Bigmouth strikes again: Cloughie, Ali and Carry On

“Football hooligans? Well there’s 92 club chairman for a start” - Brian Clough

Brian Clough was the Muhammad Ali of British football. The tragedy for him – and Peter Taylor – was that he couldn’t fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee himself. He had to cajole, charm and bully 11 players into doing that for him on the pitch.

He managed with the conviction of a messiah even if many (especially in the football business) regarded him not as a messiah but as a very naughty boy.

For much of his career – at Hartlepools (as he called it), Derby and Nottingham Forest – Clough’s teams were almost as eloquent as he was.

The dark exception, his 44 days at Leeds United, forms the gloomy heart of Tony Hooperh’s remarkable movie The Damned United, based on the even more remarkable novel by David Peace.

"Don't come any closer Brian..."

I loved the book and feared for the film, even when the mercurial Michael Sheen was cast as Cloughie.

After watching the movie this week, I wouldn’t say Sheen is the best British actor at work today, but he’s certainly in the top one.

His Clough is brilliant. There are echoes of his previous roles – Kenneth Williams and Tony Blair – at times but, oddly, this somehow added to the resonance because, watching Sheen, I realised there had always been something of Kenneth Williams’ archness about the real Clough.

Sheen is not the only reason to watch Hooper’s movie.

If you are, like me, old enough to remember the 1970s, this is a moving, funny nostalgia trip into a more innocent age when Clough, invited to dine free at the tandoori as reward for steering Derby into the top flight, tells his wife: “Throw the chips away, we’re going posh, chicken bhoona!”

At which point, the entire Clough family jig with such delight they could have won the pools.

The clothes, the decor, the cars, the transistor radios are all spot on. The film’s rainy, grainy, grimy, shiny texture brilliantly evokes the knackered, grey England of the 1970s, a country whose imminent irrelevance is prefigured by the decline in the national football team.

And the training scenes, for once in a football movie, don’t stink.

The performances vary. Many actors playing real people take their cues from Mike Yarwood. Luckily, Sheen, Timothy Spall (who looks nothing like Peter Taylor but is still utterly credible as the character) and Colm Meaney don’t.

Casting an actor called Meaney as Clough’s nemesis Don Revie was a masterstroke. And Meaney has the solidity, smugness and presence of The Don in his prime, although his face is such an odd shape he reminded me of Al Pacino’s synthetically enhanced gangster in Dick Tracy.

Revie’s team aren’t so well cast – Billy Bremner looks like Tom Jones’ stumpy little brother wearing an orange syrup of figs – but an opening montage of their acts of brutal carnage on the pitch sets up the movie beautifully and goes some way to explaining one of the roots of Clough’s antipathy.

I don’t know if Clough was really obsessed with beating Revie. He may, as tyros do, have used The Don as a target. If you were going to be the best, which Clough believed he was, then you had to beat the best.

And in the long run, he did beat him. He won two European Cups, Revie never got past the semi-final.

And Clough had a point, too, when he told Revie’s players they had to change their ways if they were to be loved. They never really did and are remembered more for their cynicism and brutality than for the occasional splendour of their team play.

They adopted Real Madrid’s strip but never consistently played in that glorious tradition.

The miracle, really, is that Clough was given the chance to come back in Nottingham. Football was a close-kit industry and Clough didn’t play by the rules.

He had been reckless and/or outspoken enough at Derby, Brighton and Leeds to have made him a pariah. It wasn’t just Revie who distrusted him. Matt Busby makes it clear, in his memoirs, that he was no great admirer nor, much later, was Sir Alex Ferguson.

"I think it's time I was going..."

But Clough vindicated himself just as Revie’s career was dissolving. There’s a curious trajectory to their rival careers at this point, as if the eclipse of Revie mysteriously helped Clough focus.

Allan Clarke, Eddie Gray and Bremner all had a shot at recreating the glory that was Revie. They lasted longer in the Elland Road hotseat than Cloughie but failed.

As indeed did Jock Stein who, like Clough, spent much of his 44 days in charge in a Leeds hotel, effectively waiting for the chance to manage Scotland. Not much material for a sequel there.

The movie left me wondering how and if Leeds had changed Clough.

Like all the best superheroes, he realised he was never the same without, his sidekick, Taylor and patched up their rift. And he found Forest, a club that fitted him, felt part of him, just as Derby had.

But I left the cinema wondering if his 44 days at Elland Road was the defining trauma of his managerial career. It nearly broke him. But on the Hemingway principle that people are strong in the broken places, perhaps, in the end, it made him.

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