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The Damned Utd Paperback – 5 Apr 2007
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'The most extraordinary novel about football yet to appear.' --Tim Martin, Independent on Sunday
'The Damned Utd is an overwrought, overblown, sliding tackle of a book. I loved it.' --Tony Saint, Daily Telegraph
'If Euripides had ever tried ghosting football memoirs he could not have done it better.' --Alfred Hickling, The Guardian
The Damned Utd, by David Peace, is the hugely acclaimed novel of 1970s football, and the turmoil of Brian Clough, the game's most charismatic and controversial manager.See all Product description
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Mr Peace appears to believe that if something - however mundane - is worth saying once it is worth saying at least three times. This is his stylistic device and he deploys it like a sadist. Opening a page at random, we find "I feel like death. I feel like death. I feel like death." After a page or so of this sort of thing, we all do. Unfortunately there are three hundred and fifty pages like that (opening two more at random - "Running. Running. Running" which is then repeated three lines lower; and "Bastards. Bastards. Bastards"). Without the repetition, it would probably be two hundred and fifty. And without the alternating between the "main plot" of Mr Clough's forty-four days at Leeds (which is what the book's title promises you) and the "sub-plot" of his previous career, the book would probably be about fifty pages long.
If you know anything about this part of Mr Clough's extraordinary career, you will already know the key incidents at Elland Road. What you get here is those best stories rehashed with a load of padding - all in the worst prose style you are ever likely to come across.
The only good thing about this book is the picture on the front cover.
After an evening spent trying to explain to my girlfriend how it was possible to simultaneously admire & hate Revie's Leeds Utd, I decided to have another try. By now I'd seen the rather impressive bibliography of the material David Peace used as the research for the story. Gradually the characters take shape - insecure Peter Taylor, boorish Billy Bremner (what a player, tho'), snide Johnny Giles, loyal Allan Clarke, the narrow-minded directors...
Of course, a lot of the book's strength is in how it evokes the world of mid-70's football & what a different world it was compared to the Brave New World of the Premier League - tactics, salaries, referees, stadia, all different... I remember the 1st time I saw Brian Clough's newly promoted Derby (mix of savvy old pros & bright, hungry youngsters) come to Chelsea, get 2-2 draw, & we knew this was going to be a very good side. Alas I can't see it ever happening again that a provincial side could get promoted & sweep all before them, mainly down to their manager - and then for him to go on to even greater heights with Forest. So how could someone so successful have failed so badly at Leeds?
I'm not entirely sure the flashback sections work - altho' they contain info that's vital to the story, at times I wanted to skip them to get back to the main story. However, persist with it & this book is a good read - but a fairly good knowledge of 70's football is pretty essential to understanding & enjoying large parts of the book (knowing the difference as players between dainty Duncan McKenzie & bull-at-a-gate Joe Jordan, for example).
Sometimes a formula that looks good on paper - e.g. most supergroups & musical reunions - can turn out to be a disaster, and in many ways the theme of the book is how Brian Clough & Leeds Utd brought out the worst in each other. Clough's arrogance, "refuelling" habits & confrontational nature are well known now, & the parochial Leeds board expected succress by right after the Revie years. As we know, Clough had great success after Leeds & the club managed to paper over the cracks for a while after the "safe" appointment of Jimmy Armfield as Clough's successor.
Meanwhile, back in real life - David Peace wisely resists any temptation to play God & allude to the ongoing disasters suffered by Leeds in recent years. Despite being a Chelsea supporter, I take no pleasure in what's happened to Leeds. We nearly went bust in the 80's, so I know how it feels. There's no point having Deadly Rivals if you never play each other.
Now, shall I give this 4 stars or not...
This book takes place in the mind of the main character: a courageous place to centre it when main character is Brian Clough. It invites us to ask whether it's a fair or accurate portrayal of the real Brian Clough. I prefer to ignore the question and view David Peace's version of Brian Clough as a fiction.
However Clough's story is not a fiction so, before we begin following the two threads of the book, we already know the endings. We know his time as manager of Derby County ended in an irreparable rift with the board of directors; we know he went to Leeds with a rift already there, that 44 days at the club couldn't heal.
What provides the impetus in Peace's book is not the need to find out what happens, but curiosity about why it happens. This is where the use of stream of consciousness succeeds, though we do not find the inside of this character's head a particularly comfortable place to be. It is an egocentric, alcohol-hazed world beset by daemons. The stream of consciousness might help us to understand, but it does not necessarily lead us to empathise. As when Clough smashes up Don Revie's desk in front of the former manager's secretary, and Maurice Lindley, Revie's assistant manager and right hand man. Or when he makes the now famous speech about putting in the dustbin all the medals and trophies he considers were won by cheating.
After he has smashed the desk, he stands 'panting and sweating like a big fat black ... dog.' By the time he meets the dog again, the writing is on the wall: 'Clough out.' The dog is part of Clough, a symbol of the 'worst enemy' that lies inside himself. He is afraid of it but powerless to resist its urgings. We cringe at his antics when this particular demon is in control, like the way he repeatedly sidelines the board of Derby County and heads into transfer negotiations without even telling them.
This aspect of Clough's character, coupled with the stream of consciousness technique, means that the other characters often lack delineation. They exist only as those parts of themselves that interact directly with Clough or through actions that have a direct bearing on his progress. In fact there are some who exist as little more than names - famous names perhaps, but names all the same.
At times I feel Peace's use of stream of consciousness slows the pace, even becomes a little tedious. This is mainly when he uses repetition to emphasise the more pervasive thoughts that recur in Clough's mind. Sometimes the phrases are repeated just a little too often, come too thick and fast.
Not that this diminishes the book. It is a tribute to its power that I find myself tending towards a literary analysis rather than a review. This is a well-researched creation of the inner workings of a possible Brian Clough from known aspects of his outside. Don't expect an easy read, but it was not an easy task for a writer to set himself either. And the result is rewarding and thought provoking.
The other books I reviewed are:
The Football Manager - Rob Blaney
Of a Game Bigger than Football - William Hebden
Wings of a Sparrow - Dougie Brimson
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