44 days. It’s not a long to be in a job, is it. Imagine that job being one of the most high profile jobs in England at the time of appointment. The Damned United is the story of the Brian Clough’s short spell as manager of Leeds United Football Club. Clough was sacked 44 days into his reign, almost a Shakespearean tragedy in footballing terms.
The outspoken Clough, now widely regarded as an English footballing legend, took over the reins from direct rival Don Revie. This film follows not only the story of Clough in those ‘damned’ 44 days, but also his journey to those heady heights from the lowest ranks of English football. It’s a story that is legendary amongst English football fans, not only because it seems crazy now, but because of the enigmatic character of Brian Clough himself and the lack of a comparable figure ever since. Clough, who famously said of himself, “I wouldn’t say I’m the best manager in the business, but I’m in the top one”, informed his new players that they were a bunch of cheating hooligans and that he was going to teach them how to win properly. Leeds United were champions of England under Don Revie but had an unsavoury reputation.
Clough hated Leeds boss Don Revie, because he believed Revie looked down on him. When Clough was manager of Derby (then in Division 2), 6 years prior to Clough’s rein at Leeds, Don Revie brought his famous Leeds team to town for a cup game and neglected Clough’s handshake after the match. Director Tom Hooper anchors the story around this and paints Don Revie as the villain to our flawed hero Clough. The dual storytelling of Clough’s stint at Leeds and his journey in getting there make for an intriguing character study of this sporting heavyweight and his bitter rival.
It takes a certain kind of talent to portray such an enigmatic figure, but Michael Sheen all but disappears into Brian Clough for this role. Without any prosthetics or major changes to his physical appearance to hide behind, Sheen portrays Clough’s infuriating yet irresistible arrogance through subtle gestures and a careful delivery of Peter Morgan’s witty script.
The supporting cast of Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent and Colm Meaney enrich the film with authenticity. As Don Revie, Peter Taylor (Clough’s faithful no.2) and Sam Longston (the chairman of Derby) they all contribute to the making of the man and the manager Brian Clough. As good as Sheen is in his role, this is a film that really is the sum of its parts. Hooper’s camera work is calm and the editing is sharp. In every sense, we are invited to peer into this story and into the characters’ lives for 98 minutes.
Ben Smithard’s use of cinematography is wonderfully subtle in washing every scene with a sepia-like tone. The painting of browns and greys give it a grainy, 1970s feel. The sense of ‘the beautiful game’ in and amongst the grit of the Yorkshire working class is effective in depicting the romantic view that so many have of English football.
The Damned United is a fascinating watch for any football fan. It’s unlike most typical sports films in that there is no happy ending - no cliched triumph against the odds - but this is hardly the point. ‘The Damned United’ is undeniably biased and arguably far from historically accurate, but this doesn’t diminish its interest. It’s also not exactly a biopic, but rather a snapshot view of one of the most compelling managers to ever grace the dugout.
Rating - 8/10
Reviewed and written by Dave Howarth