The Damned United has always brought to mind the words of L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” For a work depicting reasonably modern history, it shows a sport, ownership structure, management style and professional standards that bear little-to-no relation to modern football.
The film details the bizarre 44-day tenure at Leeds United, in 1974, of legendary former Derby County and later-to-be Nottingham Forest manager, Brian Clough. At that time, Clough, still in his 30s, was seen as the brightest young manager in the country. In between depicting his fast collapsing tenure at Leeds, we get flashbacks to events from 1969 onwards, as we see Brian (Michael Sheen, at the apex of his time impersonating people-of-note on film), along with friend, coach, and talent spotter extraordinaire, Peter Taylor, (portrayed here by Timothy Spall) take Derby from the foot of English football’s second tier, to the title – Champions of England.
At the moment of Brian’s greatest triumph, he alienates the Derby board in an ill-fated call-my-bluff resignation, designed to strengthen his hand against parsimonious chairman, Sam Longston (Jim Broadbent). As Leeds United manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) leaves to take over the England national team, we see Brian approached, while on a Spanish family holiday, to takeover. The film demonstrates Clough’s deep envy of Revie, as well as his distaste for the football and poor discipline of Revie’s teams: Brian starting his reign at Leeds by calling the players cheats – both in the press, and to their faces. It starts badly, and deteriorates from there.
It’s important to note that The Damned United is based on the David Peace novel of the same name. Events are largely fictionalised, and were based on Peace’s imagination, although interwoven with actual events and televised interviews. In this regard it is similar to David Fincher‘s The Social Network, or Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. The Clough family, particularly Brian’s widow, Barbara, spoke out strongly against the film; refusing an invitation to the premiere. Others in the family were clear in their assertion that this work bore little relation to reality.
Of particular controversy appears to have been the depiction of a drunken late-night call from Clough to Revie, where all of Brian’s bitterness at his failing position spews out in a petty, jealous rant. Although Clough had well-documented issues with alcohol, this simply didn’t happen; with the screenwriter admitting he’d made this up for the benefit of the story. Additionally, the film depicts Clough jilting Brighton and Hove Albion, for Leeds, without ever taking the job; with Taylor taking the position instead, arguing he had given his word. In reality, they were both at Brighton for around a year before Clough took the Leeds job.
The football clubs, cultures, players and management depicted in The Damned United simply don’t exist any more. Pitches are carved up swamps; stands are aged and rusty constructions; the owners mature (i.e. old), self-made local businessmen; boardrooms and dressing rooms alike filled with cigarette smoke. Players and the manager live in relatively modest semi-detached homes, living the standard-issue family lives of the era. Holidays are to Benidorm, rather than Bali. Player power is rare and, in the case of Leeds, portrayed as shocking to, and unexpected by, Clough.
The talent involved in this film is exceptional. It’s directed by Tom Hooper (after Stephen Frears dropped out close to filming), who went on to direct The King’s Speech and Les Misérables; written by Peter Morgan, who had already penned The Queen, Frost/Nixon, and would go on both to write the excellent Ron Howard film Rush, as well as to create the Netflix series, The Crown.
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On the acting side, alongside the heavyweight talents already mentioned, there are roles for Stephen Graham (as Billy Bremner, in a strong performance, though an unflattering portrayal), as well as a very youthful Martin Compston (now best known for BBC drama Line of Duty) as John O’Hare. With Elizabeth Carling (Goodnight Sweetheart) as Barbara Clough, this is a seriously impressive cast list.
The film itself is, in part, a look at the hubris of a man – who considered himself a genius – falling to earth with a bump, and part-platonic love story, as Clough learns he is neither as happy, nor as effective without Taylor at his side: something borne out by real life events, with their partnership ending in the early-80s, and the level of success never the same thereafter.
It was interesting to note the continued power of the Clough personality, 10 years on from the release of the film, and 15 years after his death. Football has gotten ever more remote from the beast that Brian knew. Clubs now frequently employ directors of football, and managers rarely have carte blanche with signings and contracts in the way depicted during the Derby County sections of the film. Finally, of course, part of the Clough legend was based on the idea that what he achieved was no longer possible. In taking Nottingham Forest to the league title and to European Cups, there was a reputation based upon bucking the trend of money talking and big budgets affording all the success. A provincial city, with a modest team, in a modest stadium, became kings of England. That Leicester City managed a similar feat in 2016 may have drained the uniqueness from Clough’s achievements.
It was the personality of the man, as well as the achievements that caught the attention of press and public, however. Whatever the accuracy of the story portrayed here, The Damned United does capture this. From the recreation of very real television interviews with Yorkshire Television – the joint Revie / Clough interview did happen, and can be found on YouTube – to boasts of his exceptional goalscoring record as a striker – reflected in documented comments from the man – this is a work that captures a true football one-off.
The film took $4.1 million against a budget of c. $10 million. Perhaps this reflects that this is showing us an era we’d rather forget. Football was in a long decline that would run into the 80s, and lead, eventually, to English clubs being banned from European competition for five years. Hooliganism was on the rise, and stadia were crumbling into disrepair. England failed to qualify for two world cups in a row, and the country at large was in the era of the three-day week. Perhaps this didn’t have big screen appeal.
The Damned United sits, for Michael Sheen, in the shadow of Frost/Nixon, a more high profile, successful and – frankly – a better film; for Tom Hooper, his next film would garner him an Academy Award; and Peter Morgan’s usual epithet seems, still, to be “writer of The Queen“. For all of that, it’s wonderful that so many talents at, or approaching, their peaks got together to make an idiosyncratic film about a unique man. The Damned United was an under-appreciated, under-viewed film on release, but its high quality, and the talent involved, means it’s still essential viewing, whatever your relationship to football, Leeds United, or Brian Clough.