16 November 2015
I Believe In Miracles, Daniel Taylor’s account of Nottingham Forest’s European Cup-winning team, could not differ more greatly from the stereotype of non-fiction books accompanying films. So often they act as an extended advert for the cinematic production, DVD sales where profits are typically made. They adhere to the film’s dialogue, throwing in some shiny photographs and the odd extra story to allow ‘BONUS MATERIAL’ to be splashed on the front cover.
Taylor’s book may be based on – and intrinsically linked to – Jonny Owen’s wonderful film of the same name (trailer below), but there are no co-dependency issues here. Rather than choosing between the two mediums, engross yourself in both; book and film complement each other perfectly.
Taylor is not just any author, of course. The Guardian and Observer’s chief football writer was raised locally, and is an avid Nottingham Forest supporter. Inserting the phrase ‘long-suffering’ at this point is probably obligatory, for Taylor’s first live match was in 1981. Talk about after the Lord Mayor’s show.
The author’s love of this club and its environs instantly comes through in his book, not via sepia-tinted gushing but the volume of research crammed inside. Almost every page brings an interesting anecdote, and Taylor sources close to 50 players, managers, commentators, supporters and journalists. The description of the first European Cup final stands in isolation as one of the finest match reports ever written, such is the detail provided from those present and the emotion conveyed.
As the book’s obvious protagonist and the true master of this miracle, Brian Clough will always provide value to an author. Whether it be persuading supporters away from suicidal leaps, ignoring his wife’s advice to become a teacher after leaving Leeds, tripping up agents or negotiating with pimps for a group rate in Amsterdam on the eve of a European semi-final second leg, we are given plenty of new tales regarding Clough’s unique managerial style and personality.
With that in mind, I Believe In Miracles is impressively concise. Each member of Clough’s squad could have been afforded their own chapter; Garry Birtles’ remarkable rise, Kenny Burn’s redemption, John McGovern’s rise to prominence, John Robertson’s overlooked genius, Colin Barrett’s unfortunate demise. In less experienced, less proficient hands, this book would have been 200 pages longer. Only Taylor’s superbly erudite style avoids that fate – no word is wasted, no story overly drawn out.
The book is split – implicitly at least – into two sections, the first regarding Forest’s rise to the league title, and the second the remarkable run to double European glory. As in the film, the club’s retention of the European Cup is given far less oxygen than the first title, but this fails to detract significantly from the importance of that repeated triumph. “You win something once and people say it is all down to luck,” the quote from Clough reads on the back cover. “You win it twice and it shuts the buggers up.”
The most revealing part of the book comes in the first section, detailing just how sluggishly Clough’s Nottingham Forest plan took shape. Taylor refers to Nottingham as a ‘sporting black hole’ and more candidly as ‘Nowheresville’, and it is clear that Clough was initially closer to drowning in the River Trent rather than walking across it. Chairman Brian Appleby recalls the manager’s depression at the situation at the City Ground, with players John O’Hare and John McGovern, who had previously worked with Clough, expressing their own concern for their manager’s funk. For all Clough’s demonstrative bravado, there was an internal self-doubt that few were able to see.
“It was like entering a desert, a barren place devoid of life or colour, with not even a green leaf to give hope,” is Clough’s line on the situation at Forest, and Taylor himself alludes to the patience afforded in dire circumstances. ‘In the age of knee-jerk chairman, cut-throat media and irritable internet bloggers…’ is his pointed contrast with the modern game. Forest supporters will also notice the irony in his description of a club being run by a haphazard committee without the requisite experience or visible know-how. Plus ca change, Taylor doesn’t quite go as far as to say.
I Believe In Miracles has three distinct themes. The first is the sheer might of Clough’s much-celebrated charisma, made more powerful still by Peter Taylor’s crucial presence. There are suggestions that Clough ruled by fear, or awe, or worship, or bravado, or luck, or kindness, but all are myths. Instead he relied on each of those in exacting amounts to fit each individual scenario or match. His astonishing ability to create belief among his players – belief in him, their peers and themselves – is both highlighted as the backbone of his success and decreed impossible to teach. Clough was the master of psychology with no need for qualifications as proof. The trophy cabinet did that.
For Forest fans, the kind words one Taylor (Daniel) saves for the other (Peter) will be hugely warming. The author’s description of Clough without his assistant as a kiss without a squeeze is sumptuous, but it is Clough’s own quote which typically steals the show: “I worked better with a smile on his face”.
The second obvious thread is the sheer magnitude of Forest’s achievements, and the perfect storm created to allow for a breathtaking rise in performance. It was as if it all happened so quickly that there was no time for self-doubt, a squad of players enjoying an extended out-of-body, outside-of reason experience. Three years and thirty-six days after losing at home to Cardiff in the Second Division, a provincial club had won the First Division title, League Cup, European Super Cup and two European Cups. As Jose Mourinho notes in the (excellent) foreword: ‘When I saw the stadium I thought: ‘Are you kidding me – this club won the European Cup twice?’’.
The important – if obvious – message is that this success can never be replicated. Football management has changed; players have changed; the whole game has changed. Yet Taylor’s understandable mood is one of ‘so what?’. ‘Nottingham has won the competition more times than London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Rome combined,’ he reminds the reader. One wonders if he’s been saving that one up.
Finally, Taylor highlights the bitterness that many of the squad feel regarding their lack of recognition and notoriety, both in the media and within the game. The plucky, lucky Forest tag became a key motivational tool for Clough and his players, creating a crucial siege mentality. ‘A bollocks-to-them philosophy’ is the phrase Taylor uses more than once, and the author himself takes the time to make the point that there are nine teams in the National Football Museum Hall of Fame; Nottingham Forest 1977-80 are not one of them.
Crucially, Taylor has captured the wider importance of this story and his book. It is not simply an ode to Clough or a series of insider stories, thus avoiding the danger of it becoming introspective. Instead, it is an important evaluation of English culture in the 1970s, both footballing and otherwise. This is far, far beyond a Nottingham Forest book for Nottingham Forest fans by a Nottingham Forest fan.
The number of biographies about Clough and the key individuals from his Nottingham Forest team are enough to fill their own bookshelf. Thirty-five years after the story ends, we surely now have the definitive book. It is the greatest partnership between Clough and Taylor since… well.
Daniel Storey is deputy editor of Football365.com and a freelance football writer. He can be followed on Twitter @danielstorey85
The trailer of film, recently released, is below.