When I latched onto Leeds United as my favorite team outside the United States I didn’t do it with any sense of the club’s history. Sure, I knew they’d been around a long time, but it was their then-current form that lured me in (and led to years of heartbreak – alas, that is the truth of the beautiful game). What I didn’t know at the time was that for about a decade leading up to my birth they were one of the, if not the, best team in England, winning the top division twice, the FA Cup once, and finishing runners up in both competitions several times between 1964 and 1974.
What I also didn’t realize was that they did so with a bit of a reputation. Think of the infamous Philadelphia Flyers team known as the “Broad Street Bullies” and you’re on the right track, except there were twice as many of them and at the time there was only one allowed substitute in soccer. Any injury often meant the other team playing a man down.
That Leeds team was the product of manager Don Revie who, after the 1973-1974 season ended, left the club to become manager of the England national team. His replacement, Brian Clough, was a former player who had worked wonders as a manager at Derby County, dragging the team up to the top flight and to the league title. One the one hand, it looked like following on from one brilliant manager to another.
On the other hand, well, that’s the story of The Damned United, first a novel by David Peace and then a movie, directed by Tom Hooper with Michael Sheen (current Wales national team hype man) as Clough. They cover Clough’s rocky 44-day stint at the helm of Leeds and the culture clash that led to his ultimate downfall. It’s never a good sign when the new boss comes in and declares that all your prior success was down to “cheating” and you were going to start winning the “right way” now that he’s here.
I saw the movie first around the time it came out, based more on the good reviews than any particular interest in the story itself. Sports movies tend to be built around cliches leading to the “big game” and, honestly, once you’ve seen a few what’s the point of another? What makes The Damned United so interesting is that it turns the cliche on its head – rather than being about a coach who pulls together a group of underperforming misfits into a team of winners, it’s about a team of winners slowly falling apart. Honestly, it would be a good case study for a management class or something, a cautionary tale of how someone so convinced of his own brilliance can get things so wrong.
The biggest difference between the movie and the book was Clough’s motivation and general attitude about all this. Both portray Clough as a supreme egotist, convinced that he’s right about everything related to soccer (Peace uses the word multiple times in the book, so back off) and everyone else is wrong. In the movie, this comes across as more hopeful delusion than anything else. He has a better way to play the game, one that prioritizes attack and frowns on the “dark arts,” and that’s what’s driving him. He wants to improve things, elevate them.
Novel Clough is, by contrast, a complete rage-driven asshole. This is evident in the book because we’re entirely in Clough’s head, privy to all his thoughts and the loathing he has for just about everyone and every place. While his wife and children come out unscathed (though they’re press so far to the edges that he might as well have been a bachelor, for the book’s purposes), he even goes after his assistant manager/partner Peter Taylor, with whom he had already had (and would again have) great success. It’s unclear at points whether he really wants to reform Leeds or drive them into a ditch. Clough’s head is, for the most part, a frightening place to be.
To be fair, the novel gives Clough some basis for his anger, giving us more detail on his playing and prior managerial career than the movie does. Primarily, we get Clough’s bitterness at his playing career being cut short by a knee injury. I think movie Clough mentions his goal-scoring tally at one point, but book Clough returns to it again and again. It is impressive – 251 goals in 274 games – but comes with a major caveat: all but a handful of those came in the Second Division, making Clough sort of a Crash Davis of English football, without Crash’s recognition that records in a lower league don’t mean all that much.
The other pillar of novel Clough’s anger is his belief that he should be manager of the England national team. This makes his taking over Leeds all the more fraught, given that he thinks Revie doesn’t deserve the England job. It adds an additional layer to the way that Revie haunts Elland Road (Leeds’ stadium) after he’s gone, like a millstone ghost hung around Clough’s neck. That he goes so far as to destroy and burn Revie’s desk is extreme, but you can kind of see where he’s coming from.
Aside from that, the novel and movie tell the same story. I think the movie does it better, partly because I found Peace’s style – which makes copious use of repetition of words (usually in threes) – annoying. As usual, I consumed the book via audio and even with the narrator’s cadence giving it some life, it felt overdone, as if the book (not that long to begin with) could have been a third shorter without it. And I can see why Clough’s family was upset with both the book and movie. One review I read noted that the three main characters – Clough, Revie, and Leeds midfielder/captain Billy Bremner – were all dead at the time the book came out. You can’t libel the dead, after all. Another Leeds player, Johnny Giles, did win a libel lawsuit about the book, although given British libel laws I’m not sure how much that means about what is, after all, a work of fiction.
That said, I kind of wish both book and movie had an epilogue of some sort. If you weren’t a soccer fan you’d think that Clough crashed and burned at Leeds and that was it, his days of success over. In actuality, he went on to even greater heights afterwards, leading Nottingham Forrest to not one but two European Cups (what they call the Champions League these days), an amazing feat for a club that size. Never got to manage England, however.