A review of The Damned United by David PeaceOn publication in 2006 this novel was lauded by critics as ‘the best novel ever written about sport’ (The Times), and ‘the boy done brilliant’ (The Guardian). It will soon become the focus of more attention when the film version is released starring Welsh actor Michael Sheen, doing another turn as another iconic British character.
Why would socialists be interested in it? Because the book is a fictionalised account of a period in the life of one of Englands’ greatest football managers – the man destined to be England manager, but who never was. It may be of little interest to anyone not alive in the 1970s or early ‘80s, but to anyone in Britain who was, there were few more outspoken and well known characters than Brian Clough. But not only was ‘Cloughie’ a great football manager, he was also a man who constantly challenged and criticised the footballing establishment; the club directors and chairmen, the FA and the powers that be generally. As the great American novelist, Upton Sinclair, said, ’the first duty of a socialist is to declare that he is one’ and Brian Clough said it loud and often, much to the irritation of those in power in the game and great delight and support amongst working class football supporters.
This book charts Clough’s rise (with his cohort Peter Taylor) as a manager, bringing Hartlepool up from 3rd the division, then Derby up from the 2nd division to become League Champions and in parallel, the disastrous 44 day term as manager of his nemesis, Leeds United. Peace, writes in prose, yet manages to create poetry out of Clough’s swearing and uncannily captures the rhythms of his famous speech pattern, that anyone who ever saw or heard Clough on TV would instantly recognise.
The post-war boom and consequent reforms saw an explosion of writing by or about working class characters, from their point of view, for the very first time in Britain (The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists aside) - as exemplified by ‘angry young men’ like Alan Sillitoe and John Braine. The opening up of educational opportunities for working class people in this period meant that writers could be published who wrote about class and poverty, but not from the lofty heights of the bourgeois liberal like Dickens; the emergence of the so called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas. Brian Clough, whilst being a socialist, was not a revolutionary but a rebel nonetheless, who paid the price for his challenges to authority, and in many ways resembles the class conscious, ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ philosophy of Sillitoe’s novels. So it is absolutely fitting that Peace’s novel seems to fit into that tradition very well, with it being reminiscent of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner’. Peace depicts Clough as a heroic yet tragic figure, with an enormous ego which is manifested in public, but full of self loathing and self doubt in private.
The novel charts Clough giving tickets for Derby’s games to striking miners, canvassing for Labour in elections, and working behind the scenes to foment a proposed players’ strike and mass protests when he was ousted as Derby manager. But my favourite part is near the beginning, when Clough, taking over from his arch rival Don Revie at Leeds, has the revered Revie’s office furniture and ‘lucky suit’ burned. When being interviewed on Yorkshire Television by Austin Mitchell (yes, that Austin Mitchell) just after he was asked about ‘the Don’’s legacy, he was asked;
‘You’re not a superstitious man then, Brian?
No, Austin, I’m not, I tell him. I’m a socialist.’