Dean Saunders, Brian Clough and the very imaginative scriptwriter
Saunders’ story about Nottingham Forest trying to sign him for a record fee went viral
Brian Clough, one of the most successful Managers in British football took Derby County to the League Championship in season 1971-1972, Nottingham Forest to the League Championship in season 1977-1978 and perhaps his greatest achievement, the winning of the European Cup with Forest two years running in 1979 and 1980. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
By now you have probably heard the story that has been doing the rounds in the last few days about Brian Clough, drunk as a skunk apparently, trying to sign Dean Saunders for Nottingham Forest for what would have been a British record transfer fee.
Some belting lines, too, if you like the idea there was a time when the best managers in the business refused to dance to the tune of agents. Clough never had time for middle men (Peter Shilton tells a wonderful story about taking two of his advisers into transfer negotiations and Clough waiting behind his office door to trip them up with a squash racket) and was clearly put out to find Saunders, then at Derby County, had brought one with him.
“I stand up,” Saunders recalled on Talksport. “I was a bit nervous – it’s Brian Clough. ‘Young man, nice to see you.’ He looks at Kevin, my agent – doesn’t even shake his hand. ‘Son, can I speak to you, or do I have to speak to him to speak to you?’ I said: ‘You can speak to me, Mr Clough.’ He went: ‘Thank you, son, because I don’t really like talking about football in front of him – he’s a fat…’”
Let’s start from the beginning, though. This little sketch, we learn, takes place at the house of Alan Hill, Clough’s assistant, in June 1991. Saunders describes the scene, with “the best garden you have ever seen”, waiting in the lounge to discuss a potential £2.9m move. Then, finally, the knock at the door. “Green sweatshirt, white shorts, white socks, blotchy cheeks,” Saunders recounted. It’s classic Cloughie colour already. “Blotchy cheeks!” one of the presenters echoes, with a hoot of laughter.
Everything starts to get a bit weird. “We sit down,” Saunders said, “and he walks to the opposite end of the house and sits on the chair with his nose about an inch from the wall, looking at the wall. He doesn’t say anything for about a minute – just staring at the wall.” Eventually, Clough slides off his chair, down to the floor and on to his knees. “I’m thinking: ‘What the . .’” Saunders went on. “I can’t believe what’s going on. A British record transfer, this is supposed to be..”
Clough, he said, starts crawling on his hands and knees to where his prospective new signing is sitting. “At this point,” and Saunders makes this next remark in the manner of someone knowingly rolling his eyes, “I started to work out he might be drunk” (both presenters laugh).
It turns out, perhaps for the benefit of his after-dinner audiences (Saunders gets £1,000 to £2,000 a pop, according to his online promoters at www.comedians.co.uk), Saunders is not just a fine raconteur but a budding impressionist.
“He is crawling on the floor,” he says. “He stops, looks at the carpet and goes: (Clough impersonation): ‘Hilly, I like your carpet, son, where did you get that from?’
(Clough impersonation): ‘How much?’
‘£12.99 a square yard.’
(Clough impersonation): ‘My Barbara would love that carpet – good choice, Hilly, son.’
Already, you get the idea that this is no ordinary anecdote. Yet we are only really warming up. “It goes on ages, this story,” Saunders told us, “it’s hilarious.” Clough calls the agent “fatso”. He goes into the garden and, according to Saunders, takes one of the flower pots – “the best pot you’ve ever seen with flowers spilling out” – and rips out the entire lot to present to his prospective new signing. Then, one thing leading to another, Clough starts using the flowers as a pretend microphone, persuading Saunders to join him singing Chicago by Frank Sinatra.
It is left to Archie Gemmill, according to Saunders, to make Forest’s financial offer, hampered by regular Clough interruptions (strange in itself when Gemmill is only the first-team coach), and when the player finally gets home, head spinning, we get the killer line. Saunders finds his wife inside the door, with her finger to her lips, making a shush gesture. “He’s only sat in my lounge,” he says, “with the pot from the garden, and his arm around my mother-in-law. Honest to God…”
Everyone in football, especially that era, seems to have a Clough story but nothing perhaps quite as bonkers as this one – and I say that as someone who has written a couple of books about the man’s work. It is also, I’m pretty sure, the first time I can remember anyone telling an anecdote this way when it openly references, as a point of humour, the drinking and alcoholism that finished Clough – an illness, I think some people (among them, Talksport regular Ray Wilkins, presumably) call it. And sorry to be a dreadful spoilsport – I’m fully aware I will be told to get a sense of humour, that it’s banter and LOL – but I’ve started to wonder whether Saunders might actually be a bit of a pillock.
