands also point to something deeper as regards the game, and the nature of successfully leadership. It does not seem a coincidence that two of the most profitable partnerships in English football history dissolved into such ugly rancour. It’s also not like they are completely isolated cases, the mere consequence of cast-iron personalities.
Look at one of the league’s other great dynasties. In the mid-70s, Liverpool had to tell Bill Shankly to stay away from the team, so his own former assistant Bob Paisley could do the job his way. It resulted in the tragic situation of Shankly feeling like a stranger at the club he built.
The Scot once described football’s team ethic as “a form of socialism”, but all of this also sums up the game’s great contradiction. It is based on collectives coming together for a common good, yet the best in history have all been shaped by single dictators – the managers.
Keane pointedly painted Ferguson as something of a tyrant this week, saying he was “all about power and control”. The Irishman has challenged that like no-one else. He has also tackled the elephant – or perhaps the horse – in the room like no-one else, too. Keane utterly nailed the issue of his former manager’s notorious legal dispute over the Rock of Gibraltar racehorse with businessmen JP McManus and John Magnier.
“He was just a mascot for them,” Keane cuttingly states. His book is typically full of such searing comments. That bluntness is often mistaken for bitterness, but no-one who is actually bitter would go to such pains to explain their motivation behind every key moment. The issue instead seems to be Keane is simply incapable of offering his view on anything unless it is exactly what he thinks. That makes ‘The Second Half’ Keane’s honest account. One person’s honesty, however, does not necessarily add up to the whole truth.
Take Keane’s description of the fateful day when Ferguson decided to get rid of him, in November 2005. It is the first time that morning has been outlined in such detail. Keane had notoriously criticised many of his teammates for the 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough, having been asked to offer punditry on the club’s TV station. It never went on air. Keane claims he initially managed to clear the air with the squad, before Ferguson then angrily decided they should all watch the tape.
The more Keane explains, the more that two things seem to become clear. The first is that, as honest as the Irishman is, there’s something he isn’t confronting.
Keane admits “the timing was right” as regards his exit, but leaves a question: “I still don’t know exactly why it happened.” He wonders whether it was the dispute in pre-season, or any issue with assistant manager Carlos Quieroz.
“Was I missing something?” Keane asks.
He may have missed the biggest thing of all, and the second thing that becomes apparent from his account.
This does not read like a pure personality clash. It reads like Ferguson doing something Keane had seen so often: taking the opportunity to get rid of someone whose negatives now outweighed the positives.
The manager was asserting his dictatorial control. The suspicion is Ferguson knew Keane was no longer the same player, and that no longer justified his attitude. Simple as that.
There was no residual warmth or personal regard. There was cold and professional business.
It was precisely that decisiveness Keane used to lionise, especially in his first autobiography. Throughout that, he talks about Ferguson with something like a sense of an awe; like as if he’s a father-figure. Ferguson’s own first book from 1999 talked of Keane as the closest person to him in terms of mentality, the incarnation of his attitude on a pitch – like a son. It was special. It is therefore incredible it has come to this, even if always felt someway inevitable.
Clough and Taylor were also said to have something like a familial relationship, but one that was fraternal or akin to a marriage.
Their fall-out similarly involved a corrosive public dispute over an autobiography. Taylor brought one out shortly after the 1980 European Cup, but it wasn’t really about himself. It was about his partner, and actually called ‘With Clough by Taylor’.
Although it formed a brilliant account of how they worked together, Clough was deeply wounded by what Hamilton calls “Taylor’s demeaning psychoanalysis”. Even the root of that was something universal to all this. Taylor and Clough may have been a partnership, but they were not treated equally. Taylor was not paid anything close to Clough’s salary, and did the book to earn more.
It was part of a growing resentment over how much who got rewarded for what, and who was responsible for what. It was about credit and control.
Over the last year, Keane has repeatedly referenced Ferguson criticising players who gave him so much success, as if he feels their role is being downplayed. One comment this week touched on it all.
“A manager who has made millions out of us… and he thinks he can criticise us without anybody saying anything to him because he thinks he’s got all this power.”
There is also a powerful human element to all this. Beyond everything, these men together enjoyed special moments that should only be looked on with happiness. Instead, there’s always that edge, that associated resentment.
Clough finally reflected on that to Hamilton shortly after Taylor died.
“All those years when we could have been sitting together, when he could have come, as an honoured guest… but all we did at the end was slag one another off. Oh, fuck.”
“What a waste.”