Thursday, 5 May 2011

Goals On Film - The Damned United

You thought The Damned United was all about football didn't you? Well, you were wrong, it's a love story. Or rather it's the story of how that love - a marriage, if you will - is taken to the edge of destruction by one man's jealous obsession. That's the cliché the filmmakers would have you believe, anyway.

The man is, of course, Old Big 'Ead himself Brian Clough and the film, based on David Peace's novel of the same name, purports to tell the story of his 44 fateful days in charge of Leeds United in 1974. Yet, that is merely a backdrop to the central relationship between Clough and his long-time colleague Peter Taylor.

We're getting married in the morning.

Screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also wrote The Queen, is unequivocal on the issue, saying that in adapting the novel he wanted to construct the film as "a marriage and infidelity story". In essence Clough jeapardises his marriage to his 'wife' (Taylor) because he wanted to sleep with the 'wife' (Leeds United) of the person he most wanted to hurt, the film's other main character - Don Revie.

This narrative - just in case it's not obvious - slaps you in the face throughout the film. It's emphasised at the very start when Clough appears on Yorkshire TV before arriving at Elland Road and the interviewer compares him to a step-father replacing Revie's father figure.

There is a level of physical intimacy between Clough (played by Michael Sheen) and Taylor (played by Timothy Spall). On several occasions Clough kisses Taylor (but let's face it, who didn't Clough kiss?), they feed each other sweets and when they are celebrating winning the Second Division title with Derby County, Clough sings Love and Marriage before asking Taylor - not his wife, who is present - to dance.

Eventually, the pair fall out after Clough's actions lead to them being sacked by Derby (thus disrupting their matrimonial bliss - as Taylor says: "I was happy here. We both were.")

Clough also reneges on a deal to join Brighton and so joins Leeds alone, but it quickly becomes apparent that Clough is struggling in Yorkshire without his partner. Life with Revie's ex (Leeds) and his kids (the Leeds players) ain't so great.

He makes a plaintive phone call imploring Taylor to rejoin him (take him back), but his former partner responds coldly: "It's too late. We're on our own now remember? I think it would be better if you don't ring here again." Ouch...

However,  following Clough's sacking (he was just a rebound shag after all) he convinces Taylor to rejoin him. "I love you, you know?" he says as the pair hug each other. "I know," come the reply, "But you'll only fuck it up again."  And so, his wife takes him back.

You can't fault the film for it's nostalgic feel. The era is lovingly recreated with Chesterfield's Saltergate standing in for Derby's Baseball Ground and Elland Road looking scarily not much different. Michael Sheen, breaking away from his Tony Blair and Blair-lite David Frost performances, is perfect as Clough as is Colm Meaney as Revie.

Watch the film then Google the real-life Yorkshire TV face-off between the pair, which came just after Clough's sacking - they're incredibly similar. (And then ask yourself why we'll never see Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish arguing the toss on Granada these days.)

While this is all well and good, the film is also riddled with inaccuracies and so like the book, which was criticised both by Clough's family and some ex-Leeds players for playing fast and loose with the truth, it's merit is, in my mind, devalued.

The film's portrayal of Clough's pulling out of the Brighton deal is simply not true. In reality, Taylor and Clough joined Brighton together and it was eight months before Clough joined Leeds. Taylor did stay on the south coast and spent two successful years at Brighton before they were reunited at Nottingham Forest (where Clough spent his first season on his own).

Another scene shows Leeds players, still managed by Revie, deliberately injuring Derby players, managed by Clough, to undermine their chances of beating Juventus in their next game in the European Cup semi final. Again, not true; the teams met more than a month before the Juventus game and in between times Derby successfully negotiated their European Cup quarter-final with Spartak Trnava.

Finally, as the film ends we are told that Clough and Taylor won the title and two European Cups with Forest and that while Revie failed as the national boss, Clough was "the greatest manager England never had". Perhaps he was, we'll never know, but that does Revie a great disservice. In domestic terms his record is at least on a par with Clough's as he picked up two titles, two UEFA Cups, an FA Cup and a League Cup. But let's not mention them when we want to make someone a hero and someone a villain.

How a film can be based on lives of real people, yet get such simple but important details wrong is beyond me, all the more so when the reality is such a powerful story itself. Perhaps the reason is the film is essentially a love letter to Clough from the filmmakers and that love has blinded them.

Last Goals on Film: Zidane: Un Portrait du 21e Siècle

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