The year was 1974. Leeds United was the most dominant club in all of British football—thanks largely to the team’s willingness to punch opposing players in the testicles. Into this gang of hooligans came straight-laced, clean-playing Brian Clough, who had the unenviable task of taking over as manager from much-beloved Leeds leader Don Revie. To people of a certain age and of a certain geographical persuasion, this was a big deal. A very big deal. The equivalent of George W. Bush taking over as head of the DNC. To the other 99.9 percent of the world’s population, however, the preceding paragraph pretty much reads like Chinese stereo instructions.
It is odd, then, to find ourselves staring down a film like The Damned United, which dramatizes this pivotal moment in English sports history. It seems like such a ... well, specialized topic. Like funerary practices in Inner Mongolia, or the economics of the spice trade in 17th century India. Shame, really, because The Damned United is (as the Brits say) a cracking-good drama—whether you know who the hell Brian Clough is or not.
Fresh off disappearing into roles as diverse as broadcasting legend David Frost (in Frost/Nixon), Prime Minister Tony Blair (in both The Deal and The Queen) and a werewolf (in the Underworld series), Welsh actor Michael Sheen continues his march toward the title of Hardest Working Actor in the British Isles. When we first meet his clean-cut, tough-talking Brian Clough, it’s 1974 and the chap’s on top of the world, having coached a second-string soccer club to a first-place standing, and having wrested command of England’s most popular team away from a man he—to borrow the argot—fooking hates.
Jumping back and forth in time, The Damned United shows us how Clough became one of the most recognizable figures in British sports and how his contentious relationship with Leeds began. Six years earlier, Clough and his right-hand man Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) have taken over the ailing Derby County team. Thanks to shrewd management, aggressive recruiting and by-the-book play, Derby is soon ascending to the lofty heights of top-seeded Leeds. But along the way, they’ve made an archrival in Don Revie (Colm Meaney, who’ll always be Chief O’Brien from “ST:TNG” to me) and his cheating band of football thugs. They’re winners; but in Clough’s mind, they’re bad winners. And for six long years he cultivates a major grudge against them.
So, when Clough is finally given the opportunity to take over for Revie (who has moved on to the England national football team), he seizes the opportunity for what may be all the wrong reasons. He wants to destroy Revie’s legacy—change the team’s brutal tactics and take them on to the single prize Revie never was able to claim: The European Cup. So, does this amount to wise leadership or petty revenge?
For a sporting drama, The Damned United doesn’t spend all that much time on the football pitch. Often, a simple flash of scores (win or lose) on the screen paints the picture as clearly as a fully choreographed match would. One nifty scene finds Clough trapped in his team’s locker room, unable to watch the game for nerves. He, like the audience, is forced to use the sounds of the crowd outside to gauge the outcome of the match. Clever, that. The filmmakers also manage to weave some actual archival footage into the film, although there’s never the illusion of trying to blend the truth with the fiction (as in, say, Gus Van Sant’s recent biopic Milk). Instead, it’s as if a documentary occasionally overlaps with the narrative, verifying its claims.
Anyone who’s actually heard the name Brian Clough previous to now will probably know how this story plays out. Those who don’t can rest assured that this isn’t a predictable fairy tale about underdogs winning the day. Rather than borrow from the formulaic, inspirational sports films we manufacture here in America (Rocky, Miracle, et al), The Damned United focuses on presenting a particular sort of sharply defined characters study—something at which star Michael Sheen obviously excels.
Driven by a self-confidence and a bravura that gets him compared (not inaccurately) to Muhammad Ali, Clough claws his way to the top of his sport. But at what cost? Arriving in Leeds six years after his success in Derby, he’s clearly shed his pal Peter. And he’s met by a team that’s livid over the reforms he’s trying to push on them. This isn’t so much a tale of triumph as a tale of a flawed hero whose setbacks outweigh his victories—the stuff of solid, Shakespearian drama. I have no idea if The Damned United is an accurate or a worthy portrait of Mr. Clough, but it is a damned good movie.