Full disclosure: I have no interest in football. I am, however, Nottingham born and bred and I was seven when Nottingham Forest won the European Cup in 1979, a feat they reprised the following year. Brian Clough was – and is – a legend in Nottingham. The A52 connecting Nottingham and Derby has been re-signposted as ‘Brian Clough Way’ (apposite given his track record managing clubs in both cities) and his statue was unveiled in the Market Square in November last year.
So it was out of curiosity as to how well Michael Sheen’s performance captured Cloughie’s trademark admixture of charm and belligerence that me and my friend Aidy headed to the Broadway Cinema last Saturday night for a screening of ‘The Damned United’. Our better halves evinced no interest in the film and occupied themselves otherwise while we attended the screening, then enthusiastically discussed the film in the pub afterwards.
If this makes ‘The Damned United’ sound like a blokey movie – trawl up to the cinema with a bunch of mates, cheer at Sheen’s heroic performance, then head for the boozer afterwards – then I’m doing the film a disservice. There’s nothing laddish about it at all, and the amount of actual on-the-pitch footage would probably add up to little more than a couple of minutes. What ‘The Damned United’ is really about is friendship, rivalry and overreaching ambition.
Tom Hooper’s film, adapted by Peter Morgan from David Peace’s novel, contrapuntally charts Clough’s miraculous leadership at Derby County in the late ’60s and early ’70s, dragging the club from Second Division doldrums and turning them into fiery First Division contenders, with his disastrous 44-day managership of Leeds United in 1974.
Leeds were then at the forefront of British football, undisputed champions, and relations were loyal and productive between them and manager Don Revie. They were also aggressive on the pitch and had a dubious disciplinary record. ‘The Damned United’ takes the rivalry between Clough and Revie (Colm Meaney) as its central dynamic, Revie snubbing Clough at a Leeds vs Derby match, refusing to shake his hand, and Leeds trouncing Derby in several clashes over the years, Clough’s players fouled and injured by Leeds’ thuggery.
So when Clough’s outspokenness and habit of royally pissing off Derby chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) sees him and assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) relieved of their duties, he reluctantly accepts a job with Brighton & Hove Albion. Taylor relishes the challenges of building up the club from nothing (ie. the Third Division, which is pretty much the definition of “nothing”), but Clough rails against the seaside, the boarding houses and cafes, and the general ubiquity of Southerners. The moment Revie quits Leeds United to manage the England squad, Clough takes the job.
He loses no time in earning the animosity of his team. Day one, first address to his players: “The first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by bloody cheating.”
What follows is kind of like ‘Downfall’, but with a football stadium instead of a bunker.
Michael Sheen is simply astounding in the lead role; following on from recent turns as Tony Blair and David Frost, the man’s king of the biopic, with a real gift for evoking the personalities he plays. Timothy Spall is an odd casting choice for Taylor, physically nothing like him, but succeeds in capturing the frustration and affection that characterised the two men’s turbulent relationship. Colm Meaney brings a dour gravitas to his characterisation of Revie, even if the role is tad underwritten. But it’s perhaps Jim Broadbent who deserves a man of the match award, jettisoning a good decade’s worth of twinkly comedic roles and really getting under the skin of old-school chairman Longson, a working class man made good whose patience is sorely tested by Clough’s cavalier attitude towards him and the board. The verbal stand offs between Clough and Longson, particularly when Longson suggests that Clough give Leeds an easy victory so they can play a stronger side against Juventus in a forthcoming European match, are tour de forces.
I mentioned at the start of this piece that I don’t like football. The main reason I don’t like it is the tribalism and the alpha male bullshit that goes with it. There’s a scene where Clough, being interviewed for TV, states that football is “a beautiful game and it should be played beautifully”. Amen to that. Cloughie’s a local hero – hell, a national one – and although his family have spoken out against ‘The Damned United’, for my money it’s a damn fine film.