They survive everything, up to and including a nuclear holocaust. They endure through the years, never lessening in intensity, never being diminished by death and always retaining that special core of bitterness.
The rivalries between clubs can be one-dimensional, even banal. It takes two colossal personalities to make the perfect storm of conflict. Clashes between two men, and it is always men in football, are much more interesting than mundane sniping between clubs.
The most visible, most explosive rivalry in English football was the one that scarred the relationship between Brian Clough, most famously manager of Derby County and Nottingham Forest, and Don Revie, the Godfather of Leeds United.
“It was a special enmity that marked a special time in English football,” says Roger Hermiston, who has written a book about the two rivals, and how and why they fell out.
Hermiston is aware of the similarities in the characters. Both Clough and Revie were international footballers, both became top-class managers but their bonds were forged at an early stage in life. Although separated by eight years, with Revie, the elder, being born in 1927, both were sons of Middlesbrough and shared a working-class upbringing that lacked both money and formal education.
Both were plagued with neuroses. Revie was almost comically superstitious, summoning Gypsy Rose Lee from Blackpool to lift a curse on Elland Road. Clough, outwardly confident but inwardly brooding, would be plagued by alcoholism. Both died in their sixties, Revie at 61 in 1989, Clough at 69 in 2004.
“They had different characters, though,” says Hermiston. “The similarities, of course, are there but Clough was naturally more at ease in public. Revie was loved by those close to him at Elland Road but he found it difficult to open up to those who did not know him.”
This intensity was a major failing for Revie. The Leeds United team of the late sixties and early seventies was a magnificent machine but it stalled at crucial moments. “This may be down to Revie. He found it difficult to relax players. Clough, and particularly his assistant Peter Taylor, could lighten a mood. Revie could not do that.” Clough would hand his players a drink, Revie would give them a dossier.
History, though, has been unkind to Leeds. Although Clough won two European Cups with Nottingham Forest, Leeds were the team more capable of breathtaking footballing. “The image of Dirty Leeds persists but I was watching DVDs of them when the World Cup was on and was astonished by the quality and flow of their play,” says Hermiston. Leeds could play a game of beauty through such as Eddie Gray, or when Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner used their footballing batons to direct play rather than hit opponents over the head.
Revie, too, has been vilified for leaving the England manager’s job to take up a post in the United Arab Emirates in 1977. But Hermiston insists: “Both managers were obsessed with money. This was understandable given their backgrounds and that they played in an era when a footballer received the maximum wage that at most amounted to £20 a week.”
Hermiston relates the wonderfully chaotic end to Clough’s career as a manager at Leeds United where he incredibly succeeded Revie in 1974. His tenure in the post lasted 44 days and spawned the magnificent The Damned Utd by David Peace and subsequent flood of reminiscences about both Clough and Revie.
“The Clough book market, in particular, is saturated,” says Hermiston. “I tried to bring something new in that I wanted to focus on Middlesbrough, where I have family ties, and the dynamic between the men.” The episode at Leeds provides two dramatic setpieces.
The first is when Clough and his lawyer sit soberly as Leeds directors consume gin and tonics and finally agree, almost unwittingly, to a severance pay-off worth about £700,000. The ebullient Clough likened it immediately to a pools win.
The second scene takes place in Yorkshire Television studios on the night of Clough’s dismissal, when he is interviewed alongside Revie. “It just could not happen nowadays,” says Hermiston. “But it was brilliant television and a compelling portrait of both men. It was like a marriage counselling session with both picking up on each other’s flaws with the hint of reconciliation dashed with a cruel word.”
But why did Clough, who regarded Revie as a hero for so long, come to hold his rival in contempt? “This is the failure of the book,” says Hermiston, much too harshly of his work. “It does not quite explain why they fell out.” It brilliantly, however, gives the background and leaves the verdict to the reader.
The first theory is that Clough became disillusioned by the gamesmanship and dissent of Revie’s team. There is much truth in that assertion, as Clough famously derided Leeds for their style, once publicly criticising Peter Lorimer for diving just after the Scotsman had won a player-of-the-year award.
But the antipathy had a darker source. Bluntly, Clough believed Revie “fixed” matches. This was the great innuendo of the 1970s and it gathered noise and fury through a series of libel cases, most famously involving Billy Bremner. Leeds and Revie were never convicted of “match-fixing” but Clough believed his rival was guilty of paying for results.
Just two months after losing the Leeds job, David Frost asked Clough on television why he did not like Revie. “I can’t tell you. It’s impossible. We will get closed down,” said Clough.
The implication was as clear as distilled hatred. Revie believed Clough was a loud-mouthed clown. Clough believed Revie was a close-mouthed cheat. It was more than enough to fuel a dislike that still echoes down the ages.
Clough & Revie: The Rivals Who Changed the Face of English Football by Roger Hermiston is published by Mainstream at £10.99