We should make clear at the outset that neither the book nor film called The Damned United is a work of nonfiction history.
Both, in varying degrees, are fictionalized accounts of a very famous time in English football, featuring a notorious and mercurial figure taking over a leading and somewhat controversial club at the peak of their powers.
But that doesn’t begin to reveal the whole story about Brian Clough’s infamous 44 days at the helm of Leeds United. So before we move on to the book and film based on these actual events, let’s briefly review the events themselves. Because while there’s plenty to say about The Damned United, the stories of this man, this club and their brief partnership are fascinating all the way around.
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Leeds United in the 1960s and Early 1970s
Under the leadership of Don Revie, Leeds built a team that competed for trophies for a decade, winning the First Division (twice), the FA Cup, the League Cup, and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (sort of the current Europa League). But to keep things in perspective, they also finished second in the league five times and lost the FA Cup final three times. So they were right in the middle of everything, playing a style that was both free-flowing and attacking — and also tough as nails.
That last bit earned them a reputation in some quarters as “Dirty Leeds,” though from my outsider perspective, I suspect some of that was discrimination based both on region (Leeds is “up north”) and class (it’s a mining and industrial area). Either way, they were good, and they were disliked.
Brian Clough at Derby County
Brian Clough grew up in Middlesbrough and had a brief but great career there and at Sunderland, scoring a ridiculous 251 goals in 274 games over nine seasons before an injury suddenly stopped his playing days at the age of 29. He then became a manager and, in 1967, took over Derby County of the Second Division. He got them promoted the next season, and in 1972 they won the First Division; the following season they made the semifinals of the European Cup!
In addition to his obvious skills as a manager, Clough — assisted to this point by Peter Taylor — was also brash, cocky, controversial and hilarious, making him a media darling, a difficult employee, and a man loved and hated all over the country. And foremost among his favorite subject matters was Leeds United and Revie, whom he regularly criticized for their “cheating” playing style and general attitude.
Clough at Leeds
Clough got himself and Taylor sacked at Derby County after a dispute with the chairman, then went off for a year to Brighton and Hove Albion. Revie, meanwhile, took the job as England manager in 1974, leaving the Leeds job open. And whom did they hire but Brian Clough, who didn’t convince Taylor to come along this time.
Fans were unhappy, the media swarmed, and the players apparently thought, well, maybe he didn’t really mean all that stuff he said about us. That thought evaporated after their first training session together, when Clough famously told this trophy-laden team of international players to toss out all their medals because they were won by cheating and poor sportsmanship.
While you can give him credit for meaning what he said and saying what he meant, and also understand he was probably just trying to establish his authority in the dressing room, to say it didn’t work for Clough at Leeds would be an understatement. He won just one of six games while alienating the fanbase and the core of the team, and he was famously sacked after just 44 days in charge, taking a then-huge £98,000 payout as he left.
Clough and Leeds: The Aftermath
As Revie’s team broke up and aged out, they didn’t recover, and Leeds were relegated in 1982. After spending the 1980s in Division 2, they did get back up to win another league championship in 1992, making them the last champions of the old Football League before the formation of the Premier League. They would have another good run around 2000, making the Champions League semifinals, before falling apart financially and only getting back to the Premier League in 2020.
Clough, meanwhile, became a legend. He took over another struggling Second Division side in 1975, Nottingham Forest — just 12 miles from Derby County and now, more than ever, their biggest rivals. Taylor joined him there a year later, and Forest got promoted right away, then won the 1978 League Cup, then amazingly won the 1979 First Division. But that was just the start, as they went on to win the next two European Cups! Imagine Leicester City, after famously winning the Premier League in 2016, winning two straight Champions Leagues.
Such was the power of Brian Clough, and no doubt both Derby County and Leeds must have been watching and thinking, “Could have been us.”
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The Book, The Damned United
Clough retired in 1993 and died in 2004. In 2006, a writer named David Peace published a novel ostensibly about Clough’s rivalry with Revie and Leeds. It was a strange mixture of real and imagined — Peace called it “a fiction based on a fact” — for example, taking the reader inside the head of Clough although the writer never met his “subject,” whom he portrays as a dark, vengeful alcoholic. Admittedly, that last bit did seem an issue in Clough’s later years.
Critics generally liked the book, but Clough’s family hated it, and former Leeds player Johnny Giles sued, saying “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.” He won his case, as well, extracting a few changes from the publisher.
Peace went on to give a similar treatment to Bill Shankly and the rise of Liverpool in a book called Red or Dead.
The Damned United Film
In 2009, a film adaptation of the book came out, also to critical acclaim. Clough’s family did not participate and let it be known they didn’t even want the film made. But the filmmakers say they tried to make Clough’s portrait more sympathetic and less dark, while removing some of the glaring historical inaccuracies from the book.
Still, there was a lawsuit from one person portrayed in the book, which earned him an apology. And others listed out various inaccuracies about player signings, timing, and other details. But the critics loved it, particularly the portrayal of Clough by Michael Sheen, also known for playing Tony Blair in The Queen. Imitating Clough, as well as telling stories about him, are cottage industries in England, and even The Damned United’s most scathing critics agree that Sheen nailed it.
I highly recommend both the book and film The Damned United, whether they are “accurate” or not. If you want accuracy, you can find documentaries on YouTube and read more authorized and official biographies.
And why not do both? Here at Groundhopper Guides, we are all about education and entertainment, giving you context to further understand your travels in English soccer. And both The Damned United and the “real” Brian Clough / Leeds United story offer a great way to do that.