This film, about a collection of character flaws in an English football manager, may have a tough row to hoe in America, but “The Damned United” isn’t at all about the game. Central character Brian Clough (Michael Sheen, “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans”) could coach the chess team and he’d be the same guy.
Based on a fictionalized book about actual events and people, the movie explains the debacle of Clough’s short term as manager of England’s top football team, Leeds United “ the sport’s New York Yankees.
Clough and his assistant manager and close friend, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”) are coaching Derby County, the team in the lowest position of the second tier in the late 1960s when they are forced to play against Leeds, No. 1 at the top of the first.
Clough quickly learns to despise the Leeds manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney, “Law Abiding Citizen”), who not only coaches his players to use dirty tactics but, after the game, ignores Clough and refuses to shake his hand.
Later in the film, when Clough relates this incident, incredulity clouds the faces of the sportsmen who hear it, as if they can’t believe a withheld handshake could be remembered so many years later.
Clough and Taylor are a great team. Clough coaches and Taylor is the best talent-spotter in the game, and soon they take Derby into the top tier and actually bypass Leeds. Then, in the early 1970s, Revie leaves Leeds to take the job of managing the English National Team for international play.
Clough, who has a sarcastic sense of humor and a complete inability to watch what he says to the press, has angered Derby’s owner (Jim Broadbent, “Inkheart”) and been sacked. Unfortunately, his anger has taken Taylor down with him.
The two of them have reluctantly signed a contract with another losing team, Bristol, when Clough is surprisingly offered the job replacing Revie at Leeds. He jumps at the chance, but Taylor prefers to honor the deal he made with Bristol. The two separate over harsh words.
Before he even meets his new team, Clough mouths off to Yorkshire Television about how dirty they played under Revie and how he is going to make clean-cut and lovable champions out of them. “No, I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in England,” he tells the TV interviewer, “but I am in the top one.”
We see footage of Muhammad Ali warning Clough that there can only be one smart mouth in sports, and Ali already has the position. When asked how he intends to respond, Clough joking replies, “I’ll have to fight him.”
It’s legendary in British football that this nice-looking, expert, charismatic man took over at Leeds and lasted a mere 44 days on the job before being sacked. His team lost every game they played under him. The players hated him and remained loyal to Revie. They saw no reason to change their way of doing things because they were perennial winners, and Clough insisted that they become his team and not Revie’s leftovers.
Remember when Howard Schnellenberger came to the University of Oklahoma?
Accompanying Clough’s positive and attractive qualities were the negative and repellent ones. He was ambitious, arrogant and smug. He held grudges and allowed them to fog his better judgment. He was a credit hog and was so sure of his position in every argument, he couldn’t imagine his friend Taylor disagreeing with him.
In actual newsreel footage, we see the two men in happier times, chatting with reporters. When someone asks Taylor if Clough ever lets him talk for himself, Taylor quips, “Not in public.”
Sheen and Spall work together as well as Clough and Taylor must have. They are total opposites “ Sheen is young, handsome and slick, while Spall is middle-aged, dumpy and rumpled. They are both superb actors and here make nice visual counterparts.
Broadbent is wasted in a role that demands nothing more than ill temper and the ability to smoke a cigar convincingly. Meaney is excellent as Revie, a man who appears to be just one of the guys in the fraternity of sports, but whom we suspect from the beginning is hiding his true nature. An afterword tells us how right we are.
Directed by Tom Hooper (TV’s “John Adams”) and written by Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”), “The Damned United” is a compelling drama about the fine art of shooting oneself in the football.