November 15, 2009


by David Peace
368 pages, Faber & Faber publisher

Review by Pat Black

Dirty Leeds Leeds Leeds Leeds Leeds Leeds. It’s a chant, a sentiment that hisses all the way through David Peace’s appropriation of sporting history in The Damned Utd. A primal scream, the sound you might make with bared teeth on the terraces. A reminder of football as it was, with less money, less television coverage, less civilised, more feral.

Ostensibly a sports book, The Damned Utd takes us into the psyche of one of English football’s most revered figures, one Brian Howard Clough. Clough was the managerial genius who took on deeply unfashionable clubs and gave them mind-bending levels of success in the 1970s and 1980s. First Derby County, Champions of England in 1972; then Notts Forest, Champions of Europe, twice. 1979 and 1980. Notts Forest!

Like a great many geniuses, you suspect that Brian Clough didn’t even know what Brian Clough was going to do next. No door is closed to him, no barrier too big to stride over, no club director too powerful to put in their place, no ambition beyond his grasp. Add drink to an already combustible mix, and you’ve got one of the biggest characters ever to grace a dug-out. This is big stuff for Peace to take on; how do you fashion a legend in your own image? A man they made statues out of?

Clough’s mouth was as big as his talent and even now, almost two decades after he quit football, five years after his death, we can still hear that drawling voice, those smug pronouncements. He’s well worth a YouTubing; the voice you’ll hear there is replicated almost exactly in the book. The bloody this, and bloody that; the foul-mouthed rages at players who let him down; the glorious fuck-youness of the man, two fingers brandished at just about everyone. The punchline of many of his tussles, verbal and physical: "Fuck off."

The one dark patch in Clough’s almost peerless CV is his 44 days in charge of Leeds United. The dirty dirty Leeds of the 1970s, the Leeds of Don Revie and Billy Bremner and Norman “Bite Yer Legs” Hunter. The Leeds of secret dossiers and bribery allegations. Gamesmanlike Leeds; fouling, hacking Leeds; cheating Leeds, many said, including Clough. He was a strange choice to succeed Revie in 1974 after “The Don” moved to the England job, given his track record for slating the side in newspaper columns and on television. The fictional Clough shows a man driven by a bitter sense of injustice, a thirst for vengeance, a man who saw Don Revie and Leeds as his nemesis, his shadow side, everything he wasn’t. The Leeds players didn’t take to him, and Clough soon found himself out the door at Elland Road after a run of bad results. The entire 44 days are compellingly rendered here.

The book has two distinct styles; there’s first person, present tense, all Clough, all balls and guts, as he gets to grips with replacing the irreplaceable in Leeds. Then there’s the italicised, second person flashbacks as we go through his past career, stopped early through injury as a player and then reborn as a successful young manager. His early successes at “Hartlepools”and then his sudden, blistering arrival on the scene at Derby County with his right-hand man and friend, Peter Taylor.

Peace’s sentences are short, brutal and often cut off with –

Dashes. And this put me in mind of football, in the teeth of the game, the sudden moments, the abrupt changes in flow and rhythm, the reflexes (or lack of them, in your humble author’s case). There’s no sports porn in this book, no slo-mo shots, no sweeping music or lingering divot-kicking details. Just Clough’s brief, emotive, needle-sharp observations and emotions during the game. This is a psychological profile, not a tale of winners and losers, heroes and villains.

Peace’s book did run into a little legal trouble regarding its depiction of people. Johnny Giles, the Irish international, made a legal complaint and the book was changed, although no liability was ever admitted. Happily for Peace, most of the real cast and crew in the story are all safely, unactionably dead, and Peace makes merry with these stars of the past as characters.

I was fascinated to see how Peace would sketch Leeds’ formidable ginger terrier of a captain, Billy Bremner. This very epitome of a fiery Scot comes across as aloof and uninterested in his new manager, still loyal to Revie, hatred and bitterness only just concealed beneath an epithelial-thin veneer of respect. It seems a bizarre way to render someone who was only ever known as a committed professional, tough but respected. All of the players are a sullen bunch. Even the groundsmen and the coaches don’t give Clough five minutes, it seems – especially after his watch mysteriously goes missing at the training ground, a lingering irritation for a good chunk of the text.

Clough himself is presented not so much warts and all as carbuncles and all, and this depiction pleased neither the man’s widow nor his children. However, he’s never seen as anything other than a committed and loving husband and father, for all his flaws.

