Set in 1960’s and 1970’s England, The Damned United tells the confrontational and darkly humorous story of Brian Clough’s doomed 44 day tenure as manager of the reigning champions of English football Leeds United. Previously managed by his bitter rival Don Revie, and on the back of their most successful period ever as a football club, Leeds was perceived by many to represent a new aggressive and cynical style of football - an anathema to the principled yet flamboyant Brian Clough, who had achieved astonishing success as manager of Hartlepool and Derby County building teams in his own vision with trusty lieutenant Peter Taylor. Taking the Leeds job without Taylor by his side, with a changing room full of what in his mind were still Don’s boys, would lead to an unheralded examination of Clough’s belligerence and brilliance over 44 days.

Mr Sheen adds polish to EPL saga.

'I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the Top One."
– Brian Clough.

Writer Peter Morgan has a knack for capturing the frailties of his larger-than-life lead characters; from a reigning monarch and complex private life (Stephen Frear’s The Queen, 2006) to a disgraced ex-President and his alpha male one-upmanship with a television interviewer (Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon 2008).

To be sure, Morgan’s previous films tackled weightier issues and loftier subjects than The Damned United, but he invests the 'rise-fall-rise-fall-fall-rise’ journey of one of English football’s most enigmatic, talented, self-centred and ultimately lovable personalities, with a universal importance.

The film is an adaptation of David Peace’s fictionalised first-person account (conveyed as a stream-of-consciousness rant by Clough himself) of the heady 44 days that Clough spent as manager of Leeds United. It was a truncated reign that came crashing down after player disapproval, boardroom backstabbing and a fanbase backlash. Those six tumultuous weeks are reimagined with tremendous insight, and Morgan has expanded the concept to include detailed information about Clough’s rise to fame as manager of second division Derby County, whom he steered from cellar-dweller status to a first division crown in 1972.

'I knew I was the best but I should have said nowt and kept the pressure off 'cos they'd have worked it out for themselves."
– Brian Clough

Morgan revisits the complexities of male/male power dynamic in The Damned United, having displayed an Oscar nomination-worthy grasp of the subject with Frost/Nixon. Two key relationships are central to the film’s dramatic tension: the volatile competition between Clough and the Leeds manager he would ultimately replace, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), and the yin-yang pairing with assistant coach and great football mind, Peter Taylor (the wonderful Timothy Spall).

But Peter Morgan’s strength as a writer is the detailed insight and smashing dialogue he affords his lead. Just as Helen Mirren dominated The Queen and Frank Langella ruled Frost/Nixon, it is Michael Sheen as Brian Howard Clough that makes The Damned United such a compelling experience, whether you like football or not. Morgan’s dialogue darts from the lips of Sheen with a showman’s flair, culminating in a wildly-charismatic yet deeply-melancholic portrayal. Driven by ego, ambition and passion for the game, Sheen’s Clough radiates many of the same cocky qualities that underscored his portrayal of playboy/journalist David Frost in the actor’s last collaboration with Morgan.

Lincoln City will win the UEFA Cup before a British soccer film gets Oscar’s attention, but Sheen’s Clough should be front-and-centre of AMPAS member’s considerations in early 2010.

And for the afficionado, Michael Sheen shows a tidy pair of boots when it comes to football skill. During the scene that portrays his first tension-filled day on the job at Leeds Utd., Sheen traps, turns and shoots the ball into the top corner of a training net with remarkable aplomb. Okay, so it’s not De Niro in Raging Bull but it reeks of the commitment to getting a valid on-screen portrayal of football just right.

Such dedication suggests The Damned United is made by people who adore The World Game, as every minor detail oozes authenticity. Though on-field action is minimal and mostly archival, it is smoothly edited and, when needed, historically accurate in its recreation. Casting is superb, especially Jim Broadbent as Derby chair Sam Longson and Stephen Graham, who is the spitting image of his character, Leeds captain Billy Bremner.
One sour note is that the Brian Clough’s widow, Barbara, despised the book and has shown no interest in supporting the film. His son, former Premier League star Nigel, argues the film is a fantasy and that much of what is portrayed has been fabricated. Which is a shame, because even if some poetic licence has been taken with the facts, Morgan, Hooper and Sheen have crafted a moving, funny and loving tribute to the spirit of a man who effortlessly defined the spirit of the greatest sport ever.

"Rome wasn't built in a day. But I wasn't on that particular job."
– Brian Clough


Watch 'The Damned United'

Monday 1 November, 7:40pm on SBS World Movies / No catch-up at SBS On Demand

UK, 2009
Genre: Sport, Drama
Language: English
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Michael Sheen, Colm Meaney, Stephen Graham, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent

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1 hour 37 min
In Cinemas 15 October 2009,