Brian Clough and me: ‘If it wasn’t for him, I’d be in prison’

Craig Bromfield stands on the steps of Sunderland’s Seaburn beach, staring into the past. “It was 9.30am on a Saturday, freezing," lui dice. “My brother Aaron’s in the sea just in his pants and I’m running along here, backwards and forwards, thinking I’m the bloke off Chariots of Fire. Then Aaron gets out and runs up these steps, waving at me, and Brian’s just walking along here with his entourage.”

He didn’t know who Brian Clough era. But Aaron explained, Craig approached him and it changed his life. The date, 20 ottobre 1984, is etched in Craig’s mind. È stato 11, Aaron was 12, and Clough was a legendary football manager and former player. As a manager, he had achieved the impossible twice – first with Derby County, then with Nottingham Forest. He had taken these two modest clubs from the old second division to champions of football’s top tier for the first time in their respective histories. Quindi, nel 1979 e 1980, he went one further, winning the European Cup in successive years with a Forest team composed largely of rejects and has-beens.

Clough was as famous for his personality as his management. He was arrogant (even he called himself Old Big ’Ead); witty (“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one”); bullying (he punched a young Roy Keane in the face after he gave a goal away with a short backpass); obnoxious (as manager of Leeds, he introduced himself to the squad by saying, “You can take all the medals you’ve won and throw them in that bin, because you’ve never won anything fairly. You’ve done it all by cheating”); reckless (he lasted 44 days at Leeds); e, on the sly, exceptionally kind.

“If Brian hadn’t done what he did,” Craig says now, “I wouldn’t have had a life, because I would have been in prison.”

The Bromfield boys were skinny, impoverished and abused. Ma, like Clough, they had chutzpah by the bucketload and huge smiles. They made for unlikely siblings back in the 80s: Craig was fair and pale skinned, Aaron dark haired and mixed race. They were actually stepbrothers, but never bothered with the step bit.

The day before meeting Clough, they had been asking for a “penny for the guy” outside the swanky hotel opposite the beach. A young man gave the boys an eye-popping £5 note. He told them he was a footballer called Kenny Swain, that he played for Nottingham Forest and the team were staying at the Seaburn hotel in Sunderland because they had a match against Newcastle the next day. If the boys came back in the morning, Swain said, he’d get them the players’ autographs.

Sure enough, the boys, who lived two miles away in the suburb of Southwick, returned, but they couldn’t find Swain. That’s why they were so excited when Aaron spotted Clough, who agreed to take them back to the hotel. He called them a couple of ragtags, told them it was nice that they had addressed him as Mr Clough, said they would catch their bloody death without coats and asked them if they’d had breakfast. Of course they hadn’t. It was the start of a remarkable relationship. Why does Craig think Clough took to them? “Brian was from the north-east, and loved Sunderland. As a player, it was the happiest part of his career, and he had two of his kids here. And we were scruffy little underdogs, a bit cheeky and we made him laugh.”

Adesso, Craig Bromfield has written an exceptionally moving book about it called Be Good, Love Brian.

“I started it 16 anni fa, but could never finish it,” Craig says. “The final chapter was too difficult.” Gradually, as the story unfolds, I begin to realise why.

The boys hit it off with the Forest squad. Clough said they could go to the match with them on the team bus, but first he would have to ring their parents to check that it was OK. The family didn’t have a phone, so Craig and Aaron simply ran home and asked. On the bus, Clough sat at the front and told them to “bugger off” to the back where the chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks were stored (a footballer’s diet was very different in those days), to fill their boots and not disturb the lads.

It was the best day of their lives. The only thing was, they never got the chance to thank Clough. So Craig wrote him a letter. Clough wrote back, saying he was glad they had enjoyed their day and hoped to see them again. He signed it: “Be good, Love Brian.” The book’s title becomes particularly poignant in light of what was to happen later.

Subito dopo, Sunderland drew Forest at home in the League Cup. There was no keeping the boys away. They arrived at the Seaburn hotel a couple of hours before the team. When Clough got off the bus, he gave them a hug, said they looked as if they could do with a good meal and told them to order whatever they fancied. Forest returned to Sunderland just before Christmas for a league match and brought the boys presents – a ball signed by the team and padded jackets. “Now you’ve no excuse for not bringing your coats,” Clough said.

Outside the ground, Craig saw four lads who had been bullying him at school. Clough asked what was wrong and Craig told him. Clough went over to the lads, gave them four match tickets and warned them never to touch Craig again. “I know who you are and I know where you all live, and I’ll come round to yer mams’. Now bugger off!” Craig was never bullied again.