The demons on show – drinking; his great big mouth; his love of stirring up trouble and controversy; his occasional snarlings at close confidantes such as the lovable Peter Taylor, the good cop to his bad in the dressing room – are all common knowledge. Like that other giant of English football, George Best, Clough replaced the buzz of the games and the combat and the adulation and the anxiety and the pressure with a simpler one to be found in a glass. Ultimately – in both cases - one cannot function without the other. The snake swallows itself.

There’s a delicious drunken horror flashback where Clough appears at a local sport award dinner. Asked to make a speech and present the award, Clough informs the audience, “I’m going... for a bloody pee.” Then he downs the microphone and does just that, before coming back to criticise the recipient of the award, and his team... yep, it’s a Leeds United player, Peter Lorimer. You have to salute the mental strength of a man who could survive the heebie jeebies he gets after that one.

Football in the seventies is alive and kicking here, too. Instead of having the sports cars and the big houses and the trophy wives we see today, the players back then were smokers, always smokers, always drinkers, with the meek wives and families. You can almost sense the poor hygiene, the dreadful haircuts, the British teeth, the sweat of it all. They’re very much of their time and their class. In The Damned Utd’s world, we are twenty years and a satellite TV signal away from the game’s full acceptance by the middle classes, a time when the line between player and supporter, between prima donna and prawn sandwich brigade, was not so firmly drawn.

And then there’s the black magic. This is a book obsessed with hexes, bad luck, superstition, ill omens, the uncanny. There’s the missing watch I was telling you about earlier. It’s a sign of lost time, of the worst of days. “The end of everything good, the beginning of everything bad,” as Clough says. Every day is a dark, grey Yorkshire day, even when the sun shines. Don Revie’s ghost haunts the corridors of Elland Road for Clough, even when he performs the exorcism of taking an axe to his predecessor’s desk and then torching it in the car park (one of many scenes in the book which, it seems, did not happen in real life). One of the most troublesome players reads The Exorcist on the team bus. Single magpies die on windowsills. There’s feral football fans with their “white faces and sharpened teeth and red eyes”, hammering on the sides of the team bus. And there’s black dogs, barking Son of Sam-style: “Clough out! Clough out! Clough out!”

Nevermore. Nevermore.

This dark side, this depiction of Leeds United Football Club as an almost occult force, is where we might divine signs and portents of our own. David Peace is a Huddersfield Town fan, you see, a historically inferior local rival of this Damned Utd. That means he probably doesn’t like dirty dirty Leeds very much. Still, as their own fans acknowledge in song, no-one likes Leeds very much, and the era depicted has a lot to do with this.

So what to take away from the book? There’s its wonderful stream-of-consciousness style, for one thing. Truly great books have a way of boring into the mind, of snagging on your own thoughts, altering the rhythms of your own imagination, and that’s what happened to me with Peace’s mesmerising prose. I was possessed. Possessed by the voice of Brian Clough. You will read this book in a flash, whether you’re a football fan or not. You’ll wonder where the time went, when you look at your own watch. Stylistically it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years.

But other than that, we have Brian Clough, resurrected. This figure I’m old enough to remember, in the latter, alcohol-blighted years of his career. Taking wild bar-room swings at fans as they invaded his pitch; still wonderfully rude with inane television pundits. And the story humanises him. All the way through this book, he’s talking about his “lads”, either his own sons or his players. His two boys are with him on the very first page. There’s a beautiful moment where a player gives Clough a big smile ahead of a match. “He’s bloody beaming from ear to ear. Like my youngest,” Clough says.

This dad does the washing up, he kisses his wife goodnight, he calls her from team hotels. He bathes the kids and puts them to bed, he reads them a story. He is a father, a great father. It’s where Peace does Clough the most credit, for my money. And this made me think of the other great managers of the era, of Jock Stein and Matt Busby and Bill Shankly (“Shanks’ team was a poem and Shanks was a poet,” Clough says). Of how we look up to them. How they were not the stuff of athletic flair, daring and brutality like the players they once were, but something more substantial. Of how they were a guiding force, of how their words have survived, how we love to quote them and have them quoted. How these men shaped their teams and shaped us through what our beloved clubs did on the pitch.

It’s a tradition that continues to this day, even with the crashed Ferraris and the six-packs and the hair gel and photoshoots and the endorsements and the glamour model wives and the £100,000-a-week wages. We still have them, the great managers. We have Alex Ferguson’s red-tinged rage, and the cool contemplation of Arsene Wenger in contrast. We have one of Clough's own lads, Martin O’Neill, leaping up and down on the touchline at every goal – every single goal. We have Jose Mourinho’s insouciant shrug, his raised eyebrow.

They are not simply managers, they are our fathers. And no matter how much they might disappoint us, despite some of the fall-outs and recriminations and the odd regret or two, we miss them sorely when they are gone.

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