Taking the Leeds: Brian Clough attempts to comfort a muddied, bloodied team en route to the locker room.

Clough's Rough Time in 'Damned United'

Adam Hartzell October 22, 2009

There’s an advantage to being an insulated American when watching The Damned United and its dramatization of an important part of the life of British coaching legend Brian Clough. Since the States likes its football with helmets and shoulder pads and a ridiculous amount of commercial breaks, most Americans are likely not to know how things pan out for Clough, allowing The Damned United to offer the English football novice viewer complete discovery. The unknown unknowns were part of the pleasure in watching this film for me—but I will take your continued reading of this piece as permission to partly spoil that particular pleasure.

Brian Clough is a man known for many things by English football fans, but this film focuses on the 44 days he managed the Leeds United football club. ("Clough" rhymes with "rough," which offered the film the opportunity to show vintage footage of Muhammad Ali conjuring up a rhyme in his honor, "Now Clough, I’ve had enough!") Clough landed the Leeds United manager position when the nemesis he’d self-created in Don Revie left the club to manage the English national side in hopes of returning England to World Cup glory after failing to even qualify in 1974. Considering how treasured Revie was by Leeds followers, this was an unenviable position for Clough. But the Clough created by director Tom Hooper (Stephen Frears, the original director on the project, pulled out in November, 2007) is not one to present himself as any lesser than Revie. We quickly learn that Clough has megalomaniacal tendencies. These serve him well when things are going well, but when things go poorly, he falls apart.

The film jumps back and forth in time, from Clough at Leeds in 1974 back to his years at Derby, which he took from the Second Division punching bags in 1967 to Champions of what is now called the Premier league in 1970–71. Even if you’ve quaffed much vintage Clough in other forms, the film still has a lot to offer, such as the performances of Michael Sheen’s Clough (Sheen has surfaced as a variety of other celebs, David Frost and Tony Blair, in screenwriter Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon and The Queen) and Timothy Spall’s Peter Taylor (Spall we know as a Mike Leigh regular made Harry Potter famous). Football fans might wish the snippets of archival match play from back in the day were longer. And the results of certain matches are often underscored with just the final score appearing at the bottom of the screen rather than allowing for simulated match play. But there’s enough football footage interspersed throughout the film to keep the tender hooligan stimulated.

The Damned United allows for a nice respite from some of the most tiring clichés of sports film—straying from the requirement that audiences fully identify with the main character. The Clough conjured by screenwriter Morgan, based on David Peace’s novel is a very difficult character to connect with. He is often presented as out of his (Premier) league, and is truly pathetic in his over-reach with Leeds United. Moments of authentic competency are soon challenged by moments of inadequacy, such as when Clough shows his talented ball control (Clough was a decent player before becoming a manager) only soon to be the humiliating victim of the rough (many might say illegal) play that Leeds United was known for at the time. If Clough is not the traditional sports hero in this film’s slice of his life, he’s also anything but a loser. The film’s epilogue lets us know that after Leeds United, Clough did the same thing with Nottingham Forest that he did with Derby County, taking them quickly from Second Division to being champions in the First.

But it’s the sophisticated staging of Clough’s rock-bottom moments that elevate this film most from the humble sport-biopic genre. One has him situated in a spartan institutional bedroom humming with loneliness, crouched over while on the phone in a desperate middle-of-the-night call to the "competition" who’s not enthralled by the interruption. Equally on-point are the architectural backdrops on the Derby County grounds, which allow dissonance to resonate—Clough’s big dreams vs. the flat colors and run-down buildings towering above him. The most powerful scene is when Clough bunkers himself away during a critical match. What should be a shining moment in public glow finds him shuttered away in Plato’s Cave, sunken below the pitch, only allowing the disembodied sounds of groans and cheers and the shadows of the fans to give him insight into the reality—a glorious win—taking place outside.

An exercise in hagiography this film is not. The only surviving lead character, former Leeds United midfielder Johnny Giles, was not happy with the book and reportedly refuses to see the film and the same goes for members of Clough’s family.

Historical films are, of course, complicated by the events of the time they are made as much as the historical moments they seek to document. From the present day comes the film’s hybrid British sensibilities, and Clough’s incompetency during his time with Leeds United is the serious side of the humor found in the incompetent leadership of management in The Office. Though laughable, Clough’s faults are not here played for maximum comedic effect. It’s not tragedy plus time, it’s actually victory: Along with his failure he found tremendous success, and his 44 days of incompetence must be factored in with his two spectacular championship runs. Unlike watching a DVD of another Commonwealth creation, The Flight of the Conchords out of New Zealand, watching Clough’s life is not to view one pathetic (albeit hilarious) week after another. Whereas Australian Chris Lilley razes heroes in yet another Commonwealth comedy, We Can Be Heroes, The Damned United is instead rebuilding heroic myth from a man’s worst moments.

The film’s central narrative drive comes from the relationship between Clough and Taylor. As his failure at Leeds United demonstrates, Clough’s achievements wouldn’t have occurred without his assistant Taylor, the players and the resources from each club’s board. Such a portrayal of a sporting great digresses from the emphasis on individual agency as the sole arbiter of success that academic Aaron Baker found dominating American sports films while researching for his book Contesting Masculinities: Sports in American Film, writing, "Such belief in agency supports the utopian promise of sports: that once the contest begins, success depends primarily on one’s determination and effort."

The Damned United shows that even with headstrong determination and effort, manager Clough still needed lots of help. The film’s greatest achievement is showing that Clough is not a self-made man so much as a man made of many selves.