In 'The Damned United,' A Cocky Coach Is Doomed

Actor Michael Sheen plays former Leeds United soccer coach Brian Clough in 'The Damned United' i i

Former Leeds United soccer coach Brian Clough — played by Michael Sheen — is depicted as having a dark side as well as being a comic genius in the new film The Damned United. Says film director Tom Hooper: "If anything, we're too kind to him." Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Actor Michael Sheen plays former Leeds United soccer coach Brian Clough in 'The Damned United'

Former Leeds United soccer coach Brian Clough — played by Michael Sheen — is depicted as having a dark side as well as being a comic genius in the new film The Damned United. Says film director Tom Hooper: "If anything, we're too kind to him."

Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The bloody, bruising, take-no-prisoners world of English soccer in the 1960s and early 1970s is the backdrop for the new feature film The Damned United.

But viewers don't need to know a thing about soccer — or like it — to appreciate the remarkable man at the center of the movie: Brian Clough.

Clough was the manager of a terrible team from Derby County in the basement of England's professional soccer league. But Clough did two miraculous things. First, he led Derby out of the basement to a championship. He then landed his dream job: coaching the powerhouse Leeds United team — English soccer's equivalent of baseball's New York Yankees. But Clough failed miserably, lasting only 44 days. The question behind The Damned United is why.

Watch Clips From 'The Damned United'

"He takes the bizarre position of taking on that job and having to manage a group of players who he's openly attacked for most of his professional life, which is a kamikaze, self-destructive decision," the film's director, Tom Hooper, tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And our film explores why his rampant ego leads him to take such a self-destructive decision."

To say that Clough, played in the film by Michael Sheen, was cocky and brash doesn't begin to tell the story. When Clough takes over from former manager Don Revie, he boldly tells the team, as depicted in the film: "You lot may all be internationals and have won all the domestic honors there are to win under Don Revie. But as far as I'm concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all of your medals and all your caps and all of your pots and all of your pans into the biggest [expletive] dustbin you can find. Because you've never done anything fairly, you've done it all by bloody cheating."

Hooper says the speech was "an incredibly bold move." To further illustrate Clough's boldness, Hooper included a clip of actual footage of the boxer Muhammad Ali, who says incredulously that he has heard Clough called another Ali.

Film Director Tom Hooper i i

The Damned United director Tom Hooper says he got favorable reactions in England when he told people his film was about Clough. "They would grin, they would smile, they would laugh. Because that's how he's remembered." Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Film Director Tom Hooper

The Damned United director Tom Hooper says he got favorable reactions in England when he told people his film was about Clough. "They would grin, they would smile, they would laugh. Because that's how he's remembered."

Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

"I heard all the way in America that this fella talks too much," Ali says in the footage. "There's just one Muhammad Ali. Clough, I've had enough — stop it."

Hooper called that clip and the comparison to Ali "an absolute gift" that reveals how "iconic Clough had become in English culture." He was like Ali "because he's a maverick, because he's outspoken, because he's a fighter, because he's driven," Hooper says. "Even though he's a soccer coach, as a player he was the fastest goal scorer in British history at the time. And he went on to have this pugnacious, unpredictable reputation."

Part of the reason Clough was so iconic is because he went beyond soccer — becoming a personality who would appear on TV talk shows, Hooper says. And, he says, Clough was an extraordinary entertainer and a gifted comedian.

In addition to drawing a portrait of Clough, the movie also revisits the very physical game that soccer was during his time as a coach.

"What's fun about the film is it's a record of, I suppose, a vanished world of how football used to be before this incredible influx of [Rupert] Murdoch's money transfigured the game in the U.K. — you know, it used to be an absolute working-class game rooted in its communities, as you can see in our movie," Hooper says. "It's now become gentrified, and I wanted to take it back to this decrepit, impoverished, underfunded beginning when people at the time were predicting the demise of football within 20 years."

The screenplay was adapted from The Damned Utd, a novel about Leeds United and Clough. There were a number of people, including Clough's widow, who were unhappy with the novel. Hooper says he hopes they'll watch the film.

Billy Bremmer (Stephen Graham) performing a slide tackle in the mud i i

Billy Bremner, played by actor Stephen Graham, slide tackles a player in the mud. Tom Hooper says the film is a record of "a vanished world of how football used to be." Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Billy Bremmer (Stephen Graham) performing a slide tackle in the mud

Billy Bremner, played by actor Stephen Graham, slide tackles a player in the mud. Tom Hooper says the film is a record of "a vanished world of how football used to be."

Laurie Sparham/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

"The sad irony is that because of the family's criticism of the book — and the contention was that the book was too dark, too nihilistic, too bleak, Clough was too alcoholic — I think we took account of those criticisms," Hooper says. "And I think, mainly, I wanted to bring Clough's wit back and his warmth back. The year I spent making the film up and down the country when I was in England, when I told people I was making a film about Brian Clough, they would grin, they would smile, they would laugh. Because that's how he's remembered. I felt the film had to showcase his dark side, because that was what the book was so brilliant at showing. But it also had to show his comic genius.

"The irony is, having done that, I think the family just assumed that it was a literal page-for-page out of the book and they would have the same feelings with it. I hope word will eventually filter through. I hope they will eventually see it. I know if they see it, they'll realize we made an affectionate portrait of the man. If anything, we're too kind to him."

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