Wednesday, 11 February 2009
The Damned United - David Pearce
I've previously posted on my respect for Brian Clough and my loathing for Leeds United. I have been meaning to get around to reading this book since it was first released in 2006 and with the film coming out shortly I decided that the time had come to finally read it.
The books selling point is that it is a fictionalised account of Clough's tenure in charge of Leeds United. In actuality the book is far more than that and is effective a fictionalised account of Brian Clough's entire career up to leaving Leeds United.
The tale is told in two ways with the "present day" events of Clough at Leeds being intertwined with flashbacks to Cloughs career from the day he suffered a crunching tackle (which bar a few games ended his playing career) up to the point where he takes the Leeds job.
The "present day" sections are narrated from the perspective of Clough and told in the present tense. The "flashbacks" are narrated in the second person perspective and in the past tense; presumably again as though written by Clough (although they could also be from the perspective of Clough's arch enemy Don Revie).
I read the book in two sittings and it is a real page turner. By and large an understanding/appreciation of football is totally unnecessary as the story is a character study. That being said there is or course an extra enjoyment to be had from the book if you do have an appreciation for the game. In particular there are several moments when you find yourself grinning along to Clough's expressions of contempt for the dirty, cheating, Leeds team. Similarly the somewhat bleak end to the book, with Clough being ousted from the job, is offset by the knowledge that Clough was yet to achieve his greatest successes whilst the Leeds team was proven to be all washed up.
As a character study the story is successful, if not altogether accurate. The Clough of the book is a chain smoking, foul mouthed, vitriolic, nervous alcoholic. In real life Clough didn't smoke, he didn't swear anywhere near as much as the book would have it and the level of alcholism presented in the book simply isn't believable in the context of the time when the book was set (it may well have been accurate if set in the 80s). Similarly some of the examples of man management and team talks presented in the book are more Barry Fry than Brian Clough. Clough had much more tactical awareness than is portrayed, or even hinted at, in the book. As such there were occasions where I felt that what I was reading, although immensely entertaining, was a version of Clough built around common perception of the man, rather than the reality of the man. There are also moments where dramatic licence goes a little too far for the sake of drama (Clough walking out into a rainy night screaming "What have I done" after leaving Derby).
Ultimately though for every stray step, there are 5 or 6 where the author nails it. I particularly like the little moments where Cloughie thinks about his family or enjoys a bit of home life. This is a side of the man that is never really mentioned in the media, but which season the book to excellent effect. There are also the moments where you really feel like you get a real feel for the drive and determination of the man and for what he overcame to achieve his successes.
Similarly there's great fun to be had in the way that the book captures the needle between Clough and Revie and the way that the Leeds team are portrayed as a rouges gallery of football villainy.
Not a perfect book then and certainly not a book that can be considered to be any kind of biography, but an excellent read nonetheless.