Wednesday, 13 February 2008

The Damned United

Before ‘The Damned United’ the last football novel I read may have been Martin Waddell’s ‘Napper Goes for Goal’ when I was 6 years old. Therefore the jacket quotes boasting that David Peace’s book is the “best football novel of all time” did not excite me greatly. However I must admit that having read the novel, I do believe that not only is the boast almost certainly justified (lack of competition not withstanding), but that it is also a considerable novel in its own right.

Another comment on the dust jacket employs the hyperbolic adjective “Shakespearean” and for once its use is almost appropriate. Peace’s novel has Elland Road as Elsinore and Brian Clough plays Hamlet, admittedly with a moderately less gruesome finale. The book unfolds the story of Clough’s 44 day reign as Leeds United manager in the mid-70s through the internal monologue of old Big ‘Ead himself.

Peace’s Clough is a compellingly paradoxical mixture of arrogance and self-doubt. He is fluently verbose, foul-mouthed, drunken, loud, a bully who nevertheless can cajole and encourage his players, obsessive about football and his job but constantly late for work, an energetic and neurotic ball of conflicting traits and emotions. Peace has synthesised a great deal of research to keep the factual incidents as accurate as possible. The novel is eminently believable.

We meet Clough as he prepares to embark on his first day at Leeds. The novel progresses in diary style, day by day, with a back story providing the background to Clough’s turbulent managerial career so far and culminating in the offer to become Leeds manager. The drama springs, not only from the manager’s blustering persona, but from the history of rivalry, indeed detestation between the two parties. Clough considers Leeds physical style, replete with gamesmanship, as inimical to his vision of football. He wishes to impose this vision on a Leeds side whom he advises at the novel’s outset to throw away all their medals, because they have won them by cheating.

The mutual loathing between the manager and many of his new staff and players provides a locus to the novel’s drama as does the moral ambivalence of Clough himself. Whilst Clough’s brand of football was more suited to a purist than that favoured by his nemesis, Don Revie (who has a couple of walk on parts in the book, but generally features as an unseen and haunting presence) he was not adverse to dealing with brown envelopes or being pragmatic about tactics when the situation called for it.

Clough’s mercurial personality is reflected through the many ambivalent relationships throughout the book. His relationship with right hand man Peter Taylor (who refused to accompany the manager to Leeds and is lambasted as a “fucking Judas”), with Derby County chairman Sam Longson and even with his own sons are presented as turbulent.

If you are a football fan, or even if you are not, I would recommend that you read this book.


O'Neill said...

I read it on the bus to and back from Vaduz last year, agree with you, brilliant read.

Clough comes across mainly as quite a sad individual I felt and despite the bluster, someone who needed to be loved as well as respected. He got neither at Leeds and after seeing the not too flattering portrayal of players like Giles, I wonder how Peace escaped the libel suites.

It also makes you wonder how Revie's team which basically, as Clough pointed out to them, cheated, bribed and fouled themselves to trophies would have survived in the modern media age. The fcat that they only won two League championships probably was poetic justice.

Dinamo said...

I think you're over-estimating this book Chekov. It is constructed on a time line and draws heavily on a battery of ex-footballers biographies and alleged quotations almost certainly sexed-up by the publishers. Then the authir spins a yarn about what may or may not have occurred. It is of course a fiction but presents itself as a factual account.

The Leeds side of 1975 were arguably the greatest club side ever and perhaps the greatest team ever. The depictions of Don Revie and Jonny Giles are utterly contemptable and based on unfounded allegations made by the discredited goalkeeper gary Sprake.

Of course the team aged together(though they were denied a European Cup a few months later only by the referee) and Clough was a case of too much, too soon. We'll never know what would have happened had he stayed. But clearly he did n't do a good job at Leeds, drinking heavily and not used to working with players of that calibre.
Not as dreadful as Leeds United on Trial by D O'Leary but a missed opportunity and ultimately a disappointing book.

Chekov said...

"The Leeds side of 1975 were arguably the greatest club side ever and perhaps the greatest team ever."

You retained some credibility for your comments right up to this sentence Dinamo!