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.
Thanks, Kim. I’m really looking forward to this one. You write that ‘at least in this version of the story, Clough had felt personally slighted by (Leeds United manager) Revie on earlier encounters and come to see Leeds as his bete noire’. The animosity runs deeper than this – and for other reasons – as on a Parkinson show on BBC1 in the 1970s, Clough said “I can’t tell you why I don’t like Don Revie because if I did we would be taken off the air.”. This is now known to refer to Clough’s belief that during his time as Leeds United manager Revie had attempted to bribe other teams or their managers (including the late Bob Stokoe who repeated the allegations on several occasions) to fix match results during the 1960s and 1970s, although these claims were never proven in a court of law.
Spot on, as ever. My problem with the film was Sheen. The guy is so identified in my mind with Blair from The Queen, I just couldn’t buy him as Cloughie. Golly, another three-star film.
I haven’t read the review (will do once I’ve seen the film) but is this the thuggy Leeds United with Norman Hunter and Billy Bremner and co? Or later? ps Gary Sprake was the most inept goalie ever.
The novel was superb. Peace’s Clough takes over at LUFC and tells his players they might as well throw their medals and caps into the dustbin because everything they’ve ever won was done by cheating. And then he gets the groundsman to flood the pitch, turning it into a bog before a crucial European tie against Benfica…
These people are all Huddersfield Town supporters ,Kim…Don’t believe them!!!!
Not Huddersfield. Maybe Barnsley, because my mum was from there. But in the early 1970s I was a Crystal Palace supporter. Leeds United was one of the few teams we actually scored against. And then only because Sprake sort of accidentally dropped the ball into his own net.
Ey!!!….Gary Sprake was a wonderful keeper…How many other goalkeepers could throw the ball into their own net,like at Liverpool, and still get picked to play for Wales the following week …. Barnsley…?.. bunch of southerners
No one can accuse Brian of living in the past.
That’s right. He simply won’t listen.