Earlier this year, we sent Ted Carter to the cinema with a paper bag containing some crab paste sandwiches and a ticket for the movie version of David Peace’s 2006 novel, “The Damned United”. The film is released on DVD next Monday, so we thought that it was time to revisit this interpretation of Brian Clough’s forty-four days at Leeds United.
It’s not a massive compliment to say that “The Damned United” is probably one of the five greatest films about football ever made, when the competitors are “Yesterday’s Hero” (a dismal 1979 take on a Jackie Collins novel starring Ian McShane as a photocopy of George Best), “Escape To Victory” (which famously put Sylvester Stallone and Pele on the same team and made Stallone the hero), the execrable “Goal” and “Green Street” series and “Soccer Dog: European Cup”, about a football team with a canine centre-forward that inexplicably turned up on Channel Five the other week. David Peace’s novel, however, was something different – a masterpiece of alcohol-sodden misanthropy, paranoia and claustrophobia which combined fact, quotation and fiction to create a vivid portrayal of Brian Clough’s extraordinary six weeks in charge at Elland Road.
It’s fair to say that “The Damned United”, therefore, has a more rigorous standard to meet than “Soccer Dog: European Cup”. 1974 was a turbulent time in English football. England had failed to qualify for a World Cup finals for the first time since they started entering the competition, banging the final nail in the hopes of a brave new world that had emerged with the 1966 win. Meanwhile, the Football League seemed to be starting a slow descent into madness, with the first signs of hooliganism having flowered into a movement and teams seemingly happy to kick seven bells out of each other on a weekly basis. Clough, the footballing idealist, was taking over at Leeds United, the defending champions and the crown princes of cynical new football. He runs immediately into outright hostility from the Leeds players, who had been of the understanding that senior player Johnny Giles would be the new manager and, with his heart not fully in the job, takes his team to a Charity Shield defeat at the hands of Liverpool before limping into the new season and to a hasty dismissal.
Where the film gets the details right, it gets them spectacularly right. Colm Meaney must have been waiting his whole career to play Don Revie, who hangs around in the background like the ghost of Christmas past, content in his new position as England manager yet still able to exert a shamanic influence over everybody at Elland Road. Similarly, Mark Bazeley may have a long wait before he receives another call to play a young Austin Mitchell. Michael Sheen is predictably uncanny as Clough himself, suspending disbelief just enough to enable the viewer to forget the three and a half decades worth of third-rate impressions of him that have turned him into caricature of himself, and Jim Broadbent is appropriately grumpy and saggy-jowelled as “Uncle” Sam Longson, who gave Clough his break at Derby. The other starring role of the film goes to Chesterfield’s Saltergate story, which has changed sufficiently little in forty years to adequately pass for the faded glamour of The Baseball Ground.
Sometimes, however, they get it wrong. Stephen Graham as Billy Bremner looks like a young Eddie Yeats (and plays football in much the same manner, pulling off a dive of such startling proportions that surely even the most myopic of 1960s referees wouldn’t have been fooled by it). Timothy Spall himself Peter Taylor, whose separation from Clough is played as a romantic tragedy to such an extent that a Richard Curtis-esque reunification scene is played out at the end of the film, on a piece of what is taken to be Brighton sea front, but plainly isn’t. In another scene, the East Stand at Elland Road – built at the start of the 1990s – drifts almost carelessly into view. Period detail may only appeal to crusty old pedants like us, but they jar when such attention to details has been paid in other parts of the film. Most notable all is the final scene – a recreation of the famous interview between Clough and Revie on Yorkshire TV, filmed shortly after Clough’s sacking. They’re playing fast and loose with the truth by this point – Revie’s arrival was not, as indicated by the film, unscheduled, and they also give the impression that Revie won this final sparring bout. The truth is that this isn’t what happened and that – unforgivably, from the point of view of director Tom Hooper – the recreation is nowhere as taut, tense or dramatic as the original interview (which you can see in its full glory at the foot of this page).
The film also takes an occasionally peculiar viewpoint of the football of the era. It focusses heavily on Derby and Leeds’ first encounters in 1968 and 1969, but completely overlooks Derby’s pivotal 2-0 win against Leeds at The Baseball Ground in 1972 during the championship run-in. It also overlooks the bunker mentality of Elland Road in the 1970s, and the fact that this hamstrung the best team of the age to just two title wins, in 1969 and 1974. No full explanation above and beyond Clough not being Johnny Giles or Don Revie is offered for the Leeds players’ refusal to acknowledge Clough as their manager, and a glib “because you’re the best” is the only rationale offered by the Leeds chairman for taking on a manager that no-one at the club seemed to want.
For all of that, though, “The Damned United” works. It’s not a masterpiece, but it works better than most films about football ever have. Quibbles about period detail and historical fact aside, this is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of football and it deserves the big screen treatment. Some of the complexities of the story appear to have left behind – we see too little of the inner demons that would end up eating Clough up as a manager and his nascent alcoholism is limited to one midnight telephone call to Revie – but these are necessary, in order to not weigh the film down with detail that a non-footballing audience may not have been bothered with. Ultimately – and most significantly – it is a story of men, largely middle-aged men, acting childishly, settling old scores and doing everything that they can to embarrass each other in public. The wives, who ordinary people may assume to be the most important people in these men’s lives, are firmly in the background, if seen at all. It is also beautifully shot, with the technicolor glory of Clough’s Spanish holiday contrasting vividly with the permanent slate sky of Yorkshire and the East Midlands.
Ironically, considering that it was made by “BBC Films”, one suspects that “The Damned United” might have worked better as a short television series, extending at each end to take in the horrific challenge that ended Clough’s career (and which informed much of his philosophy as a manager), his most extraordinary feat (two successive European Cups with Nottingham Forest) and his subsequent decline. There may yet be room for something more definitive on the subject of one of English football’s most brilliant, complex and infuriating ever figures. For now, though, “The Damned United” is a more than passable way to spend an hour and a half for those of us that spend rather too much of our time wallowing in the past – not great art, but certainly good entertainment and, as such, more worthy of your time than “Soccer Dog: European Cup”.
The Real Clough vs Revie Part One
The Real Clough vs Revie – Part Two
The Real Clough vs Revie – Part Three