On it went. When Craig was 13, Clough invited the boys to stay with his family for a couple of days in Quarndon, a well-to-do village in Derbyshire. Clough realised the boys came from a struggling family, but he didn’t know the half of it. By the time they met him, they had been in and out of care much of their lives. Craig’s first memory of his biological father is him smashing a mirror over his mother, Gillian’s, head. After his parents split up, he had nothing more to do with him. When Aaron’s father, Jerry, moved in with Gillian, they brought Craig home from care and Jerry became his new dad. The family (Gillian had an older son and daughter from her first marriage) was dysfunctional in the extreme. Both parents were lawless and had served prison sentences. Jerry was artistic, troubled and physically abusive. He threw Gillian out of the bedroom window on one occasion, and broke her fingers on another. Jerry had been racially abused all his life, and ended up selling drugs and thieving to make a living. The boys were also racially abused – Aaron because he was mixed race, Craig because he was his white brother.

As for Gillian, she forced Craig to commit fraud on her behalf – dropping him off at the post office so he could sign a false name on a stolen pension book and collect the money on behalf of his “auntie”. Jerry died 31 anni fa, and today Craig is close to Gillian: “She’s a fighter, a survivor – she’s incredibly strong.”

The boys would be sent out begging, telling strangers they had to walk 12 miles to see their grandmother because they didn’t have the bus fare. Allo stesso tempo, their parents brought them up to be polite and respectful (partly because it enabled them to manipulate strangers better). Clough knew nothing of this. “I didn’t tell him how bad life was,” Craig says. “I never told him Dad was a drug dealer.”

They were welcomed into Clough’s family, treated like little brothers by Clough’s three children – daughter Elizabeth, oldest brother Simon, who owned two newsagents and a card shop, and Nigel, who had just broken into the Forest first team. “We had carte blanche, access to everything – the games room, Nigel’s room, the waterbed, video, Abiti. We had been brought up to believe nobody could love us; that we were unlovable. [object Window], we felt loved and special,” Craig says. He tells me that Aaron was the more popular of the two boys – it wasn’t just the smile, he was so willing to help out, and took any task he was given seriously, while Craig slobbed around watching the telly. Clough gave Craig the nickname Rigor, short for rigor mortis.

The visits became more regular. Did their parents think it was strange that Clough had taken such an interest in them? “Not weird, no. No. But my mam and my dad would say, ‘Don’t get used to it because they won’t invite you back again.’ It used to destroy me. They just crushed your enjoyment of it.”

When Aaron was 15 he joined the army, and Craig visited the Cloughs by himself. He and Brian became closer. What was Clough like? “He was about 5ft 9in but had the presence of a giant and an unbelievably beautiful smile. It sounds like an infatuation, but he was just a beautiful human being when he wasn’t being a twat.” He laughs.

When Craig turned 16, his parents announced that they were moving to London and had no plans to take him. Clough suggested he move in with his family. In the book, Craig describes nightly dog walks with him on the common, breakfast time with Clough’s wondrous bacon butties, car journeys with Clough singing along to Sinatra. Craig worked in Simon’s shops, rapidly proved himself and was made assistant manager. He’d be in the Forest dressing room at matches – making drinks, tidying stuff away. The team thought he brought them good luck.

Soon enough, he was sitting in the dugout with Clough as Forest won two more League Cups. “Imagine what it’s like for someone to come from where I came from and suddenly be in the dressing room at Wembley on Cup final day, and to be surrounded by heroes,” Craig says. “I had goosebumps. The players made me feel like I was part of the team. I felt like a little king.”

What is his happiest memory of Clough? “Him sitting back in his chair, telling stories, sometimes singing, and that little smile, going: ‘Weeeeeeh! Give over!’ Laughing, with tears streaming down his face. And whoever was in the room would be in stitches.”

Clough always called himself a socialist. When asked why he drove a Mercedes, he said he wanted everybody to drive a Merc. Craig says Clough believed he could transform people’s lives for the better, and often did. “He’d see people in the street with a shitty jacket on, and if it was raining he’d pick them up and take them home or buy them fish and chips. He loved the underdog.”

Craig also witnessed Clough’s descent into alcoholism, accelerated by his experience of the Hillsborough tragedy (Forest were playing Liverpool the day dangerous overcrowding in two terrace “pens” led to 97 Liverpool fans being killed). “I saw someone I loved deeply start to decline. But if anything he became even more protective with me.” Nel 1993 Forest were relegated and Clough retired. He was only 58 but he looked like an old man, his eyes dulled and distant, his cheeks reddened and blotched by alcohol.

Things had also started to unravel for Craig, who was now 20. After two years with the Cloughs, he moved into a flat. He invited his friend Kevin to stay, and at weekends two other friends would come down. While customers were waiting to be served in the shops, the boys would be having a kickaround. One day he discovered £300 in bags of £1 coins under Kevin’s mattress. Craig confronted Kevin who admitted he had stolen it from the shop but refused to give it back. Kevin suggested they split the cash, and Craig agreed. He estimates they stole around £5,000 over a 12-month period in chocolate, crisps, cigarettes and cash from the family of the man who offered him a new life.

