The Damned United

If ever there was a Gerald Ratner moment in football, when a single spoken sentence turned a business to crap, it came when Brian Clough, a man with two international caps addressed his new charges, the English league champions Leeds United, with over hundreds of international caps between them, and told them they should chuck all their domestic medals in the bin because they had cheated to get them.
Publish date:
Updated on

If you want to see him doing it on a small screen look up Damned United on You Tube and there is actor Michael Sheen delivering the infamous speech in his role as Clough in next years film.

The team responded to Clough’s statement by winning just one of his six competitive games and after just 44 days he was sacked.  It’s this period of time that is documented in David Peace’s excellent book The Damned United, which has now been made into a film starring the master impersonator – Frost, Prince Charles, Tony Blair, Kenneth Williams – Michael Sheen as Clough.

The book is a remarkable piece of work, when it came out I published advance extracts on and then bought ten signed by Peace to give to friends. It fictionalises Clough’s state of mind as he confronts the legacy of his predecessor Revie, an extremely superstitious man who believed the club was under a gypsies curse. Certainly the historical highs and lows of the club have been so extreme that there are many fans still today that believe the curse is still there: the original team Leeds City was thrown out of the league for corruption, Revie’s team had to play four games in nine days to win the league, fa cup and a European competition, the murder of two fans as David O’Leary’s team of ’babies’ ran out to play their Uefa Cup semi final.

As a lifelong Leeds United fan who grew up around and still knows some of the players Clough addressed it’s a strange to see this period recreated, if only because it highlights what could have been. Clough’s brief tenure has given him the worst record ever for a Leeds United manager, and is just the most infamous moment for a club that has either over-achieved or been thwarted by bad luck depending on whether you support them or not.  Yet both the club and Clough would go onto appear in European finals shortly afterwards.

David Peace, who wrote the book, believes the club suffered from more than bad luck. He says "Despite supporting Huddersfield Town, I was always fascinated and intrigued by Clough's 44 days at Elland Road in 1974. Possibly because the first game I ever saw was Clough's first game in charge of Leeds, which was a pre-season friendly against Huddersfield. Coincidently, or maybe not, Clough's last game in charge of Leeds was also against Huddersfield. So Town book-ended the 44 days. So I always wanted to know why Clough took the job, when he had made no secret of his hatred for Revie's Leeds, and why Leeds offered him the job knowing that, and then what happened during those 44 days. So the 44 days were always an integral part of the novel, but the original plan was for the back-story to be an 'occult history' of Leeds United, leading up to the appointment of Clough. However, the more I read and researched about Clough, the more he took over the book and his story became the back-story, if you like. To me, Clough seemed to have stepped out of the pages of the novels of Stan Barstow, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and David Storey - all writers I wanted to pay homage to in "The Damned Utd", as they were all writers that had meant a lot to me as I was growing up in Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s.

The say the match of Clough and leeds was wrong is an understatement.  Here was a team that had dragged an unfashionable one club Yorkshire town into such a position where the names of their players were as familiar to fans around the rest of the world as they were the country.  Clarke, Hunter, Bremner, Jones, Charlton, Giles … to this day cab drivers who support fierce rivals will still reel off the names with respect and admiration. The man who built Liverpool Bill Shankley, considered to be the best manager of his day, can be heard on the album Shankley Speaks marvelling at the likes of Johnny Giles, Norman Hunter, and Billy Bremner – who is contemporart and friend Don Revie had nurtured.

The squad Clough addressed as cheats included four of the Scottish team who Brazil had just failed to even score against in that summers world cup (Bremner, Harvey, Lorimer, Jordan), the first Professional Footballers Player of The Year Norman Hunter, the man who took the England number 9 shirt from Bobby Charlton (Alan Clarke). Most notably they were the English Champions, having gone 29 matches in the previous season before being beaten.  They appeared in beefburger adverts, Heineken adverts, they had their own names sewn into the back of their tracksuits, they booted footballs with their faces on into the crowd. They were ahead of the game in terms of marketing themselves and on the pitch, along side Shankleys Liverpool, the hard professionalism became the template for the modern game.

Clough despite having an amazing scoring record in the lower divisions had only ever scored one goal (ironically against Leeds) in the top division. He was a famously outspoken commentator of the day and had already won the championship with Derby but he had come to Leeds after nine months with lowly Brighton. Today's equivalent would have been for Mourinho to have won the league at Chelsea, then gone to manage Milton Keynes Dons for a season failing badly, and then return to Liverpool after spending years slagging off Rafa Benitez.

If Billy Bremner epitomised Revie’s Leeds on the pitch, fiery, talented and aggressive, he is also identified in the book as being a focal point for the dissatisfaction with Clough’s appointment. He is played in the film by Stephen Graham, who rose to fame in Snatch and This Is England.

“My dad is a big Liverpool fan and he told me how great the games were whenever Leeds came to Anfield, A lot of people of his generation were in awe of Bremner. I was only aware of him from seeing footage but I was well up for playing him when I read the script. He was an icon. It’s the perfect job, for a start everyone dreams of being a footballer and this was the next best thing. Secondly it’s the perfect part to research because you get to watch masses of footie without the Mrs being able to say anything. I watched loads and loads of old Match of the Day and even clips that people have never seen before. Like some hi-8 style hand held footage from the crowd of the fight between Bremner and Keegan at the Charity Shield Cup Final under Clough. Bremner punches him in the ribs and Keegan retaliates. The thing is Johnny Giles near enough knocks him flat out and he didn’t even get sent off. That’s one of the scenes we’ve recreated. Another is a match against Derby where I dive to get a penalty. I’m wearing a big ginger wig, my dad reckons I look like Charlie Drake.”

Graham points out that many of the people involved with the true story have been reluctant to be involved. There were exceptions though.

“Eddie Grey is played by his own son, Stuart, and he used to play for Celtic. He’s a good players and was heavily involved with the football scenes, it’s a lot different training and paying it around like professionals do thank just kicking it round with your mates.  Michael Sheen, who plays Clough, was a very good player as well which was a surprise. He was amazing in his role, I was in awe watching him go to work and he was a tasty player too. The whole thing was a great buzz, what a team? Nearly everyone of them were full internationals.”

David Peace says of the unexpected success  "I never imagined a novel about football in the Seventies would appeal to film-makers, so I was very surprised and flattered by the level of interest the book generated.

"I've not been involved in the writing of the script, or in the making of the film in any way, because I know nothing about such things and I live in Japan. But, with the people who are involved - Peter Morgan, Tom Hooper, Andy Harries, and the cast they have assembled, I've got high hopes for it. "

In Duncan Hamilton’s equally impressive personal account of his time with the man, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, Clough privately reflected that he wished he had taken Peter Taylor, his long time management partner to Leeds, and that Taylor’s maturity and man management skills would have helped Cloughs win the players over. Without Taylor Clough appeared purely acerbic and brash, allied with Taylor again at Nottingham Forest the duo would go onto lift consecutive European cups, a feat yet to be matched by any British club. Whilst Peace and presumably the film focuses on the dark forces working away in clough’s mind, Hamilton reveals that Clough felt anger and shame at his short stay at Leeds, something he would constantly try to rub away by quoting how Leeds made him a rich man. Hamilton also believe s that it was because Leeds had made him financially independent of future employers that clough was relaxed enough o bring such huge success to Nottingham forest.

Before that though Leeds United players would disprove Clough’s claims that they had performed under Revie by cheating, by going on under his replacement Jimmy Armfield to reach the European Cup Final where they were beaten by a Bayern Munich team made of the West German World Champions and a referee who later admitted to receiving a bribe.

There are those of us who wished Clough’s era had lasted longer, that the partnership had worked. For me he remains a hero, his outspoken confidence, his ability to spot talent, his humour, his alcoholism, his desire to help others whilst also keen to help himself all ring a bell.  Brian Clough didn’t fit in, with Leeds United or the world in general.  To succeed he needed an ally and a club where he could be the focal point of attention. He was undoubtedly a vital spark that lit up people’s lives. But as Peace points out, this was The Damned United, and when he was confronted with the challenge of the biggest job in football there was more than player power at work.