The Damned United (UK, 2009)

Clough did have a third act

Integrating professional football into a feature film is particularly difficult as getting actors to mimic ball skills in the context of a live match is more than a massive challenge. The drama of the game, at its best, is impossible to replicate as its jazz improvisation is always going to be wilder than composed staging. That said, The Damned United is probably the best football film ever made; sensibly the actual footy is actuality footage though Michael Sheen, as Brian Clough, does show some nifty ball control. Part of the attraction of the film to old gits like me is reminding me of the game in the 1970s and filling in gaps that I either never knew or have forgotten. Famously Clough was in charge of Division One Champions, Leeds, for only 44 days: what happened?

Based on David Peace’s novel, and it was a novel, Tom Hooper directed Peter Morgan’s adaptation and he skilfully integrates the grimy, faded look of the ’70s footage with the filmed recreations. For fans who believe football started with the wealth of the Premiere League, the portrayal will likely come as a shock: footy was anything but glamorous. Its roots in working class factory workers giving vent on a Saturday afternoon were still much in evidence and none more so in Don Revie’s Leeds which butchered their way to the title twice. Though in the 1970s FA Cup Final they were also kicked off the park by Chelsea featuring Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris; a recent article suggested if the game was played now it would have featured 11 red cards instead of the one yellow shown. It’s a salutary reminder that managers of top flight clubs lived in ordinary houses and top players, when they retired, often ended up running pubs.

Peace’s work was, as I remember, marketed as a novel and not as ‘faction’; in comparison Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982) was packaged as the latter and provoked debate about the ethics of mixing fact and fiction. Of course history, as EH Carr put it, is a sack and is nothing until it’s given shape (interpretation) and anyone who believes there is a clear line between fact and fiction is probably deluding themselves (this is not to say ‘anything goes’: today is indisputably 6th May where I am). One of the Leeds players, Johnny Giles, sued the publisher Faber for libel and minor alterations were made with no acceptance of wrong-doing.

Peace’s interpretation of the events is one that involves hubris and vengeance: Clough felt he’d been slighted by Revie and wanted to show who was best. Whether this is true or not doesn’t particularly matter as it might have been and the key fact of what happened, Clough didn’t last long in the job, are indisputable.

Sheen is quite brilliant in the role: Clough was one who didn’t conform to expectations and put his mouth where his ego was. I can still remember, in 1974 when England were knocked out the World Cup by Poland in qualifying, him reassuring the TV audience at half time that England would win it. I’m pretty sure he disappeared from punditry for some time afterwards. However, although the film ends in ignominy for Clough, as the postscript tells us, his greatest days with Nottingham Forest were ahead of him.

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