When Brian Clough took on the Leeds United of 1974, to say he had taken on more than he could chew would be an understatement. The Damned United is a fictionalized account of his brief stint with Don Revie’s team, based on the book by David Peace, and the reasons why it never worked out. Looking at Clough‘s record, most notably before his time at Leeds, but also following, it is difficult to see how or why he failed so catastrophically – leading to more of a mutiny than a sacking, just after six weeks of management. In the film, it is made clear that it is down to two reasons; the first being the team’s steadfast commitment to their former manager, and the second being Clough‘s real motivation behind taking the team on. In short, to get his revenge on a man who had become his rival since a bitter humiliation six years earlier, when Clough was helming a second division Derby County that he was later to bring up to the top of the first division.
Read at Unsung Films: Frost/Nixon.
Clough is presented fairly badly in the film. He is at once egotistical and childish. But he is a captivating protagonist and a pleasure to follow and even to rout for, because the writing is so good. Clough was a witty man and a notorious figure in football, and thanks to a combination of sharp and intelligent dialogue and an exceptional performance by Michael Sheen (not an exception in a film boasting such talents as Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent) the film does not need a likeable and heroic main character; on the contrary, it is somehow strengthened by the merciless skepticism embodied in each of its characters and what, in fact, makes contemporary British cinema so important. Who is this man? What is with his ego? Why do I care? These are questions that fade away with the real, honest, carefully crafted storytelling which came as a result, mostly, of Peace’s largely subjective interpretation of Clough.
The Damned United drifts between two important periods in Clough‘s career. The first, in 1968, allows its viewers to understand the reasons behind his bitter rivalry with Don Revie, a minor event in which Derby County are drawn to play Leeds United (at home) and a personal humiliation that serves as a catalyst to both his intense hatred of Revie and the changes in his team that would start Derby’s incredible ascent to the top of English football. As the film shoots back to Derby, the viewer is also let into the strong friendship between Clough and assistant manager, Peter Taylor, which becomes almost comical in its closeness. In 1974, their friendship has withered away. These two periods are not just placed in contrast thanks to successes failures. There is also a contrast in the shots of a lonely Clough sitting in his hotel room gazing at the walls, compared with early scenes of parties and celebrations. Or in his familial, almost paternal tightness with Derby, and his playground bully-victim relationship with the Leeds players.
Peter Morgan and Tom Hooper told the story they wanted to tell in The Damned United. In one scene, after Clough‘s disastrous decision to resign from Derby, and just before the friends’ great falling out, Sheen and Spall are seen standing on the Majorca coast. They face a life-altering decision, a job with third division Brighton, a chance to start from the beginning and get to the top, or top-of-the-league Leeds. As Sheen (or Clough) makes up his mind to go to Leeds, a decision that Taylor cannot tolerate, it is clear in his expression and his words that he does not really want to go, that he knows he’s making the wrong decision. And even at the height of his friend’s disapproval, his absurd desire to stick it to his rival gets the better of him. One feels this hatred for his rival resonate throughout the entire film and very nearly destroy its protagonist.
Watch the trailer for The Damned United here: