‘The greatest manager England never had’ were words used to describe the late Brian Clough. A larger than life, mercurial figure with a sharp wit, he was one of the game’s true geniuses.
Clough is best remembered for winning back-to-back European trophies with Nottingham Forest in 1979 and 1980, a feat which has never since been accomplished by a British manager. He also achieved the 1977/78 First Division title and four League Cups with the club. He was awarded an OBE in 1991 for his services to football.
However, alongside his finest achievements was a dark period in his career which took place right here in Yorkshire. For 44 turbulent days, Brian Clough was the manager of one of the county’s football powerhouses, Leeds United.
The story of his infamous time at the club is portrayed in Tom Hooper’s 2009 film The Damned United. The film is an adaptation of David Pearce’s 2006 book of the same title. It boasts a highly talented cast with Michael Sheen taking on the lead role of Brian Clough and supporting stars such as Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Graham.
One of the film’s main themes concerns Clough’s fierce rivalry with his predecessor as Leeds United manager, Don Revie. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Leeds were a footballing force in England: strong, organised and fearless, with exceptional talents such as Billy Bremner, Joe Jordan, and Johnny Giles. Don Revie was seen as one of football’s best minds and most colourful characters, with his smart suits and large overcoats. Revie was the man who stood in Clough’s way on his search for glory and status in the game.
Clough was experiencing his own successes during this period with Derby County. He took them from the Second Division to First Division champions in the 1971/72 season. The film shows Clough as a tough and uncompromising manager who demands the best from both his players and the club board. This, combined with his assistant Peter Taylor’s keen eye for player recruitment, brought unprecedented success to the club.
However, it was the demands he made of the board to gain this success that would eventually be his downfall. In the film, his troubled relationship with club board director Sam Longson (played by Jim Broadbent) is the main focus of this breakdown. Clough’s transfer demands, his open criticism of the directors to the media and his belief that the board lacked ambition are all highlighted.
Nonetheless, Clough taking the Leeds job comes as a surprise, as the film portrays a man disgusted to the point of obsession by a team whom he regards as playing dirty and cheating. One of the film’s stand-out scenes is where Clough takes his first training session and tells the players to ‘chuck your medals in the bin because you won them all by cheating’. Johnny Giles later recalled his disbelief at this incident: “It didn’t make sense. We were the champions and like all players, in every situation, we were committed to doing well. Clough had had his success and whatever he had said about us in the past, we imagined he would be as keen as us for the club to succeed”.
Watch the trailer for The Damned United here:
A possible reason for Clough accepting the job at Leeds, other than to win trophies ‘fairly’ as he saw it, could lie in aspects of Clough’s bold personality. Throughout the film, Sheen masterfully captures the incredible self-confidence verging on egomania of a man who once described himself as the ‘top one’ of football managers.
This kind of self-belief is not necessarily a negative trait to have for those who are involved in sport at the very highest level. Sportsmen new and old, such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Muhammad Ali, have achieved legendary success in their respective fields thanks to their utter obsession with glory and the pursuit of perfection.
Ali himself actually makes an appearance in the film and directs some humorous jibes at Clough: ‘Some fella in London, England named, some Brian… Brian Clough. I heard all the way in America that this fella talks too much. They say he’s another Mohammed Ali. There’s just one Mohammed Ali. Now, Clough, I’ve had enough. Stop it’. Clough, when asked by an interviewer if he was going to ‘Stop it’, with his own sharp and quick wit replies, ‘No, I’m going to fight him!’
The film brilliantly highlights one of the most important aspects of his career and success, which is his relationship with his assistant and friend Peter Taylor. Taylor is played masterfully by Timothy Spall who encapsulates Taylor’s caring and nurturing personality which is combined with a keen footballing brain. It is clear throughout the film and from testimonies of those who knew them that Taylor helped Clough hugely, bringing out his genius whilst at the same time saving him from his personality flaws. “Pete was the only bloke who could stick an arm around my shoulder and tell me – straightforwardly, mate to mate – that I was wrong, or right, or to shut up and just get on with my job.”
It is entirely possible that if Taylor had accompanied Clough to Leeds, the player mutiny, the poor results and the subsequent sacking might not ever have happened or at least not in such an incredibly short period. On the other hand, perhaps even Taylor would have been powerless due to the Leeds players’ fierce loyalty to Don Revie.
Whilst their partnership brought years of glory, there did exist a level of animosity and stark differences between the two friends, which would eventually tear them apart. The film highlights this by showing Taylor as an expert on player development and tactics but a much more modest man and Clough a football genius in his own right but with a never-ending obsession for more success and glory. This clash of personality generates fierce arguments and disagreements. In one scene, when discussing joining Brighton after the fall out with the board at Derby, Taylor snaps and proclaims, ‘That’s the trouble with you, Brian. Too much ambition. Too much greed, too much everything!’.
In the film, the differences between the two are put aside after the debacle at Leeds and many years of domestic and European glory are shared between them. While this is what actually happened, by 1983 after a long and complicated falling out, Clough vowed never to speak to Taylor again. Unfortunately, he kept his word and Taylor died in 1990 without the two ever making up. Full of remorse and guilt, Clough dedicated his autobiography to Taylor saying: “To Peter. Still miss you badly. You once said: ‘When you get shot of me there won’t be as much laughter in your life’. You were right.”
The Clough-Revie rivalry is given new life in the final scenes of the film, in what feels like a parting shot at Revie’s post-Leeds career credibility. His failure as England manager, allegations of financial misdealings and disappearance from the football limelight are all highlighted. As for Clough, the viewer learns of the incredible achievement of turning Nottingham Forest into back-to-back European Cup champions and that famous England manager quote.
Whilst it is true the two careers went in very different directions, the work Revie did at Leeds to make them into such a domestic force should be not understated. He will always be a hero to the Leeds United faithful. As the film itself shows very clearly, Revie’s Leeds team got under Clough’s skin, arguably because of both their tactics and their impressive achievements.
The film wasn’t without controversy. Many of those who were around Clough, including ex-players and members of his family, dispute certain scenes. If we’re being truthful, The Damned United, like Pearce’s book, does deviate from the truth in some scenes for dramatic effect. In fairness, the film has a difficult job of turning the build-up to, events during and the aftermath of one of football’s most dramatic tales into a two-hour film.
For a detailed account of this period, wider research and reading is certainly needed. However, amongst his undeniably impressive European and domestic successes, the film does give the viewer a fascinating insight into a torrid 44 days in the career of one of football’s great geniuses. The performances of Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall as Clough and Taylor are a cinematic delight.
Just like Clough himself, the tale of his career at Leeds United is both complicated and fascinating. The Damned United provides a window into this story, in which his failure at Leeds could very well have provided the catalyst for his later legendary successes.
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Words by Eddie Brickdale