When Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) takes over as manager of the Leeds United football club in 1974, he seems less interested in preparing them to play and more focused on punishing the team for the sins of its previous coach, his personal bête noire, Don Revie (Colm Meaney).
The Damned United is certainly atypical for a sports biopic, focusing on the period between Clough’s glory years at Derby County and then at Nottingham Forest, his spectacularly unsuccessful 44-day tenure at Leeds United. According to the story, Clough’s obsession with Revie began in 1968 when powerhouse Leeds was the visiting team for a match with Derby. Clough prepares to greet his opposite number as an equal and a colleague, but Revie couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge him. Additionally, Leeds United wins using what Clough regards as dirty tactics.
Rome wasn't built in a day, but I wasn't on that particular job.
From that moment, Clough’s entire existence as a team manager seems to shrink around one goal: beat Leeds United and Don Revie. Under Clough’s management, Derby starts winning and rises to the higher divisions of British football, but the success comes at a price, namely Clough’s relationship with the team’s chairman, Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent). When their conflict comes to a head, Longson calls his manager’s bluff and accepts the resignation that was only meant as a negotiating tactic. Suddenly Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) are out of work. Taylor, who was against the resignation bluff, is not happy at all.
Then England fails to reach the World Cup in 1974, and the national team manager is sacked. The post is offered to Don Revie, leaving the Leeds United job open to be offered to Brian Clough. The new manager seems determined to erase any trace of Revie’s influence from his first moment on the job. His insinuations that the team never won a championship fairly under their previous coach put him on a collision course with the star players, which puts him on a collision course with the team’s ownership. Under Brian Clough, Leeds United gets off to its worst start ever.
Earlier I said, “according to the story.” This movie is based on a fictionalized account of Clough’s tenure in David Peace’s novel, which those closest to Clough say took considerable liberties with the facts. Thus, it’s probably better to judge The Damned United as a drama with a factual backdrop. On that score, it’s a star striker.
Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Clough is the picture of white-hot obsession, monomaniacal and only truly likable because Don Revie comes off as an even bigger asshole. The attention to period detail and the political backdrop of British Premier League football mean that, even if the story isn’t entirely true, it is at least authentic. While not the focus of the film, The Damned United brings you a real sense of how, for the British, football is not a matter of life and death, but something really important. American sports fans can only dream about bringing the same level of passion that Brits hold for their local club.