The Damned United

The Damned United featured image

reviewed by Marc Glassman

The Damned United
Tom Hooper, director. Peter Morgan, script based on the novel by David Peace. Starring: Michael Sheen (Brian Clough), Jim Broadbent (Sam Longson), Colm Meaney (Don Revie), Timothy Spall (Peter Taylor), Henry Goodman (Manny Cussins), John Savage (Gordon McQueen), Mark Cameron (Norman Hunter), Matthew Storton (Peter Lorimer), Peter McDonald (Johnny Giles), Stephen Graham (Billy Bremner) Brian McCardie (Dave Mackay)

The British film world has rarely acknowledged their premiere sport, football—or soccer to us—with dramas or comedies. Apart from Fever Pitch, which was really about being a fan, not much of significance has been produced in England until now. With this week’s North American release of The Damned United, soon to be followed by Ken Loach’s Cannes hit Eric and Me, things are on the upswing. At least in Britain, the footie film times may be ‘a’changin’.

But there will be a problem for either film to work in North America. After all, who recognizes the names of Brian Clough and Eric Cantona here? Yet they’re icons in Britain.

In Canada, it’s a rare soul who has heard of Brian Clough–and more’s the pity. Imagine hockey celeb Don Cherry with more talent and brains. And much more success as a manager, oops coach. That’s Cloughie (pronounced Kluffy), the most beloved and controversial management figure in England before the arrival from Scotland of Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson. He led un-fancied—and under financed–clubs Derby and Nottingham Forest to titles in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when such miracles were possible.

Like Cherry, Cloughie was a constant figure of abuse and admiration on TV shows. British audiences loved him as much as Canadians do Cherry. Clough’s one-liners include: “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.” And “Walk on water? I know most people out there will be saying that instead of walking on it, I should have taken more of it with my drinks. They are absolutely right.” He was a curious mix of arrogance and lucid thinking. And Clough was witty.

So who should play him on screen? None other Michael Sheen, this generation’s Peter Sellers. Sheen has played Tony Blair (in The Queen) and David Frost (in Frost/Nixon) to perfection. Like Sellers, he’s an amiable blank, a director’s dream, able to slip seamlessly into a characterization.

Peter Morgan, the scriptwriter of The Queen and Frost/Nixon has developed a superb pairing with Sheen. As a writer, Morgan has a finely tuned ear for dialogue; he catches the phrases of politicians, TV hosts, and, it turns out, football managers, exceptionally well. And Sheen inhabits his characters brilliantly. As in other Morgan dramas, other actors also respond well to his use of language: Timothy Spall, large boned, sincere and witty, underplays the part of Clough’s right-hand man Peter Taylor to perfection while character actors Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney and Henry Goodman acquit themselves well.

The central tale in The Damned United is a unique one in Clough’s career. As a young man, he and Taylor took a struggling Derby County Division Two team back to the first Division and, soon after, the Championship. Later in his career, he did much the same thing with Nottingham Forest. But in-between came his come-uppance with Leeds.

In 1974, Clough was asked to replace Don Revie as manager of Leeds, when Revie was given the job of running the English national team. Clough agreed–in the ultimate act of hubris. He had famously castigated Leeds for winning as “dirty” footballers, who bullied their way to success, while scoring goals from long passes up field. His Derby squad (and later Nottingham Forest) played clean, elegant football, keeping the ball on the ground, European-style.

Clough and Leeds? It was a mismatch, with a famous team hating its new manager. The Damned United captures that tale, while cutting back in time to show Cloughie’s first triumph with Derby.

David Peace’s harrowing book gave one the sense of the gloomy landscape and life in Yorkshire just before the coming of Thatcher but dramatist Morgan drops all of that while pursuing a good dramatic tale. He and Sheen have removed the “noir” from Clough’s story, stressing wit and irony. The Damned United isn’t quite the tragedy that Peace intended but it’s a fine film. And truer to the spirit of Cloughie.