David Peace’s ‘The Damned Utd’ is a fairly extraordinary book. A fictionalised account of Brian Clough’s 44 days in charge of Leed United Football Club in 1974, it captures perfectly the essence of the age, the sport and the men of the time, most of all the unique Clough himself. It’s utterly compelling, hovering between fact and fiction, so intensely well-honed that you don’t care which is which.
Peace’s method of conveying the madness is essentially through the knots of repeated short phrases – James Ellroy as Yorkshireman – that trap Clough in ever-decreasing circles. It’s a method well-suited to capturing the claustrophobia of the football club, the concomitant pressure, and the fictional Clough’s near-psychosis and drink-fuelled paranoia. It’s a cracking book. While it will have particular resonance for followers of football, I’d suggest it would deliver for those that aren’t. It certainly conjures the bleak, gnawing reality of Northern Britain in the 1970s, caught between austerity and prosperity; all washed-out, brown-hued Get Carter backdrops with gaudy flashes of Granada TV and grubby deals in "modern luxury hotels". It’s barely recognisable at face value, and yet today’s roots are showing if you look hard enough. It’s also just an incredible, absurd story, which is at least partly true.
There’s a quote from another great football book, perhaps one of the greatest: Arthur Hopcraft’s ‘The Football Man’, published in 1965. It’s at the root of why Peace’s book is so interesting:
"What happens on the football field matters, not in the way that food matters but as poetry does to some people and alcohol does to others: it engages the personality. It has conflict and beauty, and when those two qualities are present together in something offered for public appraisal they represent much of what I understand to be art."
An excerpt, indicating the tenor of Clough’s conflicted inner-voice:
"Here comes another morning; another morning after the defeat of the night before –
The sun is shining in my modern luxury hotel room, through the curtains
and across the floor to the modern luxury hotel bed in which I haven’t
slept a bloody, fucking wink, just lain here replaying last night’s
match in my head, on the inside of my skull, reliving every touch and
every kick, every pass and every cross, every tackle and every block,
over and over, again and again, player by player, position by position,
space by space, over and over, again and again, from the first minute
to the last –
The things I saw and the things I missed –
The many, many bloody things I fucking missed –
It’s just another morning, another morning when I wish I wasn’t here."
The Damned United, by David Peace [Amazon UK]
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