The Damned United15, Nationwide
The Damned United is, I suppose, a football film but if you don’t like football don’t let this put you off. (If you do, I’ll hear about it, and then you’ll be in trouble.) I liked it enormously even though football bores me stiff and I don’t know the first thing about it, although please, please — and I’m begging you here — don’t take this as a cue to get all the condiments out of the cupboard and start explaining the offside rule to me or I shall have to say to you, ‘Put the malt vinegar away, love, before I punch you on the nose. See how my fingers are already forming into a fist?’ The thing you must understand is that when I say there will be trouble, there will be trouble. And noses might get bloodied.
Anyway, it’s based on the book of the same name by David Peace and is about football manager Brian’s Clough’s doomed, disastrous, 44-day sojourn at Leeds United in 1974. OK, I can see that this isn’t going to sell it to the non-footie crowd but stick with me, my dears, stick with me. It’ll pay off in the end, as you know it always does, plus the screenplay is by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and it does star Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon; I know, what are the chances?) who puts in yet another wondrous and compelling performance. It does make you think: is there any real-life person Sheen couldn’t play? OK, I’m guessing Cher would be a stretch, but aside from her?
So what exactly do we have here? Well, we have Clough, who is all quick eyes and quiff, as well as vain, boastful, obsessive, angry and dumb. That said, though, he is also funny, smart, proud, vulnerable and fearless. I’ll say this for what I now know about Brian Clough: he was extremely extreme. And we also have his trusty assistant, Peter Taylor, as played loveably by the loveable Timothy Spall. People say Spall is nothing like Taylor but, as I don’t know a thing about Taylor, I can simply enjoy Spall. There has been much fretting about the authenticity of this film — he didn’t look like that!; he’d never have done that!; Billy Bremner (who he?) didn’t have four chins! — but if you don’t know anything then you can’t be tormented. At the press screening I bumped into Rod Liddle of this parish who was infuriated by this detail not being right and that detail not being right and you know what? I laughed in his face! And then happily waltzed off! Man, I’m telling you: complete ignorance has to be the way forward.
The film’s main focus is on the relationship between Clough and Taylor who need each other, and love each other in their way, but whose sporting marriage is torn apart by Clough’s absolute determination to better his nemesis, the manager Don Revie, whom he replaced at Leeds. On first meeting the Leeds team Clough tells them they are all violent thugs and it’s all pretty much downhill from there. There is a player called Billy Bremner who is not nice at all and, if he didn’t have four chins and shockingly bad hair then, I am glad he has them now.
The film, as directed by Tom Hooper, moves along crisply with, mercifully, very little on-pitch football and many beautifully crafted, touching moments that may be sharply observed but then may not be, as how would I know? There is a particularly moving, staring-into-the-abyss scene which involves Clough making a late-night, whisky-sodden phone call to Revie, which now I think about it, also happened in Frost/Nixon (although Nixon called Frost, not Revie). And there is a ton of Seventies nostalgia: the cars; the hair-dos; the package holidays; the pre-polyester football kits and, of course, many things are brown. The Seventies were a particularly brown decade. Some might think there is too much of this but I rather enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed the ashtrays being laid out for the players for half-time, plus the moment when a club chairman gasps, ‘You can’t pay a footballer £300 a week!’ (My son now tells me there is player called Robinho who now earns £150,000 a week. Can this be true? Or is he lying to me, like he does about having washed up his cereal bowl which I later find it hidden in the oven?)
Like The Queen, The Damned United isn’t easy to define. It is what it is and while not exactly cinematic — it could just as easily have been made for telly — it is always skilled and absorbing and does give you a sense of the emotional toil football takes. I liked it, and liked it a lot. Certainly, I liked it a lot better than being asked to imagine that the vinegar is the goalie and the salt cellar is the striker, which I do not like at all. Never have done, never will.