The Damned United is a sports-drama based partly on facts surrounding the meteoric rise and subsequent fall of the outspoken but gifted football manager Brian Clough. We follow Glough (Michael Sheen) back and forth from the late 1960s to 1974 beginning with his and Assistant Manager Peter Taylor’s (Timothy Spall) triumph in taking lowly Derby County from the bottom of the second division to national champions. This remarkable feat is spliced with events several years later when in 1974 Clough, without Taylor as his Assistant, took over the job of managing Leeds Utd, then the dominant force in English football. Clough’s time in charge of the club was to last just 44 days and this film portrays what happened during that turbulent month and a half as well as the years that preceded it.
The accuracy of the film’s ‘facts’ is open for debate with family members and players who knew Clough claiming that the portrayal of events are inaccurate but what can’t be denied is that Michael Sheen pulls off yet another pitch perfect performance in a film that is a fascinating watch for a football fan and a great story for someone who is not.
Personally I’m not much of a football fan these days having fallen out of love with the game in my early twenties but most of the main characters were known to me in at least name. The likes of Leeds Captain Billy Bremner (Stephen Graham), Peter Taylor and Don Revie (Colm Meaney) were all people who I was aware of before the film but it was only the central character of Clough that I really knew much about. This was partly due to the fame and success of his later career and partly because I was at University in the East Midlands at the time he died, not far from the two clubs with whom he was most successful. What the film uncovers and displays are great characters and though some scenes and actions may be embellished or made up entirely, the characters and storyline are captivating. Even today, thirty years after Brian Clough’s most successful era he is still remembered as much for his outspoken personality as his sporting success and it is the former which the film focuses on.
There are few characters that come out of the film with much credit. Clough as the central character is not given an easy ride and his faults and flaws are put on full display. It is often his right hand man Peter Taylor who brings these to the fore and provides warnings which go unheeded as Clough sails headfirst for trouble on more than one occasion. Leeds Captain Billy Bremner comes out looking like a right c!unt but I couldn’t say how much of the real man was in Stephen Graham’s performance. Don Revie, the ex Leeds Manager with whom Clough has a huge rivalry also ends up looking a bit of a smug twat despite his big rival being one of the smuggest men in football history. Still a long way behind Jose Mourinho mind…
The period detail is pretty good with interiors, cars and clothes all fitting the period perfectly. The standard of football pitches, more mud than grass, is also well represented, as is the standard of 70s football which was often more like wrestling that anything else. One area the film isn’t so successful at is in showing the actual matches. It is never convincing but luckily a lot of the actual playing is bypassed in favour of a more dramatic score line appearing at the bottom of the screen after a speech from Clough before the match. When we do see match action a lot of the time the camera is on the bench anyway so we see less football than in most football films. Something else that is pretty authentic are the football kits, length of shorts and hairstyles. They all look very 1970s, as does the half time cigarette. It’s actually quite funny to see half time oranges sat next to half time ashtrays.
In the end The Damned United is a solid sporting drama about one man’s unrelenting drive to usurp another. The story is quite entertaining and interesting although it probably helps to have at least a passing interest in football. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film but it features a great Michael Sheen performance and several other decent ones and is a good attempt at depicting one of the all time great characters.