The Damned United: Dirty, dirty Leeds.

The Damned United

Dirty, dirty Leeds. Dirty fucking Leeds. After reading David Peace’s novel The Damned Utd these words cycled through my head for days. They work as an obsessive refrain in Peace’s account of Brian Clough’s infamous 44 days as the manager of (dirty, dirty) Leeds.

I knew nothing about Clough, Leeds, and this bizarre story before reading Peace’s novel. Nevertheless, his writing drew me in – aggressively.  I felt as if Clough himself, in all his puerile genius, had wormed his way into my head.  And that voice was irritating – arrogant, monomaniacal, defensive.  The intensity and distinctiveness of Peace’s writing is such that it makes you care about, even identify with this deeply flawed and narcissistic character.

The writing bears no resemblance to traditional sports narrative – the novel borders on experimental, in fact. Its momentum is entropic. Things don’t come together in this story, they fall apart.

Like any fan of a novel, I reacted to the news that it was being turned into a movie with suspicion.  I couldn’t imagine how a novel with such a narrow range of focus, a novel whose setting is really one man’s emotional landscape, could possibly be translated into a commercial film.  If it has a happy ending, it is well outside the novel’s plot – in what happened after he left Leeds, and reconnected with his partner, coach Peter Taylor.  (They led Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s through an amazing run of League Cups, European Cups, and went unbeaten for an insane 42 games.)

In the movie theater, a couple near me asked if this was a “sports movie, you know, like an underdog story.”  Every sports narrative apparently demands this structure: the unlikely hero who overcomes the odds and wins the big game.

Fortunately, the answer to this question is – No, this is not an underdog story. This is a film about a guy who was an underdog when he took over Derby County and led them from the bottom of the second division to the top of the first in two years. (Imagine!) This is the story of a manager whose “touch” seems actually particular to underdog teams, like Derby County and Nottingham Forest – as well as underrated players (Taylor specialized in picking up players other teams had written off). But he was not, really, the underdog so much as the outsider when he took over Leeds – and failed.

Clough was a hater – and no team was as much the object of his ire than Leeds United. His antipathy towards Leeds was by no means a secret. Incredibly, when Leeds manager Don Revie was asked to take on the England national team, Leeds asked Clough to take over. Moth to the flame, Clough accepted the job, and bungled – he was sacked after 44 days of antagonism and controversy.

Michael Sheen as Brian Clough

So, departing from the sports script, here there is no glorious win. Just the story of an impudent, self-centered (gifted) bastard so driven by hate that he takes over a team in order to take them apart.

The film is gentler than the book. (A film that stuck to the maniacal tone of Peace’s writing would, in fact, be almost unwatchable.) The screenplay splits its time between Clough’s Oedipal struggle against Revie, and his friendship with his Taylor (who refused to move to Leeds with Clough). Their relationship is explicitly cast in terms of love — the film plays with their dynamic as a couple, and this is where any of the tenderness and emotion in the film is expressed.  The happy resolution demanded by mainstream cinema is organized around their reconciliation.

I loved the film. But I also love English weather and Thomas Hardy novels. It’s visually gorgeous, but everything is gray, wet, and dilapidated. If there is paint on the walls, it’s peeling. If there is wallpaper, it’s greasy. Glass is grimey. Fields are muddy. Ceilings are low and stained. Early on, there is a lovely scene of Clough, desperate to impress, trying to tidy up the facilities at Derby before an early match against Leeds – polishing tarnished brass, scrubbing blacked grout. There isn’t a lot of game footage, but what is there is dirty: all I remember about those scenes is mud, rain, and blood.

Scene from the Damned United

The film is notable for its realism and its refusal to glamorize the game. This is, I think, where the film pays homage to the era (and Peace’s writing) most faithfully:  This story unfolds before the hyper-mediatization of football.  The sport feels fleshy and personal.  Its aesthetic sensibility is the dead opposite of a film like Goal, or even Douglas Gordon’s art house hit, Zidane: Portrait of the 21st Century. There just wasn’t that much money in either the game or in the broadcasting of the game (at least not like there is today).  The sport, as we encounter it today, has been cleaned up for the camera.  The Damned United’s story seems to signal the beginning of these shifts.

