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Inside Old Big ’Ead’s old big head

David Peace’s The Damned Utd might not be factually airtight but it gets to the truth about gobby genius Cloughie.

Duleep Allirajah

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The Damned Utd. True or False? The backdrop to this week’s release of the film adaptation of David Peace’s novel is the controversy over the portrayal of Brian Clough. Was it a true likeness or a grotesque caricature?

Now, I haven’t yet seen the film. Nor, at the time of writing this, had I seen ITV’s spoiler documentary, endorsed by the Clough family, which was made to set the record straight. However, I have read David Peace’s compelling and utterly original novel. Plus I know a thing or two about Cloughie. So, here’s my twopennethworth.

The Damned Utd, in case you haven’t read Peace’s book, is the story of Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44-day reign as manager of Leeds United in 1974. Everyone knows something about Brian Clough. He was a brilliant, gobby, opinionated, egotistical manager who won promotion and then the title with Derby County, repeated the feat with Nottingham Forest and, astonishingly, followed that up with successive European Cups with Forest. He was, in many football fans’ eyes, the ‘best manager England never had’. But Clough was also a flawed genius. He drank too much, he allegedly ‘liked a bung’ (as Alan Sugar put it), he fell out with his club chairman, and he didn’t look like a ‘football genius’ – as Forest fans used to sing – without his sidekick Peter Taylor alongside him in the dugout. And then, of course, there were those fateful 44 days at Leeds. The blackest mark on his glittering CV.

Why did Clough fail at Leeds? Was it because he was good at making journeymen footballers feel like world beaters but hopeless at handling big stars? Was there a dressing-room rebellion against the man who had so often badmouthed the players in public? Clough was vocal in his hatred of the gamesmanship of previous manager Don Revie’s ‘Dirty Leeds’. As former Leeds midfielder Peter Lorimer recalls, his famous opening salvo to the players was to tell them: ‘Over the last 10 years you’ve won everything going, but as far as I’m concerned you can throw every one of those medals in the bin because you never won one of them fairly.’ (1)

I’ve read Clough’s version of events. Or at least the abridged ghostwritten account in his autobiography Cloughie: Walking on Water. But what really happened? Telling the story as it might have happened is precisely what David Peace attempts to do in The Damned Utd. The book imagines those 44 days from Clough’s perspective, intertwining fact and fiction in a style which is heavily influenced by James Ellroy. Cloughie’s public persona – Old Big ’Ead – was cockiness personified. Peace, however, paints Clough as a man haunted by demons and riddled with self-doubt. Long passages of the novel are given over to the dark, drunken, paranoid, foul-mouthed, interior monologues of a tormented Clough. It’s a brilliantly original take on the Clough story. But is it the truth?

Clough’s widow Barbara has said she didn’t recognise the ‘chain-smoking, obscenity-spouting, selfishly driven man’ depicted in the book. The family issued a statement through Don Shaw, a family friend, saying: ‘Barbara Clough and I are together in condemning the portrayal of Brian in the book The Damned United by David Peace. He was considerate and civilised but with enormous self-confidence and a psychological awareness that made him a great manager.’ Former Leeds midfielder Johnny Giles initiated legal action against the publishers, which led to several lines from the book being excised. ‘In both his book and now in the film, it is clear that he uses artistic licence to a level that is simply not acceptable’, Giles wrote in a recent newspaper column. ‘Many of the things Peace talks about in the book never happened and for that reason, I felt it necessary to go to the courts to establish that this was fiction based on fact and nothing more.’ (2)

How does David Peace plead to the charge that he has misrepresented Clough? ‘The Damned Utd does not claim to be “the truth” because no book, whether it is a work of fiction or non-fiction, can ever claim to be “the truth”’, he told Matt Dickinson of The Times. ‘Any writing, whatever its genre, will always be subjective. To me, The Damned Utd is like a painting, a portrait of the man, as opposed to a photograph.’ (3)

Actually, what makes The Damned Utd so powerful is that, while we know we are reading a work of fiction, albeit one based on meticulously researched fact, the depiction of Clough is strikingly plausible. We know from Clough’s autobiography that he felt the players were against him from day one. ‘I was confronted by a seething, resentful, spiteful, dressing room when I arrived on my first morning’, Clough recounted in his autobiography. What Peace does is to paint an entirely convincing picture of a football manager losing the dressing room (or, to be precise, failing to win it).

We can’t really know what went on inside Old Big ’Ead’s old big head. But as with any moment in history we piece together all the evidence – biographies, hearsay, newspaper articles, documentaries – and try to get to the truth. And, in this respect, novels are just as capable of enriching our understanding of social reality as history books or newspaper articles. And that’s why The Damned Utd works. It brings to life the psychological make-up of Clough in a way that airbrushed authorised biographies could never do.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

(1) The Damned United: Peter Lorimer: Film puts record straight on Brian Clough’s Leeds reign, Telegraph, 19 March 2009

(2) Enjoy Damned fiction – but remember facts, Herald (Ireland), 13 March 2009

(3) The panned United is still a work of genius, The Times (London), 3 March 2009

(4) Cloughie: Walking on Water, 2002

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