In 1974, Brian Clough – an aggressive, publicity-seeking football manager who had made a success of the flailing Second Division Derby County side – tendered his resignation, and incidentally that of his right-hand man Peter Taylor, during one of his regular clashes with the owners, not expecting they would accept it. Clough and Taylor were on the point of signing with genteel nowhere side Brighton and Hove Albion when they were offered a chance to manage and coach Leeds United, then an almost-indomitable team whose manager Don Revie had departed for the plum job of managing the England side. Previously, at least in this version of the story, Clough had felt personally slighted by Revie on earlier encounters and come to see Leeds as his bete noire. Clough accepted, Taylor didn’t – and this movie, adapted by Peter Morgan from David Peace’s novel, follows Clough’s troubled forty-four days in a dream job that turned out to be a nightmare.
Putting it in a nutshell, Taylor (Timothy Spall) tries to explain to Clough (Michael Sheen) why taking the job is a bad idea – ‘we hate Leeds’. Even before he moves into his office at Leeds, Clough goes on Yorkshire television to disavow the team’s winning, but brutal style of play – ‘you’ve been champions, but not good champions’ and announces that he intends to better every achievement of his predecessor Revie (Colm Meaney). However, Revie – who didn’t approve his successor – remains a paternal presence at the ground, and ‘his boys’, led by mulleted Scots striker Billy Bremner (Stephen Graham), literally won’t play ball with their supposed new leader, whom they rough up at practice and betray at every turn.
It’s a peculiarity of British cinema that there have been more films about football hooliganism than actual football – especially when Hollywood turns out mostly heart-warming true life stories of underdogs who become winners in American football, basketball or baseball by the dozen and then wonders why they don’t make any money when released in territories which don’t give a shit about the sports. Whenever a sports film, like Breaking Away or Field of Dreams, crosses over to a wider audience there’s usually a publicity line that ‘it’s not really about’ whatever sport it manifestly is about, but is a ‘relationship’ or ‘against all odds’ drama; The Damned United is certainly both of those, in line with Morgan’s previous Sheen-starring based-on-fact pictures (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), but its strength is that unusually it’s actually about football, covering on the pitch tactics (new readers will be surprised how dirty English football was in the 1970s) and the confident, arrogant, macho place it held in British popular culture.
Before the Premier League, superstar salaries and Sky Sports, comedians did impersonations of English league managers (all as British as their players) and dressing rooms had ash-trays. The temptation is to think of that as an edenic, innocent time, but The Damned United is among the least nostalgic sports films ever made, with its baying hordes of fans, on-the-pitch thuggery (in a memorable league fixture played in Last Boy Scout sheets of rain, Leeds go all-out to injure as many of Derby’s best players as possible in advance of a much more important European tie Derby proceed to lose), boardroom backstabbery and a streak of strange social aspiration in Abigail’s Party mode (when he gets good news, Clough tells the family to throw away the just-bought fish and chips so they can all go out for ‘a bhuna’).
Morgan has become a specialist in true-life clashes, and this – following the Frost/Nixon format – could be retitled Clough/Revie, with Sheen for once getting the better role, and delivering much more than a Clough impersonation, presenting a boiling cocktail of naked ambition, peculiar idealism, self-absorbtion and desperate need for success/respect/love/approval, while Meaney is an aloof, cruelly-jovial presence who talks of personally massaging his players after a match and is as committed to victory at any cost as a Spartan general and Spall completes a triangle as the indispensible conscience/nuts-and-bolts coach Clough unwisely tries to dispense with. Tom Hooper, best known for the US TV series John Adams, worked with Morgan before on Longford, and does a remarkable job of keeping a lot of plates spinning while staying in focus on the fascinating, complicated character clashes.