The Damned United

The Damned United

Peter Taylor and Brian Clough did precious little celebrating during Clough's tenure at Leeds United.

(2009) True Sports Drama (Sony Classics) Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Graham, Peter McDonald, Elizabeth Carling. Directed by Tom Hooper

People in the United States can’t really appreciate just how rabid the love for their football clubs the English hold. Comparatively, our American football fans are like the polite Wimbledon audience, politely applauding a spirited volley. In England, people live and die by their favorite clubs, their love spanning generations in the same family. Songs are written about their favorite clubs and the fans know every word, singing them at the matches in unison, tens of thousands of voices strong or in the pubs watching the matches on the telly, voices soaked with whiskey, beer and gin. For many, their identity consists to a large part of which club they support.

In the 60s, Leeds United was one of the most dominant teams in England, regularly winning the league title and representing England in the European Cup. Their manager was Don Revie (Meaney), a bull of a man who was beloved in Leeds but not so much elsewhere. His United club played a rough and tumble brand of football that some said crossed the line of fair play.

Young Brian Clough (Sheen) manages Derby County, a second division club with high hopes – some would say delusions of grandeur. An outspoken self-promoter prone to saying outrageous things at inappropriate times, he succeeds at winning Derby County a promotion to the first division and even a spot in the European Cup, but Clough is snubbed by Revie during a match between the two clubs.

From then on Clough felt a passionate hatred for Leeds United, one that perhaps wasn’t quite warranted. His assistant manager Pete Taylor (Spall) was not quite as angry about the snub. A great football tactician, Taylor and Clough, a master motivator,  made a formidable team. However, Derby County chairman Sam Longson (Broadbent) continually butted heads with his brash manager over personnel decisions and finances. Clough accused him of putting profits ahead of winning, which is easy to do when you’re not spending your own money. Eventually, he would turn in his resignation, never believing for a moment it would be accepted and that his demands for more control over the football team and a higher salary would be met. To his horror, his resignation was accepted.

Clough would eventually accept a position with the Hove and Albion Brighton club, but would renege on that agreement when Leeds United came calling. It seems that Don Revie was taking the job as the manager for the national team. Clough was one of the brightest up-and-coming stars in English football management; it was thought he would bring Leeds United decades of similar success as Revie had.

That wasn’t to be. Clough despised the players of Leeds United and made that clear. He continued to make incendiary remarks to the press and as a result his team started losing. It went from the champions of English football to being in real danger of being relegated to the second division. There was nothing for it but Clough had to be sacked. His reign in Leeds lasted a grand total of 44 days.

Now, that is a whole lot of English sports history and to most English schoolboys, this is as well-known as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are here. Here in the United States, most people don’t know Leeds United from Manchester United and Billy Bremner (Graham) from Billy Idol. Still, that shouldn’t diminish from the enjoyment of the movie. This is a football movie in the same way Brian’s Song is a football movie – the game stays on the periphery of the story, which is about the people who lived these events.

Sheen does a bang-up job in his role as Clough. Not being familiar with the real Brian Clough (the pronunciation rhymes with rough), I can’t really say if he caught the nature of the real man, but I can say that his performance showed equal parts arrogance and insecurity (which are two qualities that generally go together). He is fascinating to watch, and keeps your attention throughout the movie. Spall does a terrific job as the yin to Clough’s yang, or vice versa. The two actors mesh well together and the real genuine love and respect between the two sports icons comes through. As with any relationship of love and respect, it inspires some epic bickering, but there is never a sense that there is a false moment in that critical relationship which is at the center of the story.

Meaney and Broadbent are reliable actors and neither disappoint here. Scripter Peter Morgan (who also penned The Queen) has put together some impressive writing yet again; I think it’s fair to say he’s one of the top handful of screenwriters working in the business today. Hooper does a great job of building the era and the atmosphere surrounding a championship sports team nicely.

This is an interesting look at how ego and vanity can turn even someone driven and intelligent off-course. Clough went on to be one of the greatest managers in English football history, more or less the equivalent of a Vince Lombardi or a Tom Landry, and is regarded as such in England. Those 44 days are the only stain on an otherwise superior record and given the talent he had to work with, it’s easy to wonder what went wrong. While the Clough family and many players for both Derby and Leeds United have gone on record as regarding this work as fiction, it nonetheless works on a dramatic level.

WHY RENT THIS: Stellar performances from Sheen and Spall help illuminate the inner machinations of an English football club in the ‘70s. The movie doesn’t require audiences to be English football fans in order to appreciate it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: American audiences may not appreciate the place in the history of the sport that Clough and Revie held and not be much interested in the subject.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of foul language, more than smaller kids might be used to. Should be okay for teens that have an interest in the history of English soccer.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set at the Derby County practice field were actually filmed in Leeds, ironically on a pitch overlooking the stadium where Leeds United plays.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of features on how Sheen took on the formidable task of re-creating Brian Clough, channeling him in a typical Clough-like press conference. There’s also a feature on English soccer in the 70s and Clough’s lasting influence on the game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.1M on an unreported budget; if I were a bettin’ man I’d wager they made a little bit of money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: A Serious Man

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3 thoughts on “The Damned United

    • Prior to seeing the movie, I had no direct knowledge of L’Affaire Clough. As an American, I knew woefully little about the history of English football so in that sense, I couldn’t really look at the film as a historical document and had to take whatever accuracies or inaccuracies at face value. I can’t comment on its historical validity, but I do know that the Clough family and many of the players who were on not only the Leeds United side but also Derby County as well have said publically that the film is a work of fiction and didn’t really capture the reality of the events leading to the 44 days or his tenure at Leeds itself. From a strictly cinema point of view, I thought the movie was successful, since that was the only way I could judge it.

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