The Damned United
Brian Clough man of the match
Plays about football are notoriously hard to stage; not least because the size of the cast is inevitably disproportional to the mass spectacle the play is trying to recreate.
That said, two or three actors and a bit of clever trickery can work wonders.
And it also helps if your main character is ‘a special man’ (his own words) of the sort rarely, if ever, seen in the modern game.
Few were more ‘special’ than Brian Clough, the outspoken, arrogant, charismatic, self-proclaimed footballing genius who blazed a managerial trail through a succession of clubs, uniting and dividing players and fans in equal measure.
Clough’s controversial 44 days as manager of Leeds United in the 1974/1975 season is the subject of ‘The Damned United’; first a book, then an acclaimed film and now a play by the Leeds-based Red Ladder Theatre Company.
The story of Clough’s mercurial rise, from a playing career cut short by injury to national and international success with Derby County and the time spent at Leeds, is compacted into a dynamic hour of rollercoasting emotions that leaves you both exhausted and exhilarated.
In the film, Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Clough set the bar almost impossibly high.
Here, Luke Dickson ably rises to the challenge, exaggerating Ole Big ‘ead’s jaw-jutting, pugnacious stance to comic effect.
The manager’s Machiavellian manner is nicely contrasted with that of his assistant, Peter Taylor (David Chafer), who trails in Clough’s wake but famously (and sensibly) doesn’t follow him to Leeds.
The play’s staging is simple but highly effective.
A backdrop of corrugated iron, onto which film of players, matches and slogans is projected, gives us a hint of a typical 1970s stadium terrace, while a pair of wire racks stand in for the dressing rooms in which Clough worked his unique style of player ‘motivation’.
As per Clough’s linguistic talents, there are plenty of great lines.
He is challenged by Leeds chairman Manny Cussins (Jamie Smelt) on his £15,000 a year salary.
“Twice as much as the Archbishop of Canterbury," Cussins remarks.
“Yes,” replies Clough, without missing a beat, “and while churches are empty, the terraces are full.”
Brian Clough – the greatest manager England never had.
If you can’t get enough of football in the run-up to the World Cup – or even loathe it (like me), don’t miss The Damned United at the Tobacco Factory Theatres on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 5-6.
The stage adaptation of David Peace’s best-selling novel (and then hit-film) by award-winning playwright Anders Lustgarten has been a critically focus on Brian Clough’s disastrous 44-day period Leeds United manager.
Red Ladder Theatre Company artistic director Rod Dixon said: “The Damned United has it all - passion, power struggles, tragedy and a classic anti-hero in Clough.
"Anders’ adaptation captures the grit, poetry and darkness of David’s writing, charting the fall of Brian Clough and exposing what made Old Big 'Ed tick.
"Audiences are given a fascinating insight into the troubled but brilliant mind of a flawed genius – who to this day remains one of the most controversial figures in sporting history.”
The production brings to life the beauty and brutality of football, combining soundscape, projection and storytelling to capture the challenges of one man at the top of his game.
It’s a love story about football and about how it can demand a person’s mental health in exchange for glory.
I loved the film and while I never watch football, I can’t wait to see this play.
In 2014 the rights for The Damned United were donated by David Peace to the theatre company for just £3.68 – a penny for each page in the novel – as a show of his support for the Leeds-based theatre company when its Arts Council funding was cut by 100 per cent.
This production premiered as a sell-out in 2016.
David Peace said: “Football, at every level, is drama, theatre and spectacle played out before a living, breathing and usually very partisan audience; this is what Anders, Rod and everybody involved brought to the story which neither the book nor the film could do.”
The Damned United is at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, Raleigh Road, Southville on Tuesday, June 5 (there is a post-show talk on this night) and Wednesday, June 6 at 8pm.
Tickets (limited availability) from £12.
Age recommendation 14+ and running time 1hr 5mins.