Back in 1970s, before the Premiership, Sky TV and WAGS came to characterise the beautiful game, football managers were almost exclusively gruff Northerners who smoked 60 a day and avoided publicity like the plague. That is part from Brian Clough, perhaps the most charismatic, media-savvy and complex manager to have graced the sport. The film tells the story of the most bizarre spell of his otherwise illustrious career, but for those not up on their 70s football, here’s our frankly indispensible visual guide to The Damned United.
The man himself played by the current master of the celebrity impersonation, Michael Sheen. A legendary figure because of his charismatic personality and plethora of one-liners, it’s also sometimes forgotten just how successful Clough actually was in his prime in the late 60s and 70s.
The movie revolves around Clough’s ill-fated spell in charge of Leeds United. At this point they were the league champions and one of the best teams in Europe. He is seen here being welcomed by fans, but the manager soon made enemies after making it clear how much he still despised the club. Much of the David Peace’s novel (the source material for the film) is made up of psychological speculation as to why Clough took the job — did he want to destroy the club from the inside? Did he deliberately sabotage his time there to somehow punish himself for accepting the role?
The main reason for Clough’s hatred was former Leeds manger Don Revie (seen here played sinisterly by Colm Meanie). The film opens with Revie somewhat reluctantly leaving his job to take over the England national team. The team Revie built was extremely successful (they won every trophy going except the European cup) but were despised by many — especially Clough — for their negative play, arrogance, and cynical attitude towards the game. Leg-breaking tackles and referee intimidation were just some of the tactics espoused by Revie.
In contrast, Clough’s managerial style was good football (“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there” is a famous Clough-ism) and gentlemanly behaviour on and off the pitch. Clough built his reputation with this management style whilst he was in charge at Derby County. The film moves back and forth between his time at Leeds and this highly successfully spell at the Midlands’ club. We see here his Derby side taking on Revie’s brutal Leeds in their first year in the first division. Amazingly, despite having just been promoted, Derby would go onto win the league, just pipping Leeds themselves to the title.
Clough’s genius lay in his man-management, which — usually in conjunction with assistant manager Peter Taylor — varied from arms-around-the-shoulder empathy to full on hysterical bollockings, depending on the situation and the players’ personalities. This approach, however, failed miserably when he got to Leeds, and he had to try and tame Revie’s players, especially the likes of (from left to right) Johnny Giles, Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and Trevor Cherry. He alienated them from the beginning by famously telling them, “you won all your medals by cheating.”
Probably the most important factor in Clough’s nightmare spell at Leeds however was the failure of his longtime assistant, Peter Taylor, played by Timothy Spall in the movie, to move up north and join him at the club. One of the greatest talent-spotters the game’s ever seen, he was also the only person to say “no” to Clough. They had a complex relationship, however, with the quiet and taciturn Taylor constantly feeling undervalued and underappreciated compared to the flashy Clough. The pair eventually acrimoniously parted ways for good whilst at Nottingham Forest in 1982. Clough never won a major Trophy without Taylor by his side.
The film switches back to Clough’s time at Derby late in the film, and shows how his combustible personality and distrust of authority lost him (and Peter Taylor) their jobs. Constantly clashing with County chairman Sam Longson (a suitably slimy performance from Jim Broadbent), who resented Clough’s fame and influence, he eventually resigned due to perceived boardroom interference – though he was just using this a ploy to get Longson sacked, and never believed his resignation would be accepted.
One of the final set pieces of the movie is a joint interview Clough did for Yorkshire TV after his sacking from Leeds with Don Revie. The real-life broadcast went down in football history for the barely repressed loathing and disgust both men showed towards each other, with Clough telling Revie “I wanted to win the league, but I wanted to win it better!” Clough would go onto win two European cups with Nottingham Forest, whilst Revie would fail as England manager.
The Damned United is released today in the UK and on 13th August in Australia. The US release is to be confirmed.