Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Damned Utd - David Peace

Read: May 2007

“Gentlemen, I might as well tell you now. You lot may have won all the domestic honours there are and some of the European ones but, as far as I’m concerned, the first thing you can do for me is chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest f***ing dustbin you can find, because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by bl**ding cheating.”

In 1974, Brian Clough, the man, the enigma, the genius, took over the helm as manager of Leeds United, a club he very publicly despised. He was to last only 44 days. 44 days during which he barely spoke to the players, took an axe to his predecessor Don Revie’s desk, saw his captain sent off for fighting with Kevin Keegan in the Charity Shield at Wembley, and won only one competitive game.

This is the fictionalisation of those catastrophic days interspersed with Cloughie’s early years in management: from Hartlepools in the third division to Derby County, the First Division Championship and a European Cup Semi-Final. In these happier days there are startling achievements and the beginning of a legend: the national acclaim, the players at Derby willing to go on strike to have him re-instated as manager, the hard work and the spending. But in the backdrop Cloughie’s demons lurk: the alcohol and the paranoia, the determination and the arrogance; the obsession and the tragedy. In focusing the story directly on Clough himself, David Peace is able to recreate the claustrophobic paranoia and desperation of the man himself; through detailed research he has created a novel which brings back to life a legend the like of whom will not be seen again.

The Damned Utd is a superb evocation of football in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and a brilliant recreation of one of the most controversial managers of all time. You will come away from it feeling closer to Clough than ever before. But you can never really know him, he is too complex and unfathomable for that. He does not come out of the book well, but then neither does anyone, this is a bleak portrayal of football in the 1970’s, as hooliganism increases and the gentleman’s code flies out the window. For someone like me who barely remembers football before the Premiership it was an absolute pleasure to travel back into a different age, to watch a man run a football club in a way that would be absolutely unimaginable today. But it was those idiosyncrasies which made Cloughie the manager he was, and at the end of the day you can only judge him by his record: 2 League Championships with sides he got promoted from the second tier, two European Championships, not to mention a few League Cups along the way. And he did it all in style. Like many thousands of people before me, I fell in love with Cloughie.

Rarely, if ever, do sports books make waves in literary circles but The Damned UTD has received unanimous acclaim by critics and public alike. Rarely are fictionalised accounts of real events able to recreate the atmosphere and personalities of those involved, but this one does, and does it so well that you often feel you are reading Cloughie’s own private diary. Rarely do books written in the second person narrative work but here it is an inspired decision which helps build the claustrophobic paranoia as Brian Clough begins to crack up. David Peace has written one of the best books of the year. And in doing so he has proved that fiction, well researched and well written, is more adroit at recreating the past than any biography or history book ever could.

Read this book, you will not be disappointed.

9 out of 10

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