In 1974 the defending champion Leeds United needed a new manager as their legendary coach Don Revie was leaving to take over the English national team. In a shocking move Leeds hired Brian Clough, an outspoken critic of Leeds and their style of play. After alienating the players, the fans, and his bosses, Clough was sacked after only 44 days.
The Damned United is David Peace’s novelized version of this time period. Using artistic license to imagine Clough’s state of mind during this ordeal and frequently flashing back to Clough’s earlier life, Peace attempts to provide a comprehensive portrait. Though it’s historical accuracy is heavily disputed, The Damned United is an engaging, well-written look at one of English football’s most memorable personalities.
Readers who are not as familiar with football may find the blizzard of player and team names confusing. Staying entirely within Clough’s consciousness leaves Peace little room for exposition or developing other characters. Some readers will also be put off by Peace’s constant use of repetition.
Spending so much time inside Clough’s head, in close proximity to his insecurities and doubts, has the effect of making Clough seem paranoid and possibly insane. Looking up the real Brian Clough after finishing the novel, I was surprised to find out that his failure at Leeds was really just a blip in a long record of success. The Clough of Peace’s novel seems like an unstable person headed for a breakdown, constantly screwing up chances for himself by always saying what was on his mind. There may be some truth in that, but without greater context it feels like an unfair and overly simplistic portrait of a complicated man who lived an extraordinary life.