A tale of ego, friendship, revenge and football.
Football is regularly called a game of two halves. It is this sort of oversimplification that might make you believe that the game consists of ninety minutes of sweaty men shouting and kicking a ball as hard as possible, and ostensibly this is true. The damned united presents a lesser known side of the game, a side which consists of personal pride, of friendships strained by ambition and of the pressure of performance. The drama of sport is often what brings it’s fans so much joy, and here we are given the chance to see the high’s of success and the trough’s of failure so often displayed on the field, represented behind the scenes.
The film tells the story of Brian Clough ( Michael Sheen), a prolific young football manager beginning his tenure at second division Derby County alongside his partner and best friend Peter Taylor ( Timothy Spall). Told across two time lines, the earlier of which (1968 – 1972) concerns Clough and Taylors meteoric rise to success with a previously ailing and never before successful Derby County while the second time line (1972 – 1974) deals with Cloughs attempt to supersede his nemesis (and the clubs previous manager) by taking over Leeds United as manager. Clough is driven throughout the film by a desire to overcome the dynasty established by his once hero, now rival Don Revie ( Colm Meaney) whose success antagonises Clough, inspiring both great achievement and destructive avarice within him. While it is this avarice which provides the catalyst for the Damned United’s plot (which was transcribed from the book of the same name which in turn was a somewhat embellished adaption of real life events), the real story lies within the relationship between Clough and Taylor.
We first meet the duo, standing shoulder to shoulder attempting to build the faltering Derby County from the ground up into a successful team despite budgetary issues, a history of failure and a less than enthusiastic club chairman who regularly clashes with the overtly confident Clough. The relationship is genuinely heartwarming, and you are left with the sense that these are two men with a genuine connection forged through the poverty and hardship of their era, and the difficult task which they share. The relationship vacillates with the changing timelines, in the earlier they are shown as close friends, while in the latter Clough’s avarice has separated them and they have become tragically distant.
Both actors fabricate a convincing friendship, which is amusing and close when it has to be as well as distant yet remorseful when the plot demands it. However considering all of the solid performances throughout, special mention has to go to Michael Sheen, who upon comparison to his real life counterpart is almost a carbon copy of the gifted and megalomaniacal Clough. Much of this has to be put down to Sheens inherent similarity to Clough (and Sheen has a tendency to find parts based on real life figures to whom he is almost genetically identical) but the flair he brings to the role is appreciated against the occasionally drab backgrounds of 1970’s England. While Clough retains the focus of the film for most of the running time, casting of secondary characters is fairly solid throughout although more astute followers of the game (a category which I do not figure into) may be perturbed by the fact that some of the casting of the football players in the film (particularly the Leeds players) are somewhat incongruous with their real life persona’s (notably Billy Bremner, a prolific Scottish international player being portrayed by an English actor). While for the casual observer these details are unlikely to stand out, many members of the audience can be expected to be familiar with this era and these players and the fact that the film falls down in this area will likely be disappointing for these viewers.
The film’s aesthetic does a commendable job of making rather drab 1970’s England seem much more stylised than it might otherwise appear, and in an era defined by bad hair, poverty, unfit football players and disco the film somehow paints an engaging visual style which enlivens the story beyond what may seem like a tedious affair for those who like neither football nor the period (among whom I would count myself). The hyper stylised football sequences make the action of the game much more exciting for the audience, some even being evocative of the battle scenes in 300 played with more realism and verve.
While the concept of a film about the inner workings of football teams in 1970’s rural England may seem like a dull proposition, the Damned United offers a much more embellished and entertaining insight into the trials and inspiration’s behind “the best manager the English national side never had”.