A film about Carlton Fisk's game-winning home run in the 1975 World Series or Joe Namath's heroics in the 1969 Super Bowl likely would play to empty theaters in Great Britain. Likewise, many Americans may roll their eyes at the thought of seeing a film about the 1974 Leeds United soccer team, but The Damned United is thoroughly entertaining and, for those of us without extensive knowledge of English pro "football," a captivating bit of sports history.
To say that former British soccer coach Brian Clough (rhymes with "rough") was outspoken is like saying that European soccer fans are a bit spirited. Clough, who between 1967 and 1972 took Derby County from the bottom of the Second Division to the League Championship, was downright arrogant and audacious. He openly insulted anyone whom he felt threatened the sanctity of English football, but he saved the worst of his ire and bile for his rival coach Don Revie, and his team, Leeds United. Clough lambasted the popular Leeds team and their legendary coach, calling them bastards, thugs, and cheats, so when Clough was hired to replace Revie with Leeds United in 1974, most of England thought it was a recipe for disaster -- and they were right.
Director Tom Hooper and screenwriter Peter Morgan split the film between Clough's doomed 44-day stint with Leeds and flashbacks of his years moving up the ladder in Derby County, which allows them to alternate scenes of Clough's ego swelling, via his success at Derby, and then deflating during his dismal tenure in Leeds. The key relationship is between Clough and his longtime assistant, Peter Taylor, who many felt was the key to Clough's success because of his uncanny ability for scouting talent. The film includes several set pieces featuring reenactments of prominent events, such as a volatile joint television appearance between Clough and Revie, but the scenes work well even for Americans, who likely won't be distracted by the impulse to evaluate the accuracies and discrepancies between the film and history. Michael Sheen's mesmerizing performance as the charismatic Clough and the cathartic delight in watching a brash champion fail so completely are more than enough to carry the film. To paraphrase a Brian Clough quote (about his own coaching ability), The Damned United may not be the best soccer film of all time, but it is in the top one.