The Damned United is probably the best football fiction book on the shelf so far. It’s a rare beast, a work of literary football fiction. Another sub to this ever expanding wee genre of mine.
Author David Peace has written a number of other works including award winner GB84, an account of the British miner’s strike, a kind of Billy Elliot for those less inclined to wear tights.
The Damned United (released in late 2006) follows the 44 days (total) of Brian Clough’s tenure at the helm of the 1974 Leeds United side. And it’s a remarkable, stunning, breath-taking book. Seriously. As Peace beatifically picks the scab off Clough’s verging-on-psychotic state of mind and his equally volatile managerial style, you find yourself violently pulled along on the book's force and simultaneously admiring its brilliance.
As a work of man management, something Peace does incredibly well across his work, it is an utterly absorbing, down and dirty fictionalised account of actual events. It’s exactly what fans imagine Cloughie would’ve been like at an emotional level. Arrogant, awful, conflictual, deceitful and dogmatic. A man who could pick a fight at a funeral. Terrifyingly enough, as a reader, you still like him more than the moody, churlish, obstinate players he’s supposed to be coaching and lots more than the less honest drink stiff Board employing him.
Paced like one of Clough’s famous surges of fury, …United plays as a maniacal headlong rush through one of the most notorious and the briefest manager/club relationships in the darker corners of football’s more sordid histories.
Through Clough’s eyes we see the divisions threatening to break a club even at the peak of it’s most successful period, divisions among those in charge and those on the pitch and how it’s all tenuously held together by what happens on the park. Or in Clough’s case not happening on the park. They only won one game while he was there.
It could be an analogy for what’s going on inside Clough’s head. As he takes an axe to his predecessor’s Don Revie’s desk, falls out with Billy Bremner and bitterly considers the end of his own playing career, we also get an account of sorts of Clough’s early career as a manager, a taste of his drinking habits and a razor sharp insight into the devious and dangerous nature of a complex football mind.
But The Damned United does much more. It raises questions about the place of football fiction, and sports writing in general, in the literary world, (except maybe Julian Barnes writings about chess right enough). It demonstrates how football fiction can be more than just a readable extension of fanatacism and most importantly, for me anyway, it legitimises the novel as a means to recreate or give life to events which would otherwise be reduced to vapid statistics and dry old football history. An area I’d like to look at more myself.
It’s also an awesome read. A book to swallow whole.
If you haven’t already, you should be thinking about getting yourself a copy.