By Will Wood
Football films generally face a fair amount of criticism, be it for the static action scenes or the idealised take on the world’s most beautiful game, but The Damned United offers something different.
The on-field action chronicles one of the most intriguing periods in English football. Leeds United, then the dominant force under the stewardship of Don Revie, are placed alongside Brian Clough’s Derby County before the two collide. The tensions between the two – that reach fever pitch when Clough takes Revie’s seat at Elland Road – underpin the narrative.
Crucially, it is Clough’s obsession with bettering Revie’s achievements in the game, but most importantly with Leeds, that brings the film to life. His wit and charisma shelter the darker components of the man who, having been ousted within 44 days of his tenure at Elland Road, went on to lift successive European Cups with Nottingham Forest – to date one of the finest achievements in the history of the game.
It is difficult to look far beyond Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham (2002) for a football film that has managed to capture the hearts and minds of a mainstream audience. Likewise, The Damned United could quite easily appeal just to a marginal audience already familiar with Clough and his wisdoms, or slightly beyond that fans of the game who are willing to put aside slight aesthetic flaws in the replication of football on the small-screen.
But Simon Clifford, founder of the Brazilian Soccer Schools (www.icfds.com) – the world’s largest football coaching organisation – and SOCATOTS (www.socatots.com) – the world’s first soccer-specific activity for pre-school children – believes The Damned United is much more than simply a ‘football film’.
Clifford and Sheen | Damned United duo on set
Clifford was approached to work on the 2000 release There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble, and a year later he was asked to teach Keira Knightley, Parminder Nagra and company to bend it like Beckham. His reputation as Hollywood’s football choreographer also saw him offered the role as choreographer and advisor on The Damned United, a project that united two of his passions: football and Clough.
“Brian grew up just a few streets from me and I grew up with a greater awareness of him, his character and his success than any other figure within the game,” Clifford told Goal.com.
“Football fans will acknowledge his achievements in lifting the league title with Derby County and securing two European Cups with Nottingham Forest as some of the finest ever in the game, and it was Leeds’ great loss that the club and the person weren’t compatible at that point in time.
“While the film is very different to the book written by David Peace – who I know personally – it does still capture Brian’s charm and unique character, and for this reason it will appeal to everyone and anyone – anybody who has to get the best out of others.”
The Damned United has divided opinion within the game. Some believe that Clough showed a disrespect to the great Leeds team of the late 1960s and early 1970s, while others believe he tackled the job as he would any other, immediately announcing his arrival to the players and caring not for sentiment.
Undoubtedly, Clough’s own family have made their views clear to all, though the author of the original book, David Peace, is known to be regretful of its portrayal as a work of non-fiction, and particularly the hurt caused to any of the late manager’s family.
“As with anything that looks at such a figure as Clough, some will agree with the film’s portrayal and others won’t,” Clifford continued.
“I worked closely with Michael Sheen, who is brilliant as Brian. I’ve worked on a number of films but I’ve rarely come across anybody that goes about their profession as attentively as Michael.
“I have read almost every book there is on Brian, watched every documentary or interview, but Michael’s own investigation before and during filming was second-to-none.
“We even disagreed on one occasion as Michael was adamant about Brian wearing a particular jumper during a TV interview, and he was actually right, which was hard to admit!
“I’ve spoken to people such as Eddie Gray and John McGovern, who knew Brian arguably as well as any, and they can’t speak with any higher respect for him.
“Interestingly, John, who was Brian’s captain at Nottingham Forest and the only player to play with him at Derby, Leeds and Forest, said that despite the career they spent together, you never got any closer to Clough.
“He perhaps reserved another side of himself for his family, something that the film touches on – though in less detail than the book – and that’s something we can all relate to.”
While the football action sequences in The Damned United are some of the best seen in cinema, particularly the combination of re-enacted scenes and archive footage, Clifford is clearly most proud of the capturing of Brian Clough himself.
Sheen is remarkable as the great man and, for better or worse, the film will open up a whole new audience to the brilliance of one man who knew better than anyone else and was quite happy to tell them.