Sunday, January 25, 2009

The North! The North! Where we do what we want!

I have just finished reading David Peace's The Damned United, a novel about Brian Clough and the forty four days he spent managing Leeds United in 1974. Back then, Leeds were one of England's big sides, and had topped the league in the previous season. Clough was an odd choice to take over managing the club, as he had very publicly accused them and their previous manager of being a bunch of cheating thugs. The book has two narratives, one following his forty-four days as Leeds manager in almost excruciating detail, the other following his earlier career. So one narrative ends with his sacking (after the team had won only one of their first six league games), the other with his taking the job.

I know next to nothing about football. I am dimly aware of the Brian Clough name, and looking up on the internet produces photographs of some guy who looks vaguely familiar from football commentary programme my dad would watch. I still found the book highly enjoyable. It works by putting you into what Peace imagines Clough's mental state must have been like. The book is basically a novel about depression, obsession, and paranoia, and I reckon anyone interested in such things would enjoy this. If you actually like football, it must be a total stormer.

The other great thing about this book is that there is lots of swearing in it, much of it directed against Johnny Giles. While nowadays Giles is best known as that TV football pundit, back then he was one of Leeds United's more aggressively physical players. He also had eyes on the managerial job himself when it became vacant, so Clough and Giles do not get off to a good start. The book (written in the first person as though by Clough) thus tends to refer to "Johnny Fucking Giles", "that Irish bastard Johnny Giles", "the grinning Irish bastard", "fucking Johnny fucking Giles", and so on. As it happens, the real Johnny Giles took exception to his portrayal in the book and sued for libel, causing references to him seeking Clough's sacking being removed from it. The non-defamatory vulgar abuse remains.

I gather that Brian Clough's widow does not like the book. I do not know what she dislikes about it – the swearing maybe, or the depiction of her late husband as someone consumed by self-doubt and other demons. To each their own; the book is a fiction, and it is still so bound up with its protagonist that the reader that he comes across as a giant in a world of pygmies.

There is a film of The Damned United coming out later this year.

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