There’ve been relatively few great football novels. The best of them all, of course, was Hamilton of the “Ringers”, 1959, in which a chap named Hamilton joins a First Division side as an amateur, and in his first season as centre-forward helps the Ringers to the title and the FA Cup, helps himself to some England caps, and finds himself a wife. I must have read it a hundred times, and it’s yet to lose its shine. Then there’s How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J.L.Carr, which might have been the inspiration for Graham Taylor’s Watford. It’s a charming fable about a village team who are taken under the wing of an enigmatic foreign manager, who teaches them the long ball game with stunning results.
The Damned Utd isn’t like that. In its way, it’s actually the first successful football novel. As opposed to the first football novel in which I’m successful..
David Peace is our primary chronicler of that complicated time between the end of the post-War boom and the end of Britain’s decline; from the 1973 oil crisis, say, until the 50th D-Day Anniversary celebrations in London in 1995. His trilogy of novels about, among other things, the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, are what he’s best known for, and The Damned Utd grows straight out of these and shares their purpose and atmosphere.
The Damned Utd consists entirely of first person narrative, one first person narrative, and our interlocutor is one Brian Clough. Peace’s first achievement is to prevent that one thing alone derailing the novel as a novel. You are never tempted to treat Peace’s Clough as an attempt to explore the real man – this is clearly not biography, and Peace trims his Clough to fit his method.
The narrative follows two timescales, which play tag with one another as the novel proceeds. Timescale one concerns Clough from the moment of his career-ending injury to the fallout from his resignation with Peter Taylor from Derby County. The theme is Clough’s revenge upon his fate. Timescale two covers his 44 days as manager of Leeds United, when he alone, without Taylor, plays successor to Don Revie.
Don Revie barely appears in the novel, but his presence is always felt. He and his team, his philosophy, his success, his mini-me John Giles, (“The Irishman”) obsess and madden Peace’s Clough. Does he want Revie to notice him, to acknowledge him, or just cease to be? Don is always out there, omniscient and all powerful, and the hard-drinking, hard-smoking insomniac Clough of the novel rages against him impotently before, in effect, falling to him altogether. Left unspoken at the end of the novel, as Clough leaves Elland Road for the last time, is what happens next: the permanant eclipse of Leeds, coinciding with the city’s own eclipse, and the rebirth of Clough and Taylor’s footballing East Midlands, which finally buries Revie’s legacy and leaves Clough, not Revie, as the great hope of the English game.
The Clough/Taylor relationship is thorougly explored, in this case to portray Clough as a torn man, dependent on others but longing to hog the limelight, perpetually in search of dominance (Arthur Hopcraft’s idea of the core drive for successful managers) but unable to gain it without his partner. Taylor is always about to settle for the quiet, remunerative life, money and comfort now: Clough is the risk-taker and visionary who, on the inside, is in a perpetual state of psychological flight.
Clough is also illustrated by his relationships with his two chairmen, Sam Longson at Derby and Manny Cussins at Leeds. Both begin as his closest allies, banking the farm on Clough in the teeth of opposition from their fellow directors. Sharing Clough’s desires for fame, attention and domination, each moves at his own pace to an anagonistic position, Longson over years, Cussins in the space of a lunar month.
Football, and footballers, represent the whole world of the novel – nothing else is admitted as a possibility, nothing else is given the least notice or importance. Frankly, the way it’s portrayed would put you off if you were new to it. Here’s the ’70s working class world in all its unnecessary, put-on machismo and brutality, its deliberate, chosen stupidity and parochial malice. Everyone, except for Roy McFarland! is out for themselves, and quite incapable of appreciating the virtues of solidarity save in rhetoric. The players, except for Roy McFarland! are monosyllabic sharp-stud bruisers, who can’t think.
I can’t resist adding my own reflections on the portrayal of Clough – acknowledging that Peace has written a novel here, not a biography, and that the demands he has set himself are quite different from a biographer’s. The influence of Clough’s autobiography, Cloughie: Walking on Water and Patrick Murphy’s His Way are obvious. There’s Clough’s love for Derby, never matched elsewhere; his family orientation and his attitude to fair play. Peace’s Clough is a hopeless alcoholic from the off, whereas the real Clough only took to drink properly after his trophies were all won. There too is the on-off relationship with Taylor, and the bitter regret at things said. Nothing, really, on what made Clough a great manager. Peace identifies Taylor’s role well enough, and Taylor’s absence from Leeds, heightening Clough’s already intense isolation, is a theme of the second timeline. But Peace’s Derby players come out for Clough – and we don’t really know why: there’s no insight beyond the old saw of “a kick up the backside, a hand around the shoulder”.
In truth, there isn’t room for that – or wouldn’t be without interrupting the real themes of the novel, which is very deliberately a modern Greek tragedy. We know, of course, that the gods were unable in the end to destroy Clough, and neither were the brewers. Clough died of cancer, not from drinking (George Best didn’t die from drinking, either, not by direct means at any rate).
The real Clough said, late in life, that his secret as a man-manager had come from his ability to break a player down until he knew who he really was. True confidence, said Clough, came from accurate self-knowledge: if you are John Robertson and you know you are a tub of lard who can deliver a cross – then not only do you know the worst and can deal with it, but you have absolute confidence in yourself in that place where you do your best work. And you’re that much more likely to be a team player, not a fantasy-prone prima donna or a talent liable to waste energy finding out the hard way where that talent ends.
That’s simple, sure, but also acute – too acute for most of the current professional psychological manuals on low self esteem. Clough wasn’t a “natural psychologist”, but a very clever man able to work his principles out for himself. It’s not that Clough you’ll meet in Peace’s novel – but a compelling character of Peace’s own, in the first football novel that has the game properly, not embarrassingly, built into it.