December Issue 2009
A Hero Falls
Sports movies, from Bull Durham to Friday Night Lights, and a hundred other films besides, have a strict formula and they rarely deviate from them. A team of ragtag underdogs, led by a gruff yet inspirational coach, overcome the odds and make everyone feel good about themselves. Ledgendary football manager Brian Clough falls in this category. As manager of Derby Country, his ability to bring out the best in his players took the unfancied team to an unexpected football title. He repeated the trick multiple times at Nottingham Forest, even leading them to victory at the European Cup. This is the stuff of which clichÃ©d sports movies are made.
In between these two miracles, however, Clough spent one disastrous year as manager of Leeds United, a top-flight team that had many trophies before he joined them and expected more of the same under their new manager. It is this year, rather than what preceded and followed it, that is the subject of Tom Hooper’s The Damned United. By choosing Clough’s anus horribilis, the movie avoids all the pitfalls of the typical sports movie.
Clough is played by Michael Sheen who, having appeared as Tony Blair and David Frost in earlier films, seems to have made a career out of portraying historical figures. Clough’s tragedy at Leeds United is almost Shakesperian, in that it is entirely self-inflicted. He makes enemies as soon as he arrives at the club, telling its players that they are nothing more than hooligans.
The Damned United offers some explanations as to why Clough failed so spectacularly at Leeds. In his heart, the movie explains, Clough always identified with Leeds’ arch rivals and his former employers Derby County. In fact, he may have hated Leeds even while he was leading them. Sheen expertly brings out all the anger, confusion and passion that subsumes Clough while Tom Wilkinson, as the owner of Derby County, exemplifies that football, even more than a sport, is a cash cow that should be treated as a business rather than a passion.
What makes The Damned United so successful is that it inverts every tradition that has been enshrined by sports movies. Instead of an underdog, we have a man at the top of his profession in charge of the best team in the country. The hero of the movie doesn’t come from behind to win. Instead, he’s ahead of everyone else and slowly loses everything he had gained. By subverting the formula, Hooper has made a movie that values character more than plot.
Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.