There is another “money” story here – that of English class politics.  Clough’s brashness, the criticism that he was “too much”, that he was inappropriate, crass, and too ambitious is the complaint made against a man who doesn’t “know his place.” If he was an upstart and pretender, it was because he refused to let his own working class origins limit his imagination – and he also knew that he’d never get past the door if he waited for someone to open it for him. To this day, Clough is referred to as “the greatest manager England never had,” and most assume he was never invited to lead the country’s team because the FA couldn’t stand the idea of having someone like Clough in this representative role.

Given the centrality of class to Clough’s story, the phrase “dirty, dirty Leeds” (repeated hundreds of times in Peace’s novel) takes on an added importance.

Brian Clough on TV

Everything around Clough feels shabby and worthless when compared to what Revie has. Even though Clough knows he’s the better manager, that at Derby he was managing the better team, something in him makes him feel like this was not enough.  Clough is more boy than man, invested in a recognition (from Revie) that he’ll never get (Revie refuses the hand Clough offers him, not in a deliberate slight but because he didn’t notice Clough, who was cloaked in insignificance).

As we watch Clough nervously cleaning up Derby’s shabby facilities, we see him trying to scrub away the dirt of a working class world — his world.  In these details, we see a man who on some level feels he will never be good enough, a man incapable, too, of being happy with what he has. And of course, this restlessness, this discontent was behind the arrogance and ambition that made him such a legend.

11 thoughts on “The Damned United: Dirty, dirty Leeds.

  1. Neil McDougall

    I just love how people who didn’t live through those years take this novel and movie as fact. David Peace’s novel is just that, a novel. It bears a passing resemblance to the truth, but that’s about it. It is factually inaccurate in almost every way, especially in it’s most important scenes. The Derby County vs Leeds cup tie for example. It was actually played in Leeds, not in Derby, making the whole cleaning up the ground thing seem silly.

    Every team back then had their hard man. It was a much more physical game, and every team was at it, not just Leeds. Watch the 1970 FA cup final between Leeds and Chelsea. If that game was refereed by today’s standards, both teams would have been down to 7 players at half time! Roy McFarland was a dirty bastard, just as dirty as any of the Leeds players, and that’s why Clough bought him. And to correct something you stated, no, Clough wasn’t a better manager than Revie, and Derby County certainly weren’t a better team than Leeds.

    Here’s a list of just some of the inaccuracies with the movie. Remember, it is a movie based on a novel and that is all it is. Don’t take it for truth.

  2. Jennifer Doyle

    HI Neil,

    I am sure Leeds fans reading this will be happy you chimed in.

    My review is actually about the novel – which is a work of fiction – and the film – also, a creative narrative inspired by a true story.

    I say nothing about its truthfulness, because the novel’s point of view is so explicitly Clough’s. If the phrase “dirty, dirty Leeds” went through my head for days, it’s because it’s repeated, like, on every page of the novel. Doesn’t mean I think Leeds were any dirtier than any of their opponents. But Clough sure did think they were. That’s a fact.

    The novel is part of Peace’s series of historical novels – fictionalizations of actual events – and are classified, quite rightly, as fiction. IMHO, fiction is often a better vehicle for certain kinds of truth – like, say, a portrait of Clough’s character, his motivations & obsessions – if only because fiction owns up to its limits, where non-fiction authors rarely avow to theirs.

    It should be said: neither the film or the movie are generous toward Clough. He comes off as a self-centered ass in both!

    FYI – if you are a fan, you should check out the women’s team – I believe they are called Leeds Carnegie L.F.C. – they used to be backed by the men’s side, but like many women’s clubs, they lost both financial backing and training facilities a few years ago. They are now backed by Leeds Metropolitan University, are doing well with their independence and have some pretty great players.

  3. Rob Atkinson

    Well, Jennifer, you claim you say nothing about the book’s or the film’s truthfulness, but as Neil rightly points out when he has the audacity to “chime in”, you do appear to state as fact that Clough was the better manager, Derby were the better team. Clough “knew” this, you aver.

    Most students of the game would confirm for you that Clough WITHOUT Taylor was a very different proposition from the legendary and quite rightly revered Clough/Taylor partnership. Taylor abandoned Clough to a solitary struggle against the odds at Leeds, a club he’d previously been at pains to revile at every turn, but which produced a team many still regard as the finest ever English side. Clough alone didn’t stand a chance, whereas Revie was very much a solo act, with much more diffuse support he created a team almost single-handedly which carried all before them over a decade.

