Review: The Damned United
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Peter Morgan
Starring: Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall
Released: 2009 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: UK / IMDB
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The Damned United may well focus on a period of British football not more than fifty years old, but by gosh it feels like another dimension when compared to the million pound pay packets, flashy cars and lavish houses footballers enjoy today. Watching Manchester City entertain their closest rivals Manchester United with an opening of thundering pop music reverberating around the stadium, the pitch lights dimmed, the sparkling spotlights flickering around 50,000 anonymous heads, football of the 21st century is a different beast. The terraces of The Damned United – set in the late 1960s and early 1970s – are merely metallic sheds compared to the multi-layered, multi-million pound cathedrals of sport we see today. It’s a grave reminder how football has changed. From the working man’s game it once was, the beautiful game providing a joyful ninety minutes every Saturday afternoon for those working long hours on small wages, is now a haven for celebrities to swan around the stadiums on and off the pitch. It was once the poor man’s game, now it is the rich man’s playground.
Michael Sheen once again embodies a real life figure in the form of smart-mouthed, quick-lipped Middlesbrough-born football manager Brian Clough. Clough is widely regarded as one of the best British football managers, and, if it had not been for his often controversial and outspoken views, would have surely coached England. His greatest success was winning the biggest trophy in club football – the European Cup – with Nottingham Forest. That he did it once was a huge feat but he achieved it twice in consecutive years which has never been matched by any British manager.
However, The Damned United focuses on the ill-fated 44 days in charge of Leeds Utd, prior to taking the coaching role with Nottingham Forrest. Leeds Utd had long been a big personal and footballing rival of Clough’s thanks to his disliking of Leeds manager Don Revie. The film switches between 1974 and the preceding five years when Clough, at the time largely unknown, was manager of Derby County. Derby were struggling at the bottom of England’s second division while Leeds were flying high at the top of division one. When the teams meet in an F.A. Cup game (one of the few times during the English football season when teams from different divisions play each other), Revie appears to ignore Clough’s welcoming handshake. Revie would say later in an interview that he probably didn’t know who Clough was at the time. Nevertheless, this riles Clough. When Derby lose to Leeds in the cup game, Clough vows to get Derby back to winning ways and to get them promoted to the first division. Only then can he renew his rivalry with Revie when Derby must play Leeds again. Clough achieves his goal and Derby eventually beat Leeds during the following season.
The story, which switches back and forth between Clough’s time with Derby and the 44 days in charge of Leeds, attempts to shed light on why it was almost impossible for Clough to be successful at the West Yorkshire club. His animosity towards Revie alienated him immediately from his inherited players who were all loyal to their old manager. The fact Clough had spoken out about Leeds winning titles through dirty tactics furthered the division between himself and Leeds’ footballing staff. His success with Derby was built on creating a great team out of an inexperienced one. When he became Leeds Utd manager he inherited a great, accomplished team that had won everything there was to win.
Tom Hooper bases his film on the novel by David Peace. He directs it with verve and plenty of style, often finding Michael Sheen to the side of frame as if we’re viewing a man who likes to do things a little differently. Sheen is again fantastic, almost mastering (if not quite as well as Frost in Frost/Nixon) the north-west accent of Clough and his cheeky-chappy mannerisms. There’s a great scene in which Derby and Leeds play for the first time since Derby’s promotion to division one. Clough had at this time still not beaten Revie. We see none of the football, only the lonely figure of Clough in his office as the crowd can be heard cheering and jeering through the windows. A couple of times the crowd erupts in unanimous joy but we are left until the players return to the dressing to find out the result. It’s testament to this romanticised version of events. Clough’s real life wife has claimed the book fictionalises a lot of its content and it’s clear in The Damned United, not least when Clough crawls on his hands and knees to beg Peter Taylor to return as his assistant, that the film stays faithful to the book’s heightened drama in retelling the true story.
Yet, that makes for a thoroughly entertaining film. Although the Yorkshire Television interview with Clough and Revie is reconstructed almost word for word with Sheen brilliantly mimicking Clough’s care-free but defiant attitude, Hooper uses selective editing to maintain the unyielding rivalry between the pair. Hooper’s use of Clough’s preceding tenure as Derby County manager builds the tension of his 44 days in charge of Leeds. That’s a quality of novelist David Peace since the obvious focus of a story about Clough would be based on his years as Nottingham Forrest manager. Going back in time the writer has found a story that has the trappings of a great sports tale with themes of loyalty, friendship, the will to win, and a charismatic central character. But in focusing on failure rather than triumph The Damned United becomes a funny and moving film that is, importantly, wholly original. Indeed, you wouldn’t expect anything else from a tale about the unique talent that was Brian Clough.