City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The Damned Utd, by David Peace (2006)

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David Peace’s ‘The Damned Utd’ (2006) is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary writer. (Ed. This piece was originally published on 27 November 2006, and was the first time I’d encountered one of Peace’s books. I subsequently tracked down and read almost of them.)

It’s a fictionalised account of Brian Clough’s 44 days in charge of Leed United Football Club in 1974, and 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, deceptively hovering between fact and fiction, yet with writing so intensely well-honed that you don’t care which is which.

Peace’s method of conveying the madness of those 44 days is essentially through the knots of repeated short phrases — James Ellroy as Yorkshireman — that enclose, tighten and trap Clough in ever-decreasing circles. It’s a method well-suited to capturing the internal claustrophobia of the football club hidden within the very public pressure, intensified by 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. Though fiction, it certainly conjures the bleakly 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.”

This tension between “conflict and beauty” is indeed inherent to football, and though the Leeds team of that time, and the broader club, may have erred more towards the conflict end of that counterpoint, Clough’s football teams also stood for a form of ethics, grace, and purpose, at least within the horribly fractured prism of the time. Allegedly, at his very first team meeting, he told the players to throw away their medals, as they had won them by cheating. There was no way that Clough would survive in that environment—44 days seems quite an achievement, in retrospect—any more than that environment could sustain itself for much longer.

Clough would go on to greater things, whilst Leeds would not, rarely threatening the top flight again, in this way. But this book focuses simply on those 44 days, trapped within its own bookended timeframe as Clough too, was trapped. And just as you, the reader, will also be trapped, unable to put the book down.

Here’s an excerpt from Peace’s book, indicating the tenor of Clough’s tormented inner-voice. This is not one of the relentlessly repetitive patterns that punctuate the book, and so effectively convey a man losing it—for those, you should read them in context; just as you can’t listen to a five-second fragment of Steve Reich and hear the entire piece. Here’s Clough, the morning after:

“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.”

(Ed. This piece was originally published on 27 November 2006 and This was the first time I’d encountered one of Peace’s books. I’ve since read most of them, as he quickly became a favourite author, oddly and uniquely connecting places of inherent interest to me: the Yorkshire and Liverpool of my youth (and football obsession), and the Tokyo my future self would become fascinated by.)


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