    As for Derby, well they won the League in 1972, but arguably by default. They were confirmed as Champions whilst relaxing in Majorca, waiting for Leeds to complete their punishing schedule at Wolves a mere 48 hours after a gruelling Cup Final success over Arsenal at Wembley. Leeds only needed a draw to complete a deserved double, but exhausted by the Cup Final effort, and missing the inestimable Mick Jones who dislocated his shoulder in that Cup win, they lost 2-1 and finished second. Derby, a better team? The weight of evidence gleaned from the rivalry between the clubs in the late 60′s and early 70′s would suggest not.

  4. Dean A Walls

    Hi Jennifer,
    I am not here to pick you apart on accuracies or inaccuracies as you seem to have done that pretty well yourself. Derby, although a good team and very well motivated by the dear old Mr Clough and well constructed by Mr Taylor, were nowhere near the same class as Revie’s Leeds team, Fact!
    And why the sudden digression onto Leeds Carnegie, most Leeds fans are perfectly aware of this team and are very proud of their many achievements over many years as they, along with Doncaster and Arsenal have been at the top of the womens game for a long time. I do not claim to know all the in’s and outs of why they are no longer Leeds United and so will not comment further, but the point you were making was??

  5. Jennifer Doyle

    Hi Dean,

    The reason I mentioned the Leeds women’s FC: Don’t know if you have read my writing, but I’m an advocate for women’s football and will take every opportunity to mention a women’s team. It is indeed hard to imagine a Leeds fan from Leeds – or from England for that matter – who doesn’t know about the women’s side (cut loose from the men’s club a couple years ago) – but I have met such fans. Leeds fans based here in the US are very likely to be unaware of the women’s team – its struggles and accomplishments – because English women’s football receives zero coverage here, except of course when our professional teams poach English players. (There – more stuff about women’s football – in a conversation about The Damned UTD!)

    Hope other fans of English football see the film and report back with their thoughts – or can comment on the book, which is really worth a read.

  6. Neil McDougall

    Jennifer, I really enjoyed the movie, but have also read enough “reviews” of it that seem to take it all as gospel, which is why I wanted to comment. I really do think that the movie should have had some kind of tagline that read “loosely based on actual events”, because without it, people younger than 40 will think that’s what really happened. And it wasn’t.

    BTW, see the real interview with Brian Clough and Dan Revie after Clough got sacked by Leeds here:

  7. Jennifer Doyle

    You are very right about the way the film presents itself. The novel is psychological in its realism – committed first and foremost to one man’s frame of mind. And in the novel this is absolutely clear (one of things that makes it hard to read is the sense that you are missing huge sections of the story, because you are just getting this one point of view.) The film is much more ambiguous. Setting aside the club histories, I do think Clough comes off as impudent and insecure in the film – and his obsession with Revie seems in the movie irrational.

    Thanks for the links & the comments!

  8. nwh

    I read the book when it came it was so depressing I found it hard work to finish ;but thats peace- see the west riding trilogy. As a fan who went o all the games during the 70′s, I remember cloughs 44 days quite well.

    That clough should’ve been appointed simply showed up the board (manny Cussins et al) as class ridden cowards. As revie often said, ” I left them with money in the bank and a few years left in the squad with youngsters coming through.” and advocated Giles as his successor, not Bremner, who was piqued (giles had been invited by Brazil to observe their training in 74). The board wanted a name: ‘this is Leeds’ and lost the chance to do what liverpool did for the next 10 years – have a seamless transistion of teams, being built and rebuilt, by promoting from within. The worker taking over the team? insanity!

    Even coach and trainer les cocker and syd owen were on the England team, surely between them we couldv’e had our own boot room?

    The bare facts are that clough wasn’t good enough to manage the teams transition from the 70s to the 80s and very few outsiders could have . Jock stein should have , but he lasted less than Clough to manage scotland. I hate the fact a great team has its memory devalued by the clough story. The team lasted 10 years, clough 44 days and the silverware speaks louder than fiction.

  9. Jennifer Doyle

    NWH – that explains a lot – I think that dynamic (the board’s failure to do the right thing) is visible in the film (more than in the book, in fact), but it’s on the edges. But you have to know to look for it.

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