Back in the era of brown and beige known as ’70s Britain, Match Of The Day may have moved into colour but English football was still a drab and monochrome affair.
So, while the rest of the world honed such delights as the sweeper system, total football and flamboyant free kicks, Blighty slept soundly, safe in the knowledge that football was still “A man’s game” and that Johnny Foreigners didn’t like it “Up ’em”. Kings of the castle were Don Revie’s Leeds United, a team fashioned in their manager’s likeness: grimly efficient, ruthless and, when necessary, violent. Or, as Brian Clough put it: they were cheats.
All of this is accurately evoked in The Damned United, a decent cinematic stab at David Pearce’s outstanding novel (seriously, go and read it) that chronicles the 44-day folly that was Cloughie’s brief tenure of the club. As the latest slice of folklore adapted by Peter Morgan and starring Michael Sheen (The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon), it’s the best of the duo’s collaborations. Morgan clearly has a deep affection for the source material and its protagonist while, as Clough, Sheen hits screamers into the back of the net pretty much every time he’s on screen.
Add in some excellent work from a fine supporting cast, Tom Hooper’s tidy direction (presumably done on a shoestring or, er, bootlace) and the arch use of archive footage and graphics, and you have one of the best footie-based flicks in memory.
Unfortunately though, it’s a film of two halves. The time-shifting that allows us to wallow in Clough’s success at Derby and only peek at his Forest glory days works brilliantly but the focus on his brief tenure at Leeds prevents a satisfying finale or real insight into what drove the man (or his demons). Which may be why the climactic reconciliation with assistant/bezzie Peter Taylor feels a tad over-egged and underwhelming.
Smarter than Escape To Victory, more fun than Bend It like Beckham, but not quite the title-winning charge we were hoping for. Might challenge for a Champions League spot though.