Brian Clough was “the best manager England never had”, according to the caption that ends Peter Morgan’s 2009 biopic The Damned United. I’d say it’s a fair assessment. Clough certainly got the results; in 1967, he took over at Derby County and by 1973 the club been promoted to the top flight, won the championship and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup. Clough’s stewardship of Nottingham Forest, where he spent 18 years, is widely regarded as one of the game’s greatest achievements.
Clough came to management as a player, and not just any player. By the time a knee injury forced him off the pitch at the age of 29, he had two England caps under his belt and had scored 251 league goals in only 274 starts.
In companies whose work is created through devising, the director-performer boundary is often quite flexible. At the top end of the theatre industry, though, the roles of director and performer are generally rigidly defined and, crucially, there are relatively few directors who were once actors. Daniel Evans at Sheffield Crucible and Michael Grandage spring to mind, but after that it’s less easy to come up with any.
In football, managing is often the second stage of a career, something you do after you’ve put in your hours on the pitch, had your face slammed into the turf, heard the crowd roar and had your hair wetted by managers shouting and spitting in your ear.
Increasingly, theatre directors tumble into the world at the age of 21, with only an undergraduate degree from a redbrick university behind them. That was me: I left university stuffed with strongly held (and largely untested) opinions and that I was sure deserved to be heard. I had a head for organisation, I’d read a lot of critical theory and I liked plays, but was yet to realise the difference between staged literature and live drama. I also lacked the emotional maturity to help actors negotiate difficult emotional terrain. Aside from a few student productions, I hadn’t acted and had little interest in it. There was no dirt on my boots.
This is how many directors leave university, and I wonder if that leads to creating a certain type of theatre – concept-heavy and literary, if a little staid – at least in those fledging years. How true are, for example, the love stories we are able to tell before our hearts have been broken for the first time? How sympathetically will we render the characters in a kitchen sink drama or a satire of the banking industry if we have not yet worked and struggled?
Brian Clough was able to stand behind every question he asked. He had done the job he was asking others to do and this made him fair but also tough. He refused to answer to the press and was quick to call out his players on tantrums or requests for preferential treatment. He insisted on being called ‘Mr Clough’.
A debate recently blew up on Twitter over some influential theatres and development funds were choosing to define ‘young’ director, which seems to end at either 25 or 30. More and more, the word ‘young’ is giving way to ‘emerging’, which acknowledges that the interest can grow at any age. The theatre industry fetishes youth, especially now that theatres are more interested in blending and remixing traditionally disparate genres of performance. This is good news: it keeps theatre interesting and conversant with a changing world. Still, maybe we should kick a ball around ourselves for a while and see how it changes us.
Image by Marcio Cabral de Moura.