Book Review: The Damned United by David Peace

David Peace, The Damned United, Faber and Faber, London, 2006, $23.95

Reviewed by Chris Riordan

David Peace’s THE DAMNED UNITED is a remarkable novel. By dint of its nominal subject, Brian Clough, football manager, and his catastrophic 44 day reign at Leeds United in 1974, it is a sports book. But whilst that in itself, as this site suggests, is a noble and notable genre, this offers far more than a conventional sporting biography or history.

Trying to classify or explain Peace’s effort leads to a mire of contradictions.

Despite the first person narrative, this is no autobiography and probably best fits the “imagining” ethos used by some social historians. Peace attempts to enter the mind of eccentric, tormented Clough and, day by day and in reflection, chronicle his humbling in the bosom of despised Leeds.

The protagonist is an egocentric – “I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in football – I believe in family and I believe in me; Brian Howard Clough” – and perplexing man with an uncanny talent for football and for self-promotion. The language is regional and confronting and the sporting detail is dense. As a diary of the incredible events at Leeds in 1974 it is fascinating. Blended with reminiscences of Clough’s career to that point, it is a sports story of enormous interest and importance.

Yet many of my sports-loving mates would not read this, embedded as they are in a Herald-Sun/Billy Birmingham/Warwick Todd pit. And the subject matter, they’d retort, is British and dated.

The character study and complexity of ideas is worthy of a “Literature” text, yet again I fear my learned colleagues would rally against tackling Clough’s torment in their curriculum. But Peace’s portrayal is Shakespearean as his stream of consciousness uncovers the inner anguish that afflicts Clough and through this he reveals the insecurities and frailties masked by a bombastic exterior and an extraordinary talent.

The plot is pretty straightforward and well known to English Football buffs. In 1974 Brian Clough, mercurial manager at Derby County, took over from the despised (to him) Don Revie as “gaff” at Champions Leeds United, “dirty Leeds”, a Club for which he’d expressed his bile…”You lot may have won all of the domestic honours there are and some of the European ones but, to me…you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by bloody cheating.” Clough’s Leeds were going to win it “better” and the tabloids loved his forthright bluster. But the players and staff still revered “their” Don, the new England manager (another source of envy), and the more confrontational Clough became, the more the season unraveled.

What Peace brings to the story goes way beyond the mono-dimensional sports tale. Our lead actor, as it were, is a classic study of a great public figure facing challenges from within and without. This Clough never recovers from the sudden end to a glittering yet unfulfilled playing career and, rather than seek to simplify the personality, the book draws a range of responses during reading. Clough’s fierce ambition is admirable and understandable in an intensely competitive beast; his playing potential was untapped. This Clough seems embittered and unable to accept others who can’t share his vision and style. He is, probably, jealous of those who got to fulfill their dreams and maybe don’t fully appreciate their fortune. The loyalty that Clough gets from parts of the soccer community is inspiring. His yearning for love and time with his family is touching. His uneven partnership with devoted deputy Peter Taylor is unsettling. The brutal judgment he casts on peers is disturbing and his inner demons seem equally deserved and cruel. Fear and doubt dog “Ol’ Big ‘Ead”. Peace’s character is both larger-than-life and human. Though sections of the book have been challenged, even in the courts, what is certain is that the voice of a flawed genius, Brian Howard Clough, rings eerily true. It is not a happy tale for life can never be that simple.

This is a book you want others to cherish, but it is not for everyone. However, if you love both sport and Literature, it is a “must read”. I was overwhelmed by the scope and quality of the novel and fearful that I could not do it justice in review. The Times described David Peace’s The Damned United as “probably the best novel written about sport”. That’ll do.

Comments

  1. Mic Rees says:

    Love your work Chris.

    Fantastic read. Packed a fair bit into those 44 days. Sad to hear the Clough family were unimpressed with the novel.

    If you haven’t done so already I recommend you pick up “Provided you don’t kiss me” – 20 years with Brian Clough by former Forest beat writer Duncan Hamilton. Perfect companion piece to Damned United.

  2. John Butler says:

    Crio

    You’ve added another one the (ever bulging) must read list.

    Great title on the other book Mic.

  3. Andrew Starkie says:

    Chris,

    I keep hearing about this novel – I must read it.

    I watched the film based on the novel recently and was so intrigued by the tale, I jumped on Youtube and found the original TV interview of Clough and Revie. It was a tantalizing battle of egos. I also found video of Clough leading Forest to the European Cup. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition (favourite word at the moment) of his failure at Leeds and remarkable and unparallelled success elsewhere. I would like to discover the reasons for his success at Forest and why he still commands such great love and loyalty there.

    How can one person polarize people? Those who love him do so absolutely. Those who don’t, don’t. Was he someone who had complete faith in his own abilities, or was he plagued with inner demons as the film suggests. Did Clough fail at Leeds because of the wrong attitude and approach? Was he only there to out do Revie? Is this simply a reminder that if our heart isn’t in something we can’t do it properly? Did Clough see it as his moral duty to ‘save’ the soul of Leeds and football in general?

    Why didn’t Clough coach England? Did his ego get in his way? Did he upset too many people at ‘the top’? An English friend of mine still shakes his head and says, ‘Cloughy shoulda got da top job’.

    I must get mt hands on this novel.

    Thanks Chris

  4. Dave Nadel says:

    I haven’t read the book yet, but also saw the movie – which I thought was very good. I then had a yarn to a friend of mine who comes from outside of Leeds and went to the same school as Peace (although probably not at the same time). According to my mate half the students at his school barracked for Leeds, the other half for Huddersfield. My mate barracked for Leeds but Peace was a Huddersfield man (and therefore hated Leeds)

    My mate thought it was a great book but terribly unfair to Leeds and Revie.

    I always liked Clough because he publically supported the miners during several bitter strikes, but then I don’t know all that much about soccer.

  5. Ian Syson says:

    Dave, then you’ll like Robbie Fowler for similar reasons http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lgq-KPfLGVI

    A great book — a lot of people still refer to Leeds as ‘Dirty Leeds’ because they played a dirty and graceless form of football.

  6. Alovesupreme says:

    My son has been on my back to watch the DVD for some time. I’d appreciate an opinion from any Almanacker familiar with both, as to the optimal order in which to tackle ‘The Damned United” novel or video first.
    Dave, being unfair to Leeds is barely possible; in our context, it’s like being unfair to Colingwood, Carlton, Essendon, accroding to taste and prejudice.
    Andrew, you’d enjoy a possibly apochrypal quote from Cloughy: I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one. After his astonishing achievement at Nottingham Forest, it isn’t a completely outlandish claim, notwithstanding the train wreck at Damned United.
    Crio, quality review.

  7. Thanks. I’ve still not seen the film. Read the book.

  8. Michael Doogan says:

    av read the book,
    av seen the film,
    av been to Europe too..

    I would say watch the film first. I suppose the only difficulty for those not familiar with the place and time is just how dominant and feared Leeds of the time were. It wasn’t that they were dirty its just that a more skillful side (eg Man City, Everton, Man United) couldn’t beat them. The key to their success was ‘possession football’ Liverpool and Arsenal copied it but in the late 70s and 80s

  9. A great review Crio.

    Got my hands on a copy after seeing Martin Flanigan rating it as one of his top sporting books.

    Knew nothing of the history and didn’t even know if Cloughie was real.

    This has now sparked a great interest in the subject. A great excuse to scour the internet for old film clips.

    While reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking of Jock and Terry from The Club.

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