I approached my reading of David Peace’s The Damned Utd with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Widely regarded as one of the most creative novels ever composed on the subject of football, I was excited to get to grips with the book and yet fearful of being disappointed having seen the film version starring Michael Sheen (released three years after the publication of the book in 2009) and been largely impressed.
My reservations, however, were immediately allayed by a novel which was both inventive in its use of prose and given life by a strong and vivid portrayal of its anarchic protagonist, Brian Clough. A heavily fictionalised account of Clough’s ill-fated forty-four days as manager of Leeds United in 1974, Peace plunges us into seventies Britain and the mind of Clough with great skill, his attention to detail being, at times, little short of breathtaking.
While Peace is known as an innovative and daring young novelist, I hadn’t been fully prepared for the experimental nature of The Damned Utd. Drawing on folk tales and curses as occasional reference points, Peace gives his novel the darkest of backdrops, Clough’s innermost thoughts being expressed through ceaseless repetition and alliteration, a technique which makes the protagonist come across as scheming, paranoid, sordid; perhaps even brash and intellectually brilliant.
Despising everything that Leeds United stands for and yet determined to upstage the achievements of his great nemesis, Don Revie, Peace’s Clough is a bitter man motivated by a particularly vehement form of revenge. A twisted missionary seeking to change the way in which ‘Dirty Leeds’ play the game, the Clough of The Damned Utd is a poisonously arrogant man, albeit someone for whom the reader has a great deal of affection at times. Idealistic to the last and a loveably roguish chancer, Clough’s desperation to succeed in spite of his thinly-veiled hatred of Leeds did induce in me an unexpected degree of sympathy.
The sharply baleful atmosphere of Elland Road is captured beautifully by Peace, Clough feeling as though he is being watched and judged by the spirit of Revie at every turn, the menacingly spectral figure of Syd Owen waiting for him on every corner with whispered denunciations and daemonic eyes.
To escape this oppressive situation and the truculent attitudes of his players, Clough turns to drink, his thoughts and emotions scrambled by and the disturbed outbursts which arise as a result. Peace’s Clough is a man existing at the edges of emotional reason, a man racked with the confusion of failing self-belief. Narrated from inside Clough’s head, the pressures and challenges the protagonist faces throughout the novel are articulated in a fittingly primal fashion.
Although the primary focus of The Damned Utd is Clough’s dismal, chaotic time at Leeds, flashbacks to the great manager’s golden years with Derby County are interwoven into each and every chapter. Juxtaposed with the bleakness of Elland Road, we come to see Clough’s rise to prominence with Derby as a halcyon time; the genesis of his rivalry with Revie and the glory of his league title being painted vividly by Peace. Indeed, while his time at Leeds is described in a consciously visceral fashion, the passages dealing with his years at Derby give the reader respite from the haunting bleakness of those forty-four days, the defining characteristics of the popular conception of Old Big ‘Ead shining through with great clarity.
Intelligent, original and grimly compelling, I would highly recommend The Damned Utd to those looking for a book which brings football together with work of true literary merit, that rarest of combinations.