The beautiful game

The beautiful game

Jefferson Chase delves between the leaves of another novel.
Jefferson Chase

16 January 2009

Publication: Issue 77

Sports, like whisky, can be many things to many people. For some, they’re a pastime, for others they’re a passion, and for a few they’re a downright obsession.Legendary English soccer manager Brian Clough belonged to the third of those categories, and he’s the subject of David Peace’s marvellous 2006 novel, The Damned United.Clough is best known as the coach of the Nottingham Forest sides that won two consecutive European club championships. But Peace focuses on a different, far darker and more quixotic period in Clough’s career – his 44-day stint in charge of his most bitter rivals Leeds United in 1974.The Damned United doesn’t just tell the story of Clough’s misguided days at Leeds, though.Through a series of second-person flashbacks, it also explores how he got there, including the knee injury that ended his playing career.You stop crawling. You turn over. Your mouth is open. Your eyes wide, You see the face of the physio, Johnny Watters, a worried moon in a frightening sky. There is blood running down your cheek, with the sweat and with the tears, your right knee hurting, hurting, hurting, and you are biting, biting, biting the inside of your mouth to stifle the screams, to fight the fear.His playing days prematurely terminated, Clough set out to become England’s best manager the only way he knew how – brilliantly, arrogantly and obsessively.As those who remember him can attest, Clough was a big-headed blowhard with style.Part of his secret was his devil-may-care determination in acquiring players he wanted from other teams.You do not make an appointment. You do not telephone. You go straight to Upton Park. You do not wait in line and you do not knock on Ron Greenwood’s door. You walk right into his office and tell him, ‘I’m here for a chat. Now have you got any whisky?” Peace’s book is very well researched, and part of the fun of reading it is stepping back into a time when it was considered completely normal for coaches – and even players – to have drinks before matches.But The Damned United is also an unusually dark sports novel. As Leeds United fail to get off to a good start under Clough, his obsession with proving himself to the world, and especially his enemies, takes on paranoid dimensions.So my wife goes to bed but I know I won’t be able to sleep, not yet, not for a long time, so I stay up in the rocking chair and end up looking in the bloody paper again, the results spread out, working out a league table on the back on one of my daughter’s paintings, a league table for the first two games, a league table that leaves Leeds next to bottom, next to last… Alcoholism eventually contributed to the end of Clough’s coaching days, and he died in 2004.But he went down in English footballing history, as one of its most successful and funniest coaches, who delivered his own eulogy: “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one.” A movie version of The Damned United is scheduled for release this year. Having read Peace’s fascinating tale of fear and ambition, I plan to be in the theatre seats, cheering Clough on as his greatest failure unfolds.

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