Why has there never been a great film about football? I use the word ‘about’ with caution, since there have been several great films featuring football: Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981), the excellent Iranian drama Offside (2007), Stephen Chow’s deliciously odd Shaolin Soccer (2001) and a host of documentaries, most notable of them the superlative Once In a Lifetime (2006). What I refer to as the paucity of great football movies is more to do with the surprising inability of cinema to arrive at a satisfying fictional representation of the drama of football itself.
The game is filled with a ready-made cast of heroes and villains, full of moments of intense drama and nailbiting suspense, and with a global following of passionately devout supporters, its international language transcends geography and cultural and linguistic differences. And yet, when one examines its cinematic representations, we have the likes of When Saturday Comes (1996), Fever Pitch (1997) and Goal! (2005), which all fail miserably either to convey or to explain the devotion and obsession of those who take part in and follow the world’s most popular sport. Is there something intrinsic in the game which makes this difficult?
The question is at least partially served in considering The Damned United, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by David Peace. The subject of the book, the brilliant and famously outspoken manager Brian Clough, was a divisive character, still loved and loathed in equally great measure by his respective supporters and detractors, and a man whose record of managerial successes hid a life filled with much speculated-about inner demons. Could there be a more compelling subject for a football film?
The film is a fictionalized account of Clough’s famously brief 44-day tenure at Leeds United in 1974, interspersed with flashbacks taking us back to happier and more successful times years earlier at Derby County, where he had taken the then provincial minnows to their first ever League Championship. Though at times the structure is a little inelegant, flitting between these two timeframes allows us to see the differences between his tenures: at Derby commanding fear, respect and admiration in equal measure, yet at Leeds instantly aliented from players, fans and directors alike.
What caused such a change of fortune is at least partially simple. That famous brash cocksure demeanour of his galvanized the smaller club on to great things, but at the more prestigious Yorkshire club, reigning League champions on Clough’s arrival and filled with stars of the England national team, the upstart manager was viewed with suspicion at best, and at worst contempt. The feeling, though, was mutual: Clough despised the club’s reputation as purveyors of violent, ugly football, and appeared to want to change them into a team which entertained rather than bullied their way to the top.
What is central to the book, written as Clough’s internal stream-of-consciousness, is the psychology of the man. Why would he take on this Quixotic task of beautifying an evidently unwilling brute? The answer proves to be complex, but the figure which looms largest in it all is Don Revie. Revie was the Leeds manager from 1961 through to his eventual exit in 1974 in order to take vacant post of England manager. Clough had much in common with him, as he explains in the film: similar working-class upbringing in the industrial North-East, both centre-forwards with brief England careers, and both now experiencing managerial success.
Clough and Revie evidently had much to compare notes on, but as is so often the case it is those who are most similar to each other that end up quarrelling the most. For Clough, the vendetta began when Revie refused to shake his hand after an FA Cup match between their two respective sides, and then jumping back on board the team coach instead of sharing a much anticipated glass of wine with his opposite number. Peace’s Clough seems to have taken this as a major snub, and one which drives his desire for oedipal revenge, in the form of outdoing the achievements of his rival.
All of this is made fairly clear in Tom Hooper’s and screenwriter Peter Morgan’s adaptation of the novel, as it gleefully flits to and fro between timeframes. We can begin to see Clough as one of the first modern managers, in contrast to the older Revie – charming, media savvy, and aware of the importance of psychology and mind-games on the players. Balancing these demands could be tricky: we see his first action as coach is to drive to the television studios to give an interview, even before meeting his new squad, much to their ire. So too do we see a man who was caught between two worlds: born with a working-class desire to prove himself, but working in an increasingly corporate sphere.
What the film misses out though, is the real meat of Peace’s book, which is the urge to self-destruction of its central character: his emotional isolation, his rampant alcoholism, and the internalised demons and fears which seek to drive him to try to undertake the impossible. Instead the film presents a fairly cheery portrait of an avuncular, if misunderstood, genius and one who discovers he needs his footballing muse, assistant Peter Taylor who did not follow him to Leeds, by his side in order to succeed. Their relationship is suggested to be one approaching love, but quite why they were such a winning double act is never really explored.
The film then transforms the more pessimistic and dark tone of the source novel into a more easily digestible piece of middle-of-the-road entertainment. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, making for an easier watch, but the question is whether or not it serves to tell the story more effectively. Ultimately for me, the real interest of the book has been sucked out in order to conform more readily to a disappointingly standard sports film narrative. Clough’s fall from grace becomes inconsequential, and as the film ended detailing Clough’s post-Leeds success at Notttingham Forest, I was left wondering why we had focused on what is portrayed as the most unremarkable period of his career.
The film is not without its deft touches: once again, Michael Sheen makes the transformation into a well-recognized public figure with aplomb, both in terms of vocal and physical mannerisms – i would not put it past him to play anyone from history in any upcoming features. There is too a certain joy in these Post-Life On Mars days of seeing 1970s England faithfully reconstructed: the cars, the awful suits, the less-than athletic-looking players and, inevitably, found footage of Jimmy Hill’s absurd chin/facial hair combination.
As a slice of rose-tinted nostalgia The Damned United entertains for its duration, and Sheen’s central performance alone makes it worth watching. But all-in-all this is yet another football film which fails to convey just why it is a sport which continues to be so intensely followed and argued about the world over. In removing the dark roots of Clough’s obsession, how can anyone believe this to be a sport more important than life and death?