Kevin, who was also employed by Simon, convinced him it was fine to take money, telling him they weren’t sufficiently well paid. The thing is, Craig says, he went short of nothing. “If I ever needed money, Brian would say, ‘Help yourself but don’t take more than 20 quid’, and I wouldn’t.”

He becomes tearful. Clough’s younger son, Nigel, took him aside and said they were suspending him from work for a week. "Egli ha detto, ‘Something’s going on – we don’t know what it is. We want you to go away and have a think about where your bread’s buttered.’ I think they wanted me to go back and be honest with them and say, 'Destra, from now on it’s just me.’” What would have happened then? “I think they’d have given me a second chance.” Did he know that at the time? "No. At the time I was angry with them for having the balls to accuse me.”

Subito dopo, Simon told Craig he couldn’t afford to keep him and Kevin on. Anche allora, Craig says, he did it so kindly, giving them an £800 farewell payment. “They could have just turned round and said, ‘You’re a thieving little fucker – don’t come in the house again.’” Still, Craig knew his relationship with the Cloughs was broken. He was devastated by his betrayal – and remains so. “It’s ruined me as a person. I’ve never been able to get over what I did.”

Craig, adesso 48, went on to a career in executive recruitment in Poland and the Czech Republic, at times earning a salary in excess of £100,000. He says Clough gave him the belief that he could do anything. He invariably got hired on the strength of his interview. He would be asked to tell them something about himself, he’d talk about Clough and get the job. But he felt a fraud, his success intensifying his self-loathing.

“For him to have saved my life, to have welcomed me into his heart and home, and given me open access to everything, and then for me to do that. What kind of person am I?” He answers his own question. “No kind, no decent person would do that.”

But Craig Bromfield seems a decent person – a gentle, empathic man who made a terrible mistake and has paid for it since. Four years ago, he gave up his thriving business and returned to England to finish the book he started in 2005. He completed it with the help of sports journalist Tim Rich.

He hoped it would be cathartic, but he’s yet to make peace with himself. He feels empty, he says – partly because of the betrayal, partly because he misses the Cloughs so much. “I’ve achieved things I thought I’d never achieve, but the truth is, everything has been an anticlimax. How the fuck do you follow life with Brian Clough? I thought I wanted to be successful, make money and have a beautiful girlfriend and great house and holidays, and none of it’s filled the hole. I don’t know what will.”

He saw Clough twice after leaving. The first time, a few months later, Clough had just rewritten his will and Craig had got a mention. “He told me, ‘I said under no circumstances whatsoever is that thieving little shit to receive a penny.’” The last time he saw him, in late 1994, Clough said he, Simon and Nigel had considered getting the police involved. In the book, Craig quotes Clough as saying: “The three of us decided that we’d brought you down to give you a better life, and if the police had been involved, that would have been your life over. So we cut you loose.” Clough told him they still loved him. “Be good, and don’t be a stranger” were Clough’s last words to him. Craig never saw him again.

ion 2004, Clough died. Craig was in Warsaw when he heard. He was in pieces. Un anno dopo, he saw Clough’s widow, Barbara, at Burton Albion, where Nigel was manager. He apologised to her and thanked her for everything they had done for him. She said Brian would have been proud of what he had achieved but made it clear there was no way back. “You know us, son. Once you’re out of our circle, you’re out of our circle," lei disse.

Nel 2018, he saw Nigel at a match. They hugged and talked. Nigel told him he was sorry to hear about Aaron. Craig didn’t know that his brother, by then an alcoholic, had died a few weeks earlier after drinking heavily and taking too many antidepressants. Craig insists Aaron hadn’t intended to kill himself – his clothes were laid out, neatly pressed for the next day. Friends of Aaron had told the Cloughs, but not Craig.

Nowadays, lui dice, the only true happiness he gets is from following Nigel Clough around the country, watching whichever team he’s managing. Now Nigel is at Mansfield, with Simon alongside him as chief scout. He doesn’t talk to the Cloughs when he goes to the matches; he doesn’t even tell them he is there. “Brian used to say, ‘You’re either loyal or you’re not’ and for a while I was not. The only way I can show him I’m loyal now is by following Nigel. I love any club he goes to. I immerse myself in it.”

He says he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. He is giving his book advance to charity because he doesn’t want to profit from the Cloughs. He has been doing voluntary work, is broke and doesn’t particularly care. I ask what he would prefer – his book is a bestseller or he makes things up with the Cloughs. He looks at me, astonished. “I don’t think you have to ask that. The book’s not written for me to become famous or successful. It’s written as a cry for forgiveness from them.”

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