There is a thin line between being a mad genius and simply being mad. If Brian Clough was the mad genius of English football, the new film The Damned United explores Clough’s simply mad stage when he got fired at Derby County and then, after 44 days in charge of Leeds United, got himself dismissed there as well.
Michael Sheen stars as Brian Clough, and Sheen has carved out a nice little niche for himself playing late 20th century British icons. After playing Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon, can it be very long before we see Sheen as Malcolm McLaren or Bob Geldof? Sheen portrays Clough as a brilliant, driven egotist who is masking a deep layer of insecurity. Clough feels every little slight as if it is a stab in his heart, and those slights fuel his monstrous ambition.
Nobody has slighted Clough more than legendary Leeds United manager Don Revie (played by Colm Meaney). From the lack of a handshake after a FA Cup tie to a style of play that offends Clough’s football sensibilities, Clough feels abused by Revie despite that fact that, at least initially, Revie barely knows that Clough exists. As manager of lowly Derby County, Clough, fired up by this one-way rivalry with Revie, drives Derby into the First Division and ultimately to the championship.
As charismatic as Clough may be, he is completely reliant on the grounding from his deputy, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). Taylor’s football wisdom and player insight temper Clough’s pride and ego. Clough is married to Taylor both professionally and emotionally as they support each other, bicker with each other, and, often, drive each other crazy.
However, as Clough becomes famous and successful at Derby, his ego grows to the point that not even Taylor can constrain him. He bickers with Derby’s chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent), feuds with the Derby board, and eventually Taylor too, and Clough winds up getting fired. When Don Revie leaves Leeds to become the English manager, Clough looks for redemption by becoming the Leeds manager and eradicating every bit of Revie’s impact and style from the club. However, without Taylor’s calming influence, Clough only succeeds in alienating everyone at Leeds, especially the players, and his short reign is a colossal failure. The film ends with Clough reconciling with Taylor and preparing to take Nottingham Forest onto fabulous success.
The film is a rousing success as both a sports film and, in many respects, a tragic love story. Clough and Taylor are a legendary pairing, and the affection they have for each other is wonderfully portrayed by Sheen and Spall. Clough and Taylor need each other, and are often befuddled by each other. Although the movie ends with their reconciliation, it is easy to see how their relationship will eventually end tragically at Nottingham Forest. Later in his professional and personal life, Clough is consumed by the demons that Sheen portrays in his earlier managerial career.
Soccer fans will find much to treasure in The Damned United. American sports journalism is replete with “game within the game” and behind the scenes stories. Successful baseball and basketball coaches are often asked to speak at business conferences to share their insights about how to manage different personalities. Those types of practice-field analysis are far less common in Europe, and the movie presents some real insights into the inner workings of a soccer team.
For modern fans of the EPL, a cosmopolitan glamorous league full of international superstars, the vision of English football in the 1970s will be something of a revelation. This was a working class league played before working class fans. The chain-smoking players were playing on pitches with as much mud as grass and where the studs-up foul or well-taken dive was taught and celebrated. Similarly, the film captures pre-Thatcher England as a dank, rundown place where even new buildings look old the day they open.
The Damned United opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday and will expand to more cities in the weeks to come.