The Damned United (15)
First things first. Drop your prejudices.
As a manager who brought glory to both Forest and Derby, Brian Clough was never going to win a popularity contest in Leicester.
But The Damned United, like the truly brilliant book it’s drawn from, has an appeal that conquers football’s deepest grudges.
Even the most blinkered Leicester City fan would concede Old Big ’Ead was a true one-off. In the annals of English football, he remains one of the most charismatic, bullish and successful figures in the history of the game and is still the only domestic manager to win back-to-back European cups.
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He’s been the subject of many biographies, but there has been none quite like The Damned Utd.
David Peace’s word-of- mouth bestseller is a strikingly original portrait of that rare blip in Clough’s career, his ill-fated stint in the Leeds United hot seat.
Friends and family reacted angrily to Peace’s depiction of a bullying, selfish Clough, who was bombastic in public but privately plagued by self-doubt.
Those same loved ones, predictably, have refused to watch Tom Hooper’s film, adapted for the screen by Peter Morgan.
They needn’t have worried. Steeped in nostalgia and blessed with a commanding performance from Michael Sheen, this borders on a love letter to the man called “the greatest England manager we never had’’.
It opens in July 1974, with Brian and his two boys, Simon and Nigel, travelling to Leeds to succeed the lionised Don Revie (Colm Meaney) as manager of the reigning Division One champions.
But the whites of Leeds have long been Clough’s bête noires. In an impromptu interview with Granada TV, he openly criticises Revie’s tactics and more or less declares war against senior squad members including Billy Bremner (Stephen Graham), Johnny Giles (Peter McDonald) and Norman Hunter (Mark Cameron).
That comes back to haunt him when the very same players stand between his success or his failure.
It doesn’t exactly help when Clough gathers his new charges together and tells them: “You lot may have won all the domestic honours there are but, as far as I am concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps into the biggest dustbin you can find, because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by bloody cheating.”
Like Peace’s acclaimed book, the film shifts restlessly between two sharply contrasting eras in Clough’s career.
Flashbacks chart his Herculean struggle to take Derby from the foot of Division Two to the dizzy heights of Division One with the help of his loyal, but eventually sidelined assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall).
It’s heaven and hell, then. But these flashbacks are more than just neat juxtaposition.
As Derby prosper, the roots of Clough’s all-encompassing dislike of Revie are gradually revealed.
Morgan’s script elegantly navigates the time frames, providing us with the motivation for the rivalry which drives Clough to the brink of self-destruction.
The Damned United – and nope, we don’t know why the title was fractionally altered either – is an enthralling and largely affectionate tribute to a man who wears egotistical bravado like that comfortable, green sweatshirt he used to sport.
Sheen’s rapport with Spall galvanises the picture, which drips with lovingly reconstructed period detail.
There may be some of you who flinch at the idea of watching a film which invites you to revel in Derby’s success.
Get over it, just for an evening. You miss this at your peril.