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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.
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.
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.
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.