I’ve only been to a few English football matches in my life, and like most people who didn’t grow up with it, I don’t find it as engaging as do the locals. Yet one of my all-time favorite sports movies is about English football, which is a testament to the skills of everyone involved in The Damned United.
The plot of this fact-based 2009 film: Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) is a cocky, quotable ex-football star who establishes his brilliance as a manager by leading the once pathetic Derby County club to greatness. Throughout his rise he makes no secret of his contempt of mighty Leeds United and of their legendary coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney) whom he believes snubbed him. In a shocking twist of fate, when Revie departs to coach England’s national team, Clough is tapped to manage the squad he has denigrated, and accepts with the goal of remaking the team in his image and proving that he is superior to Levie in every way. But his arrogance leads him to grossly overestimate how easy the task will be.
Frequent Sheen collaborator Peter Morgan was one of the producers and also wrote the script (They also also made another of my recommendations, The Special Relationship). Based on a novel that many people thought was scurrilous (author David Peace was successfully sued for libel), Morgan’s script makes Clough more sympathetic and integrates many choice quotes that Clough and those around him said at the time. Kudos to Morgan and to director Tom Hooper for their skills as storytellers, particularly in going back and forward in time while never losing narrative momentum. Hooper would win the directing Oscar for his next film, The King’s Speech, but he’s in just as fine form here.
Sheen again shows his facility for playing characters based on real people. He gets Clough’s mannerisms and almost sing-song Northern speech cadence right, and fleshes him out as a rounded person with clear defects and impressive strengths. The supporting performances are excellent, with Timothy Spall being particularly endearing as Assistant Manager Peter Taylor, whom Clough needs to succeed more than his ego can readily concede. Hats off as well to everyone involved in location scouting, set design, costuming, and art direction for visually transporting us convicingly back to the hard-scrabble period that was England in the 1970s.
As I mentioned, you don’t need to know anything about English football in general or the specific events portrayed to appreciate this movie. As long as you appreciate a well-acted, well-told story, with vivid characters, The Damned United is for you.