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.