I do have my own drunk-Cloughie story, by the way. A year or so after Saunders left Derby (he eventually went to Liverpool), I was in my first job at the Newark Advertiser and Clough was invited to plant a tree to mark the opening of a local arts centre.
This time, for the record, he was in a suit, not the green sweatshirt. Blotchy cheeks, though. Pissed again. Not exactly Clough in his pomp, with those piercing eyes, the immaculately coiffured hair, the healthy skin and all that precious, peculiar magic from the days winning league titles and European Cups.
Anyway, the tree. Most people would pop it in the ground, sprinkle a bit of mud on the roots and pat it down with a spade. Not Clough. He was down on his knees, flattening the soil with his bare hands, ruining a good suit. Nobody was laughing, though, and more fool me, perhaps, for not putting on a Clough accent over the years and trying to get some mileage out of it. It’s just there are a thousand stories about this man that don’t refer to him being plastered. He was the guy, remember, who once told a colleague “Sinatra met me, you know” – and call me a spoilsport, humourless, whatever you will, those are the stories that make me laugh. Not ones about his blotchy cheeks or making an oaf of himself when he was sliding into alcoholism, or maybe already there. Not stories I suspect might have more top-spin than a Roger Federer serve.
Obviously I’m in the minority, though. It’s clearly fair game to go on the radio and tell jokey anecdotes about someone’s drink problem. All the same I hope the Clough family – Nigel, Simon and Elizabeth, and their own children – weren’t tuning in. I know already what some of the players from Clough’s European Cup-winning teams think about it and I also put in a call to Hill earlier this week.
“It’s a good after-dinner speech but unfortunately most of it isn’t true,” he told me. “Brian wasn’t drunk, he wasn’t crawling on his hands and knees, he didn’t sit facing a wall, he didn’t mention the carpet once and there was no flowerpot… it just feels like he [SAUNDERS]has put this story through a very imaginative scriptwriter and this is what they’ve come up with.”
All rather awkward, I’m sure you will agree. “Brian liked a drink and we all know he had a situation towards the end but he wasn’t drunk that day at all,” Hill continued. “He didn’t do the things that have been said, and I’ve no idea why he [SAUNDERS]would say them. Brian arrived with Archie Gemmill. ‘Hello, Mr Clough,’ Saunders said. ‘Son, call me Brian,’ he replied. It was all perfectly normal. He didn’t really want to speak to an agent, that’s correct, and we were told it was going to be difficult because Saunders had already agreed a deal with Everton. ‘It won’t be difficult,’ Brian told him, ‘we’ll just offer you more money than they have.’ Then off he went up the garden to smell the lavender.
“When he’d gone, Saunders told me Everton had offered him £8,000. “A month?’ I asked. ‘No, a week.’ Crikey. I told Brian and his reaction was ‘Bloody hell, that’s more than me, our Nigel and Pearcey get together.’ First of all, though, he wanted me to do something. ‘Smell this flower,’ he said, ‘it’s beautiful.’
“After half an hour Saunders said he would talk it through with his wife and went home. Then at 9pm he rang to say Liverpool had matched our offer and he would rather go there because his father used to play for them. So that’s it. Brian wasn’t drunk, and it’s not fair. There are all sorts of different Brian Clough stories – I tell some myself, but not derogatory ones, not ones like this.”
Still, the damage is done. That eight-minute clip – “the funniest thing that’s ever happened to me in football,” Saunders concludes – has gone viral. It is an internet sensation and the Liverpool Echo’s headline on Monday was: “How a drunken Brian Clough tried to persuade Dean Saunders to turn down Howard Kendall. ” Even the Birmingham Evening Mail was running it. “The following anecdote has nothing to do with our clubs on this patch,” the newspaper explained. “However, it is quite possibly one of the best football stories we have heard in the past quarter of a century.” Or, depending who you believe, one of the more ludicrous.
Clough, incidentally, took his team to the FA Cup final that season, one of six Wembley visits in three years. He obviously rated Saunders – who has been informed that his story is disputed and chosen not to comment – but, for the most part, he didn’t need to break transfer records to improve his team. The year before, Clough found Roy Keane playing for Cobh Ramblers and signed him for £47,000.
As far as I’m aware, Keane has never told a story, or embellished one, about Clough, with his drink-ravaged face, in that difficult period, 1991 to 1993, when the deterioration set in. Maybe it’s true, as Keane once said, the game is full of bluffers.