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The Damned United (2009)

WARNING: BRI-ISH SPOILERS

“The Damned United” is the third time in the last three years that Michael Sheen has starred in a movie written by Peter Morgan, and it goes something like this. His job is to play a fairly decent, somewhat intellectual and usually vainglorious man on the rise (Tony Blair in “The Queen,” David Frost in “Frost/Nixon” and Brian Clough here) who butts heads with established power (Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon, Don Revie/Leeds United) and winds up bruised. The confident eyes become lost, the telegenic smile turns frozen and embarrassed, and he loses his way. Basically he starts out American and becomes British. But only by becoming British (that is, embarrassed) can he overcome what he needs to overcome (the American part) to be successful.

I thought of this at the end of “The Damned United.” Clough struggles throughout the movie but before the credits we’re told he went on to manage Nottingham Forest, where they won unprecedented back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980; now he’s considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, manager in football history. Immediate thought: Why didn’t we watch that? Immediate guess: Because there would be less drama? Secondary guess: Or because it would be less British?

This movie is totally British. It starts out in 1974 when Don Revie (Colm Meany) leaves the all-powerful Leeds United professional football team to manage...England? In some European-y thing? We don’t have anything like that in American sports. The closest is the Olympics or the World Baseball Classic, which are off-season, irregular gigs, not permanent gigs like this one.

Clough is tapped to replace him. Apparently he had success elsewhere. Apparently he doesn’t think much of Revie or Revie’s style of play, which is brutal and suspect, and he says so on the telly. “Football is a beautiful game,” he says, “and it needs to be played beautifully.” He battles with the players—who loved Revie and his dirty style of play—and he battles with the board, who want him to shut up already. A key moment comes early. Clough, in a conference room with the board, points at Revie’s photo on the wall and says his goal is to make Leeds United so all-powerful that it’ll wipe away the years of success Revie had with the club. He wants to make Revie look like a piker. He wants to make him irrelevant.

I kept translating it all into American. OK, so Revie’s like John Madden and Leeds is like the Oakland Raiders, except more successful than those bastards ever were. Maybe like the ’70s Yankees? The Bronx Zoo? But who’s Clough then? Billy Martin? A little. But Clough feels less working class, and certainly less crazy and combative, than Martin. Clough takes shit from his players. They physically hurt him.

At the same time there’s an advantage to watching this as an American. Since it’s all new, you have no idea how it will turn out. The disadvantage is you don’t know how it began. Why does Clough hate Revie so?

Then the movie tells us. We go back to 1967 when Clough and his assistant, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), managed Derby (pronounced “Darby”), a team at the bottom of the second division. (Leeds was at the top of the first division.)

Through some kind of lottery system, Leeds winds up playing a match with Derby, in Derby, and Clough preps the stadium as much as his team. He makes sure the crew repaints this and that, and cleans here and there. He scrubs the hallway floor himself. He places oranges on the towels for the players, and breaks out a good bottle of wine and two wine glasses in anticipation of sharing it with Revie. Then Leeds rolls into town, rolls over Derby, and leaves. No wine is shared. Revie doesn’t even shake hands with Clough after the match. A fire is lit. He’s like a spurned lover. Now he wants to win.

With Taylor as his source for talent, and going over the head of his board of directors, he assembles a good football team and they rise in the rankings and make the jump to first division. They lose again to Leeds, but he buys even better players and they rise further and beat Leeds, both in a match and in the division. They come out on top! Which means what? Are there playoffs?

The more successful he gets, though, the mouthier he gets, and the more trouble he has with the board. “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the country,” he says, “but I am among the top one.” Muhammad Ali, via footage, warns him to shut up, that only he is the greatest and mouthiest. Such scenes are interspersed with the present (1974), where Leeds plays far from beautifully and keeps losing. Clough is without Taylor, his source and his brain, and we intimate something disastrous happened between them. Eventually, after only six weeks, with Leeds near the bottom of Division I, their worst start in 15 years, Clough is fired. Afterwards he goes on a British TV show expecting kid gloves, but is seated next to Revie and they have it out. He comes off as the sad, spurned lover, and Revie gets in the last harsh word. Except Clough warns him fortunes may change. “Let’s see where we are in a year’s time,” he says. “Let’s see where we are in five years’ time.” It feels hollow, a desperate lunge, but it turns out to be amazingly prescient, since, in five years’ time, Clough will have won the European Cup with Nottingham while Revie, having left England to manage, of all teams, United Arab Emirates, will be banned from the sport.

In this way, Clough’s prescient warning to Revie is reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth’s prescient warning to Tony Blair: “You saw all those [negative] headlines and you thought: ‘One day that might happen to me.’” the Queen says. “And it will, Mr. Blair. Quite suddenly and without warning.” As it did. But that scene worked. It works less well here. Maybe because it worked so well there? Put another way: Peter Morgan needs to stop predicting the future from the past.

No, that’s not it. It worked well there because the Queen wasn’t so much predicting the future as presenting the universal. Even the best leaders misstep, and when they do the press will be on them. That’s the way of leaders and the way of the media. But where you and I will be in five years’ time? That’s unknowable.

“The Damned United” does a lot of things right—from Colm Meany’s hair (a masterpiece of 1974 coiffure) to its startling efficient method of detailing some of the lesser matches (the sound of cheers, a giant moan, and then flashing the final, sad score). The colors often look washed out, as in photos of the era, and the walls of every other room are half-covered in wood-paneling.

I particularly love one shot. It’s the big fight between Clough and Taylor in ’73, after they’ve left Derby amid controversy and signed on with Brighton. Then comes the offer from Leeds. It starts out amusing. “What do we care about Brighton?” Clough says. “Bloody southerners. Looks where we are. We’re almost in France!” Indeed, they’re on a dock at the beach. But as they continue to argue, things get nasty. Taylor accuses Clough of too much ambition, Clough accuses Taylor of too little. He disrespects Taylor’s role in his own rise. He says he’s nothing. Nothing. He calls him history’s fucking afterthought. The camera then cuts to a long shot of the two men on the dock, seen at the bottom of the screen, and they’re both on the left side. Taylor storms off, exiting stage right, with Clough following to get in his last, nasty words. Then he retreats back to the left. Then you see him beginning to regret what he’d said and tries to call Taylor back, but it’s too late. He’s just a lone man on the left side of a long dock.

Here’s what the movie does wrong: I don’t get what makes Brian Clough a good coach. He buys better players from other teams, and he works them hard, but if there’s more to it we don’t see it here. I also don’t believe that his monumental drive to succeed was borne of Revie’s refusal to shake his hand. It feels prissy and belittling.

Still, “The Damned United” is a fun movie, better than those forgettable American sports movies released every January: about the underdog, misfit team that no one thought... but with the can-do coach... and the montage... and the rise... and the last-minute shot. I’m no soccer fan, but standing up during the credits I realized its 97 minutes went by like that. There was never a moment when I wasn’t interested. I just wish it meant more. Brian Clough learns his lesson about hubris but the lesson should’ve gone deeper. He was right what he said to Taylor, but he should’ve included himself, not to mention you and me, in the charge. We’re all history’s fucking afterthought.

—November 6, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard