I finally got to a screening of the long-awaited The Damned United at the excellent Broadway Cinema in Nottingham last evening. After reading the recent good reviews of the movie I was not disappointed with this 1hour and 38 minutes of pure 1970s’ football nostalgia.
As a resident of Nottingham and a football fan who lived in Nottingham through Brian Clough’s long reign at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, I was interested to see how much the partly fictional film measured up to my perceptions of Brian Clough and his partner, Peter Taylor, not to mention the various football luminaries of the era that I remember so well.
It has been said that Brian’s widow, Barbara and family were unhappy about the way the great football manager was portrayed in the original book and without having read the book, that is fairly lamentable I feel. It’s an issue with which I have some sympathy. Recently Brian’s family stated that they were consulted prior to the making of the movie however and I hope that they were happier with this portrayal of both the man and the era. Certainly I found Brian’s character, although young and brash as he undoubtedly was, difficult not to like. It seemed essentially a lot like the man I recall from that time, though doubtless there were inaccuracies, as in any re-telling of a story. This informative interpretation, reflecting on Clough’s 44-day stay at Leeds United before his ignominious sacking should perhaps not be viewed in isolation in that way.
I found Michael Sheen’s portrayal of a young Clough very accurate indeed. The brash bravado of the young manager was captured very precisely. From the Middlesboro origins to Brian’s own peculiar elongated vowels. Sheen relied little on the stereotypes relayed by a million professional and amateur mimics over the decades and homed right in on the essence of his character doing an excellent job. It would be churlish to labour that some of Sheen’s wide, toothy grins did not coincide with how I remember Brian but that is a very small point from an overall superb performance. In appearance, his similarity was absolutely uncanny at various moments. A scene of a bare-chested Cloughie playing football on the beach with his and Peter Taylor’s family provided a double-take moment for me, so like him was he.
I had some concerns about the casting of the outstanding and versatile Timothy Spall as Nottinghamian, Peter Taylor but really shouldn’t have considering the actor’s pedigree. Spall consumed the quick-witted and wry humour of Taylor and re-produced it throughout the film. The fond relationship between Clough and Taylor was shown sincerely and with great affection by Sheen and Taylor, not least when the two great friends were reunited in Brighton after Clough’s dismal sacking at Leeds United.
A word of praise should be offered on Colm Meaney’s Don Revie. From my own memories of that era, this was possibly the most accurate portrayal in the whole film. Revie’s bluff Yorkshire characteristics were almost perfect. It really was an uncanny portrayal of the dour ex-Leeds boss.
Colm Meaney as Don Revie
It was curious to see some of those big-name Derby County and Leeds United footballers of the 1970s’ brought to life again. Facially, probably the most stunning likeness was of Leeds centre-half, Gordon McQueen. Whilst heavily featured Derby Scots, John O’Hare and John McGovern were a good resemblance, I had problems with the characters of Leeds midfield pair, Johnny Giles who as well as being a not particularly good facial likeness also appeared to be a much bigger man than the Leeds assassin was. Bremner’s character disappointed me in some ways. Stephen Graham’s depiction of the fiery little Scot was not in itself particularly bad but the casting was not accurate in that the actor was not physically similar to Bremner, apart from in stature. Graham did not look believable as a top professional athlete by virtue of his weight, and this was slightly off-putting.
The Damned United’s, Giles, Bremner, Hunter and Eddie Gray
Scene of Clough’s first training session at Leeds United
Towards the end of the movie and after his sacking, we saw a bitter and upset Clough challenge Revie during a Yorkshire TV broadcast that ‘we’ll see where we are in one years time, Don – in five year’s time’. What followed were news stories of the time of Revie’s poor and ill-fated time in the England job and his subsequent relinquishing of the job in dubious circumstances to be little heard of again. As the history books tell us, the story of Brian Clough, by comparison was to enter it’s absolute golden years in Nottingham where he could do little wrong. There seemed a great justice in the comparison of the two great rival’s further careers. Clough proved his greatness whilst outside of Leeds, Revie is little revered. Justice was done and football itself triumphed.
Watching The Damned United in a Nottingham cinema, along with Derby, might be deemed one of the most appropriate venues due to his hero status in the East Midlands city after his unbelievable, fairy-tale success here with his great friend and partner, Peter Taylor. I am not a follower of their old club, Nottingham Forest particularly, but when the all-too-short postscript to the Clough-Revie story of antipathy unfolded at the end of the movie I wanted to stand and cheer. It brought up the hairs on the back of my neck and I felt so proud of what they did for this city. They were immense and we shall never see their like again.
Finally we must always remember Peter Taylor’s contribution to this story. Without his own particular greatness, this story would never have happened and never been told. I know that Brian would be the very first to say that.
Rest in peace Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. Truly a match now made in heaven.