David Peace, 2006, Faber and Faber
The Damned United is a novel about Brian Clough. It tells Clough’s short time at Leeds United and in flashbacks the start of his career, especially his time with Derby County. What I heard and read about the book was, that the response was extreme in both directions. Some damned it as simply untrue and damaging to the reputation of Brian Clough, others saw in it the best sports book ever written. Although an biography in general it did not simply list the facts about Clough’s life but moving it into the realm of fiction allowed David Peace to fill the usual gaps in biographies with emotions, with the thoughts of the main character, which shape his personality but usually cannot be shown or used because they are not accessible.
Therefore the book is no heresy to the memory of Brian Clough because it tries to take a different perspective but at the same time it is not the best book ever written about sports because some parts are clearly missing to make the picture complete.
What the book describes well is the ambitions, the unrest and the constant unhappiness with themselves and with others which drives the brilliant coaches. All of them are never happy with the results achieved. They want perfection and they hardly get it. Look at a Guardiola today. He is in pain not only when is team is loosing but even if his players play a pass wrong or are misaligned on the field. These constant pressure to perform better raises the bar for themselves so high and make it hard to work with them. They want to control all details and cannot understand that others do not act in the same way, whether it is players or presidents. This constant struggle can drive them crazy and the fire in them, which helps them to motivate their players and to go further than anyone else, can consume them alive. This part of Brian Clough is very well described and to use the freedom of an artist to make the picture more clearer, even if it is not based on facts, is completely fine. Like for impressionists or expressionists painters, the priority is not the accuracy of every line and the perfection in copying nature, but to allow the reader to feel the atmosphere, to sense the mood, to experience the situation himself. The picture drawn might be deformed, and unrealistic but if it transfers the feelings and by that shows the personality of Clough it reaches the goal. And it does. Although there is not much described in the book which allows to sympathize with Clough, as a reader you are on his side, because you can see his pain when hunted by demons of his own creation. You don’t know why people thought he was a great coach but you know that to live the life of Brian Clough was never easy and you wish him, whether at his time at Derby or at Leeds, to sort things out with the people around him, so that he is able to take everything more easy.
What the book is missing to describe is why Brian Clough was a genius, what positive things he did, why Leeds was interested in hiring them, although they knew his personality. There are some hints, when it is described how he expanded the stadiums of the early clubs he worked for and how he connected with the fans, but it seems in the book that setting up a team and a style is solely done by buying here and there some players. In many cases the choices of players made seem arbitrary and not following a plan. There is no word about his idea of the game played. I think on this part the book is missing a chance because although the book creates some sympathy for Clough even at the end one does not know, why the fans at Derby and the players where so strongly supportive of him, that they even thought about a strike and how he was able to win the Championship with Derby. Only this part would allow to understand the reasons for his craziness, to see his plans fail, because the people around him are less perfectionist than him or they are happy with less than he is. All that would give the character of Brian Clough more depth, which I think he had.
Therefore the book is definitely worth reading but I will look out for other books about Brian Clough to understand his work and positive influence on English football, too.
Tactics & Game philosophy: 0/3
Next book: The Blizzard: Issue Four (Nov 7th)