The Damned United on DVD

by , August 24, 2009

Nottingham – or the half of it that follows Forest at least – acts like it owns Brian Clough. His appropriately larger than life statue gazes towards Slab Square, while the monument to Robin Hood, that other legend synonymous with the city, sits tucked away at the foot of the castle walls, nowhere near as prominent.

Forest supporters watching The Damned United, the film adaptation – to be released on DVD at the end of this month– of David Peace’s book of the same name, might puzzle over a story centred on Clough that bears no reference to the club whatsoever. Just as we must often face the discovery that a new girlfriend or boyfriend brings with them a history, so it can be with our heroes. Clough arrived at the City Ground in January 1975 having enjoyed tremendous success already with Derby. That he would trump those achievements during his eighteen years in charge of Forest explains both the statue and the feeling of ownership, but it is with Clough’s disastrous and unsavoury forty-four day tenure at Leeds United in between that Peace concerns himself.

The characterisation of Clough is far from kind. That he was an enigmatic figure, prone to narcissism and caprice is not in question; all Reds fans would surely agree with that. Yet the Clough on display here is belligerent and confrontational. He shows a streak of bitterness towards the Leeds players he inherited, and also Don Revie, from whom he took over, which appears to cloud his judgment and leaves him seeming vulnerable and ultimately flawed.

Many have reacted negatively to this view. Perhaps this is a measure of how quick we all are to forgive anyone their faults if they bring success; Clough was also worshipped at Derby, and thousands of Rams supporters protested in the streets when the club’s directors called his bluff and sacked him following a stand-off. If the success at Derby had been replicated and surpassed at Leeds instead of Forest, the Revie Stand at Elland Road might have been named differently.

Although much has been made of Michael Sheen’s performance, after his acclaimed portrayals of Tony Blair and David Frost, there is a problem for anyone playing Clough: just as a beret and an “mmm, Betty” is enough to suggest Frank Spencer to any audience, so a vaguely northern accent uttering “now listen here, young man,” is all that’s required to evoke the spirit of Old Big ‘Ead. At times Sheen tries too hard, and the result is closer to a caricature.

Nonetheless the film has many strengths. The East Midlands and Yorkshire of the era and its football culture, unglamorous by today’s standards, are superbly recreated. Indeed, the grit and grime of the time is almost depressing – amusingly, only during the brief spell at Brighton, or on the beach in Spain, is the sky ever blue!

There are some solid performances, and the story keeps its focus on the characters, which is essentially what makes it worth telling. Probably the most intriguing aspect of all is the relationship between Clough and Peter Taylor, played by Timothy Spall. Clough’s assistant at both Derby and Forest refused to join him at Leeds, and there is a strong suggestion here that it was Taylor who made the partnership tick. Clough himself never played down Taylor’s importance. The bond between the two men (who’d first met as team-mates at Middlesbrough) is depicted as more fierce and forgiving than either had in their respective marriages, though there are hints of the acrimony in which it would all end at Forest. Clough publicly regretted that the two failed to reconcile their differences before Taylor’s death in 1990.

Even without Forest getting a mention, it’s impossible – as a fan – to watch the film as a ‘neutral’. I viewed it in the company of a Leeds supporter, who – having no animosity towards Clough – felt the take on him was more-or-less fair. It depends where you’re coming from, but whatever colours you wear, this is a football story. Whilst actors kicking a ball around always look unrealistic – as is the case here – “The Damned United” gets far more accurately under the skin of the game than most other films have.

Ultimately, there are a couple of things worth dwelling on. Peace has frequently emphasised that this is a work of fiction, and as the trend for docu-dramas and ‘fictionalised’ accounts of real people and events continues (think Helen Mirren in “The Queen” or the BBC’s “Rome”), the way we respond to these interpretations can become very personal.

And remember that had Clough not failed so spectacularly at Elland Road, the history of our own club would be a much less glorious affair!