March 31, 2009

The Damned United (2009)


Director: Tom Hooper

97 min


Derby County and Leeds United, 1967-1974. In 1974, Leeds United are the best football club in England, but their manager, Don Revie, resigns to become coach of the England national team. Brian Clough, previously manager of Derby County, Leeds United’s biggest rivals, accepts the job as manager of Leeds, but performs an interview on Yorkshire Television first. The Leeds United players watch his arrival, unimpressed. Six years previously, Derby County were bottom of Division Two and hired Brian Clough as manager and Peter Taylor as his assistant. They play Leeds United in the FA Cup and are thrashed. Don Revie doesn’t shake Clough’s hand, which inspires a ruthless ambition in Clough. Bypassing the chairman to sign new players, Derby County quickly rise the table, winning Division Two in 1969.

Back in 1974, Clough’s first address to the players is about how they must change and how they only succeeded through cheating and bad sportsmanship. Clough is deliberately fouled when participating in a practice match with his new players. In 1972, Derby County won their first Division One title under Clough, including a nailbiting 2-1 victory over Leeds United. During the 1974 Charity Shield, Leeds United’s aggressive tactics are worse than ever, with captain Billy Bremner sent off for fighting and later suspended. Clough asks former assistant Peter Taylor to join him, but he refuses. In the 1974-1974 season, Derby County lose an aggressive match against Leeds United before losing to Juventus in the European Cup. Clough threatens to resign, claiming to be unable to work with the present chairman. His resignation is accepted, much to his disbelief. Clough and Taylor are offered the managerial post at Brighton and Hove Albion, a struggling club, but before they accept, Leeds United come in. Taylor stays with Brighton. The Leeds United board sack Clough after 44 days after player protests. Clough re-establishes with relationship with Taylor.


Adapting the 2006 novel by David Peace was always going to be a struggle. It was controversial because it took established facts about Clough and his tenure at both Derby County and Leeds United and fictionalised an account of what might have otherwise happened. The Clough family distanced themselves from the novel, claiming it misrepresented him, whilst Johnny Giles, who was claimed to have been one of the instigators of Clough’s dismissal, successfully sued the publishers. Although the novel has been acclaimed as one of the finest sports novels of recent years, given the criticism of various inaccuracies, the makers of ‘The Damned United’ would naturally find it impossible to adapt the novel almost to the letter. Instead, the film is a much kinder and more moving tribute to the manager many claim was the greatest the English national team never had, and focuses more on his often turbulent relationship with Peter Taylor, who both realise that they can’t work without each other, which lends the relationship a faint homoerotic charge.

Gone are the intense, bile-filled, alcohol-fuelled, internal monologues that emphasised Clough’s loathing of Leeds United and Don Revie. These work better in fiction than on screen of course, but were one of the more contentious elements of the novel. Hooper and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who has made fictionalising factual events his stock in trade, retain the deep rooted sense of Clough’s ambition to overtake Leeds United and subsequently change them, which originated during the early years of Clough’s tenure at Derby County. This scene plays almost as farce initially. Clough reveres the achievements of the club and manager and repaints the dressing rooms, lays out towels, half-time oranges and ashtrays as a means of impressing, as well as buying an expensive bottle of wine for a post-match drink. The dynamic of the scene changes completely when Revie snubs Clough, shaking Taylor’s hand instead, thinking he is the manager. It’s a narrow tightrope that the film walks sometimes. The extent of Clough’s ambition and his talents as a manager are well evident, but the film increases the comic element that aspects of the novel only hinted it. The tone of the film has been carefully amended and not unsuccessfully, although one feels that removing Clough’s internal monologues completely make us understand the man less, although we understand the reasons why.

Peace has become established as a chronicler of Yorkshire life in the 1970s, not just because of ‘The Damned United’, but also the Red Riding series of novels that were recent adapted for British television. The general aesthetic of the film reflects the sombre atmosphere at the heart of the country at the time; when the Derby County players meet at Clough’s house to discuss a player protest after his dismissal, there’s a sudden power cut. Camera filters reflect the stereotypical blue-greys of the Yorkshire skyline. There’s an observant eye for period detail and for the specific football era, but it manages not to descend into nostalgia; a love of a bygone era in comparison to today’s oversaturated game. As Clough remarks to his Derby County chairman, “football’s all about money these days”. Same as it ever was, then.

As you’d expect, Michael Sheen nails Clough’s speech patterns and mannerisms, although such is our knowledge of him playing famous figures, we’re not surprised. Instead, the most effective acting performances are arguably from Timothy Spall as Taylor, a devoted assistant, and to whom the film allows a great deal of credit for Clough’s success (just watch the slightly ludicrous but amusing grovelling that Clough has to make at the end of the film), and Colm Meaney as Don Revie, a gruff but paternal man who grew up on the same streets as Clough. Revie and Clough were like chalk and cheese, hence why Revie could succeed at Leeds United, whilst Clough couldn’t. Why Clough was unable to realise that, we’re never quite sure. Too blinded by ambition perhaps?

‘The Damned United’ is that rare thing; an interesting football film. This is because the film makers haven’t attempted too much to simulate any football action. Only Sheen, a talented player in his youth, is afforded any real time on the ball during training sessions (and was another means of antagonising the players at Leeds United). Instead, this is a football film that takes place in the board rooms and dressing rooms; it’s about politics and personalities, not what occurs on the field. It’s all clearly aimed at a certain male demographic, and one wonders whether it might appeal to audiences outside of the UK, who might not have heard of Clough. Still, Sheen and Morgan are recognised names after ‘The Deal’, ‘The Queen’ and ‘Frost/Nixon’, so who knows?


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