The Damned United Review

Cinema lacks ample football drama. We are presented with the hooliganism of Green Street or the obsessive addiction of Fever Pitch. Sometimes, we suspend our disbelief as audiences and struggle through the hyperviolence only Danny Dyer could present in The Football Factory. Where are the films taking a bite out of the controversies of the real world? The Damned United is a good example. Michael Sheen portrays Brian Clough, a legendary player of great tenure and legacy, depicting his doomed 44-day run as head coach at Leeds United. 

It is not a story you need to have any exceptional knowledge or interest in, for director Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech and Cats fame is on hand to guide us through it all. As a quasi-biopic, Hooper is at home with adapting these facts and legends to the screen. Clough was not shy of his criticism of Leeds, making it all the worse when he signed on as their manager. The Damned United shows Michael Sheen as a slick and bold man. “They wouldn’t have played football that way if they were happy”, he says of the squad he takes over only a few days later. His smug smile says it all, and it is statements such as those on national television that ruffled the feathers before he had even started his job. But that is the cockiness expected of those who achieved greatness as a player.  

Within The Damned United is the capturing of how a player and manager of the great sport conduct themselves in public. They are nasally and simple. Colm Meaney as Don Revie captures that well enough. Their aversion to answering the prominent questions of the game in press junkets met with clamouring and confusion from the press. Quick, simple answers to big questions are what drives sportsmen, not just in The Damned United but in press junkets of today. They have fragile egos and they do not like to waste their time. Simple decisions or mishaps cause rifts and controversy.  

Calling these players drama queens would be an unfair write-off, but The Damned United and its six-year build-up to a feud formed by Clough’s competitive spirit is not as strong as it should be. Revie usurps the highs Clough had; his win of Manager of the Year inadvertently falls on the same day Clough achieves promotion with Derby. A sense of shadowing is present, but Hooper doesn’t follow through with it. It is a tale steeped in revenge, for a snub at their first encounter, a disagreement over team tactics, and nothing more.  

There is the self-assured smugness to Clough, and it is brilliantly captured through harsh verbal scenes between Sheen and Broadbent. “Nobody would’ve heard of Derby County if it were not for me, Brian Clough.” He is not completely wrong. Hooper shows as much through scenes of boastful arrogance. Clough has the clout to prove his talents. The trophies and accomplishments under him to prove he is the man that salvaged the squad and took them to the top.  

Is this, though, the football drama we football fans had been clamouring for? Not quite. It is filled with the coarse language expected in this era of the beautiful game. With stalwart British actors such as Stephen Graham, Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent making their presence known, it will be easier for the English viewers to assimilate themselves into this than, say, someone overseas looking to grapple with the game.  

The Damned United has all the narrative tropes, soundtrack choices and camera angles expected of a smaller project engaging with a lesser-known pocket of history. It is a story of rivalries and deeply held hatred, something beyond competitive sportsmanship. Clough and Levie, a legacy that lasted for years, stripped down to bare, basic essentials. Great performances from the men that mould these titans of the game. Formulaic and predictable, just the way Hooper likes it. Audiences may not even bother to grapple with the simplicity on offer, because a story such as this appeals only to the rabid few who wanted to see it illuminate the big screen. But for those few, it will inspire and entertain. 

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