Wednesday 22 December 2010

Movie Review: The Damned United (2009)

The wrong person, for the wrong job, at the wrong time.  The outcome is one the shortest management tenures in English football history, as Brian Clough was hired and then fired 44 days later by Leeds United in 1974.

The Damned United benefits from Michael Sheen's engrossing performance as Clough, and director Tom Hooper captures the essence of English football that drives managers, coaches, and owners to sacrifice any semblance of normal life for a shot at potential glory on muddy pitches under gloomy skies every Saturday afternoon.  Based on the book by David Peace, the film peeks into the football boardrooms, dressing rooms, and training fields where the roots of success or failure are planted.

The Damned United alternates between Clough's time at Leeds in 1974 with the story of his earlier, incredible success at Derby County between 1967 and 1973.  With his assistant Peter Taylor, Clough took Derby from the bottom of the Second Division to the English League First Division title and the semi-final of the European Cup.  The Damned United provides glimpses of what made the Clough / Taylor partnership so effective: Clough identifying exactly what type of player the team lacks; Taylor going out and finding the perfect player who would be the missing piece in the jigsaw; Clough finding a way to sign the player, often by going behind the wishes of his Chairman.

The film portrays Clough's success at Derby, perhaps simplistically, as driven by an obsession to prove himself better that Leeds manager Don Revie, and a hatred for everything that Leeds stood for. Revie had built Leeds into an all-conquering dynasty as the most successful, arrogant and brutally physical club side in England.

The Damned United also emphasizes Clough's personality and ego at the expense of demonstrating his footballing genius. There are plenty of scenes where he shoots off his mouth and leaves no doubt about how highly he thinks of himself; there are hardly any scenes revealing how he brought the best out of his players, or tactically outwitted his opponents.

Clough's big mouth and massive ego ensure that he burns all his bridges at Derby, and he temporarily also manages to destroy his relationship with Taylor. This does not stop Leeds from approaching Clough to replace Revie when the latter accepts the job as manager of England. Clough takes control at the club that he has always hated, and proceeds to say and do everything in absolutely the wrong way, immediately alienating his star-studded squad and undermining the team's playing style and spirit. After a miserable start to the 1974-75 season, Clough is unceremoniously dumped by the Leeds Board of Directors.

Clough's time at Leeds United was the chastening he needed to sort out his faults, re-group, and proceed to his subsequent greatest success, taking Nottingham Forest from the Second Division to double European Cup champions between 1975 and 1980, after he learned some humility and repaired his relationship with Taylor. Brian Clough may have failed at Leeds, but in his damnation lay the seeds of his greatest triumphs.

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