A practical people, Americans do not like to sit on their hands, which is why the sport that is, hands down, the national passion of Germany, Brazil, and Mexico barely registers in the United States. “If God had wanted man to play soccer,” declared Mike Ditka, who played and coached in the game Americans inaccurately call football, “he wouldn’t have given us arms.” American arms secured independence from Great Britain, and a film about a legendary English football figure is likely to be as popular in Texas as a biopic about Casey Stengel or Vince Lombardi would be in Yorkshire.
However, The Damned United, whose title is a cry of exasperation over Leeds United, one of the legendary franchises in English football, is not just for Anglophiles and aficionados. Without indulging in much match footage, it portrays the career of Brian Clough, a cocky young manager who, 44 days into the 1974 season, after Leeds’s worst start in 20 years, was summarily sacked. “There’s no point in being in this game unless you want to be the best,” Clough tells the parsimonious owner of Derby County, the team he previously lifts out of obscurity into triumph. But berating his own players as cheaters when he first shows up at Leeds is not the way to be the best.
Clough is possessed by what his assistant calls “mad ambition.” In the film that director Tom Hooper adapted from David Peace’s nonfiction novel, Clough is a man driven by ambition, vanity, and enmity. The vanity is his conviction that he is the greatest manager in English football, and the enmity is toward his successful and popular predecessor at Leeds, Don Revie (Meaney). Smarting from being slighted by the older man, Clough is determined to do everything he can to make people forget who Revie is. What he does makes a bollocks out of a winning team. Hooper frequently cuts from 1974, the year of Clough’s disastrous stint with Leeds, to earlier episodes in a sporting life.
Michael Sheen has made a specialty of impersonating public figures — Tony Blair in The Queen and again in the forthcoming The Special Relationship, David Frost in Frost/Nixon. The Brian Clough he inhabits in The Damned United is both a bungling, preening fop and a cunning, savvy sportsman. Yet he can, in a rare moment of introspection, credibly declare that: “I’m a warm man, an idealist, and I believe in fairies.” I believe that this is not exactly an accurate portrait of Clough, but it is a winning one. This is a guy’s flick, in which women — wives, daughters, fans — are at most faint presences. Yet it is also in the end a love story. Clough learns that the only attachment more important than one he has to himself is his friendship with his indispensable assistant, Peter Taylor (Spall). In their dedication to winning a championship, the two men are damned well united. — Steven G. Kellman