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Pretty Damned Good

A British soccer film that isn't really about British soccer

An icon in England—where he built two powerhouses from scratch in the 1960s and '70s—Brian Clough is unknown to all but avid soccer fans and Anglophiles in the U.S. Clough (pronounced Cluff), who died in 2004 at age 69, was a remarkable figure, an avowed socialist and brilliant goal scorer who slaked his compulsive thirst for competition by becoming a manager after his playing career was cut short by a knee injury. He led unheralded Derby County to the English championship in 1972, which earned him a shot coaching the big boys: Leeds United.

What looked like a dream marriage lasted only 44 days, a dramatic and epic failure that serves as the basis for David Peace's acclaimed 2006 novel, The Damned Utd, and director Tom Hooper's film adaptation, The Damned United, which opens in selected cities on Friday. Both Peace's book and Hooper's film rely on fictionalized events, a device that engendered controversy in England when the novel was published. But the imagining of details allows a fuller rendering of what's going on inside Clough's mind—and that's what Hooper (HBO's John Adams), who admits he doesn't give a toss about soccer, is after.

He succeeds, largely thanks to the performance of Michael Sheen, who—after turns as Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon—has demonstrated that he's pretty much got the late-20th-century Brit thing down cold. Sheen captures Clough's charm, his vanity and his desperate obsession with the man he replaced at Leeds, Don Revie, who, in Clough's eyes, encouraged dirty football and compounded that sin by snubbing Clough after their teams' first meeting. Thumbing at Revie's picture on the wall, his voice equal parts cockiness and simmering madness, Clough says, "I won't eat and I won't sleep until I've taken whatever that man's achieved and beaten it."

Revie is played by Colm Meaney, who is part of an ace supporting cast that also includes Jim Broadbent as Derby chairman Sam Longson and Timothy Spall as Clough's trusted assistant, Peter Taylor. When Clough's ego begins to run rampant, the levelheaded Taylor—Uncle Peter to Clough's kids—finally ends their codependent act, setting up the film's final conflict, which is resolved in a dramatic scene on Taylor's driveway. It's an atypical ending to a sports movie (no massive upset, no rushing the field), but The Damned United is less about soccer than it is about a complex man, overlooked in this country, whose life is worthy of examination.



LIFE OF BRIAN Sheen (above left, and far right) shines as the brilliant but megalomaniacal Clough.