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The Damned Utd

10 February 07 words: James Walker
"In reality, Clough never really had a chance to succeed at Leeds. The legacy of Revie loomed like a beast of prey upon anyone else coming in"
There has been a general transformation in the nature of football-related literature over the past decade which has seen this particular genre grow in stature. Many people will point to Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (1992) as starting this trend by bringing in a new emotional and social dimension to the consumption of sport, but there have been other notable books before and after this which have allowed football to be understood in more legitimate terms.

Without wishing to list them all, standouts include Keane: The Autobiography (2003) which gave an honest account of Roy's feelings towards his contemporaries rather than a dull factual account of matches played. Len Shackleton’s Clown Prince of Soccer (1955) which read more as a football cabaret with a famous blank chapter entitled ‘The Average Directors Knowledge of Football.’ Recently we saw a football atheist, Gary Imlach (2005), dissect the sport with a welcoming detachment which read more as a historical account of class.
To this we can now add David Peace, who has offered up a quite remarkable fictional/factual account of Brian Clough’s infamous 44 days at Leeds and extended the boundaries of this genre into high class literature. Mark my words, when Alex Ferguson dies, a similar account will be penned if it has not already been started (aggressive headstrong Glaswegian with a penchant for horses and fine wine…).

The book is an ambitious project, and for this alone should be commended, although I imagine the reactions towards this iconoclastic account will vary depending upon the prejudices of the reader. Football is a ritualistic tribal culture and fans of Nottingham Forest and Derby will no doubt take offence at what is effectively a damning portrayal of ‘Brian bloody Howard Clough’ as an insecure bigot, a megalomaniac of Gargantuan proportions who craved fame and attention as a means of concealing his own personal failings.

The book flips between fact and fiction, biography and novel, with a narrative which alternates between two different time frames. One is a day-to-day account of Clough’s tenure at windy rainy Leeds. The other traces his career up to the appointment, starting with the shattered knee on Boxing Day 1962 and taking in the various trials and tribulations of his managerial career up that point. The effect is an orgasmic, relentless build up of tension which leaves the reader breathless. This is intensified by a kind of staccato and repetitive prose which works well to build up the tension and reinforce the paranoia of Clough. This is a technique which Peace has deployed in his other works and will not be to everybody’s taste, but personally, I think it works well, as the structure reinforces the content.

Peace (right) has an almost anal attention to detail – the perfect requisite of any biographer - and has dipped in and out of a variety of sources to piece together his muse. From his Tokyo home he may very well be the first ever ‘method writer’, as he envelopes himself in the music, literature and culture of the period before sitting down to write. Somebody who goes to such lengths to present a portrayal does not deserve the kind of negative responses I fear he may receive from the Trent End, and so I would emphasise this book should be read partly tongue in check. Indeed, Peace is not the kind of author one should turn to for comfort.

One classic example of this (and the way in which fact generates fiction and fiction generates fact) is his suggestion that Clough started to wear his infamous green jumper when he found out that green was Don Revie’s unlucky colour. Revie (the previous manager of Leeds) was Clough’s antithesis, with his perceived ‘dirty’ ‘cheating’ style and his dull love of dossiers and routine in preference to Clough’s more relaxed belief in simple beautiful and honest football. It is a clever way of expressing his paranoia and jealousy towards his nemesis, although I doubt this was the case. The green jersey was more of a working class uniform, two fingers up at authority, than a personal insult towards Revie, but had me chuckling all the same.
What it does illustrate, artistic biases aside, is well crafted research to reinforce the author’s point of view and in many ways is as much a portrayal of Revie as it is of Clough. This, rather revealingly, may be why the author opted for the title of ‘The Damned United’ when 44 days would have been perfect, especially given that the titles of his previous books all incorporate numbers within the title (1974, 1977, 1980, 1983, GB84).

Peace is renowned for his dark, unrelentingly bleak subject matter, writing expensively about the Yorkshire Ripper in his Red Riding quartet, police brutality, perversions of justice and corruption during the Miners’ Strike.  These are depressing, violent subjects, alternative histories, which have led him to be described as an occultist author. One thing which drives all of these past projects is the abuses of power by often despotic authority figures, often to the detriment of others. With this in mind I would ask is this a book about Brian Clough or is it the dark manifestations of Peace’s personality projected through Clough. Probably, it is a mix of both.

In reality, Clough never really had a chance to succeed at Leeds. The legacy of Revie loomed like a beast of prey upon anyone else coming in - as it did for Frank Clark when he took over Clough’s reign at Forest in 1992, and will be the case for the poor sod who ends up taking over from Ferguson at Gold Trafford. After years of dossiers and intense opposition analysis, the Leeds players were heavily conditioned into a pre-match routine. When Clough failed to continue this, he left them salivating like despondent Pavlovian dogs. The fact that he was unable to motivate international players as he had done small-time, aging semi-successful players at Derby suggests that he may very well have failed as the England manager, especially given the infrequency of team matches would have afforded little time to adjust to his overt personality. Now there’s a future book…

My only criticism of the book is that I think the verve and personality of Clough has been lost somewhat, as has other aspects of his personality, in favour of a more one-dimensional portrayal. Having said that, it must be remembered that this was a particularly low point in his career and having lost his beloved post at Derby, failed to revive Brighton and seen Revie go on to be named England manager – the post he obsessively coveted, it is believable that more positive aspects of his gregarious personality gave in to a sense of failure and depression.

“Gentlemen, I might as well tell you now, you lot may have won all the domestic honours there are and some of the European ones but, as far as I am concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pans into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you've never won any of them fairly. You've done it all by bloody cheating.”
Brian Clough's introductory speech to the Leeds United squad 

James Walker website
Faber website

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