The Damned United

Director    Tom Hooper
Starring    Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney
Release    20 MAR (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


30th March 2009

Back when the pitches were unkempt mud puddles, the wages were low, the shorts were high, the players were British (and Irish) chubby boozers and smokers, and the football was a proper contact sport with fists flying all over the shop. Before such things as 'transfer windows', David Beckham, and the concept of 'foreign' players, football was a man's game, and Brian Clough reigned supreme.

Based on the controversial book by David Peace, The Damned United is a fictionalised account of Brian Clough's ill-fated 44-day tenure as Leeds United gaffer. You know what fictionalised means don't you? Some of what you see on screen either never happened, or it's exaggerated beyond belief - hence why the Clough family aren't very impressed. However, Michael Sheen reunites for the third time with The Queen and Frost/Nixon writer, Peter Morgan, to take on yet another icon of the British Empire.

Beginning in 1974 when Clough became, was, and then subsequently sacked as Leeds boss, the story flips back to the late 1960's where we watch as he turns Derby County from a lowly, and pretty shit, 2nd Division team into Champions of England, riding high at the top of Division One, battling it out with rivals Leeds and playing European football. We also discover why he has such a public dislike towards Leeds United, their aggressive players, their dirty tactics and arrogant manager, Don Revie. It's a brilliant antithesis - the highs with Derby County to the lows endeavoured with Leeds United.

Just like he did in The Queen and Frost/Nixon, Sheen embodies the role of his subject fantastically without resorting to cheap impersonations. Uniquely, he's not making biographies; he's giving snippets of insight into their lives. Tony Blair in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death, David Frost interrogating Richard Nixon, and now, Brian Clough's rocky time as Leeds manager.

The chemistry between Sheen and the brilliantly-cast Timothy Spall as Peter Taylor however, is really something to behold. Hugging, kissing (on the cheek, they're not gay) telling each other how much they love each other. Hell, Taylor even feeds Clough crisps as they drive down to London! Brilliantly though, this illustrates the closeness of the two men and how much they need each other professionally. As a partnership, they were unstoppable and had great success at Hartlepool, Derby County and Nottingham Forest. But by themselves, they were nothing - Leeds United being the prime example.

Brian Clough's very vocal and public dislike for Don Revie throughout the film climaxes with their on-air argument on Yorkshire TV, shortly after Clough had lost the Leeds gig and Revie was settling into the England job. Reminiscent of Frost/Nixon, you feel Clough is finally getting something off his chest that's been there for six years. However, the scene of Clough belittle his newly-inherited Leeds team, still reeling from the loss of Revie, is a particular highlight. Instead of encouraging them or apologising for what he's said about them in the past, he tell them to throw their 'medals, cap and pots and pans in the nearest fucking dustbin' because they got them all by cheating. It's easy to see why he didn't last very long.

Whether you're a football fan or not, it'll be hard not to be enthralled by this rare little peek into the backstage politics of professional football, as we watch the only black mark on the CV of one of Britain's finest football icons unravel. Like the film states, Brian Clough is the most successful manager England never had. Too true. It's just a shame they didn't include Clough calling Juventus 'cheating bastards' and questioned the Italian's courage in The Second World War after Derby lost to them. Football's just not the same these days. What do we have? Joe Kinnear swearing at a Daily Mirror journalist. Big whoop.

More:  Drama  Sport  Football
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