Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Damned Utd by David Peace

This is a novelisation of real events in the world of English football, in the late sixties and early seventies. It's told in the first person by Brian Clough, who in these years managed (coached) Derby County successfully, then Leeds United very unsuccessfully.

Leeds are the "Damned Utd" of the title. Clough had a seething hatred of Leeds Utd, and especially their manager over fifteen years, Don Revie. Revie and Leeds were the dominant force in football, and widely reviled for their "anything to win" attitude. Revie once brought a deliberately weak side to Derby for a match, saving his better players for a more important match a few days later. After Derby beat them easily, in front of a thunderously booing crowd who had come to see the champions play, Revie refused to shake hands with Clough.

Years later when Revie was chosen to manage the England team, Leeds asked Clough to replace him, and incredibly, he accepted. The Clough character in this book moves in, chops up Revie's old desk with an axe, then takes it out to the carpark and burns it. He addresses his new charges:
As far as I am concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and your caps ... into the biggest f***ing dustbin you can find, because you've never won any of them fairly. You've done it all by bloody cheating.
44 days later, with only one one win from six games, he is sacked.

That's the background. I found the book unputdownable, gripping, in spite of the writing style which is painful. The tension in the telling of the story is remarkable, and it may be that it is actually thanks to the style. The first two words in the book are "Repetition. Repetition." You could say that professional sport is intrinsically repetitive - each week you do the same things. David Peace winds the repetition up to a level where I suppose it's meant to be a bit like a mantra. But I was always just flipping the pages maniacally to see what happened next.

Although I was alive in these years, its seems like an era I have never given any serious thought to. The scene as set here, the English Midlands and Yorkshire in the early seventies, seems incredibly grim. Poor people had nothing else in their lives but football. Rich people had no better way to express their wealth than football - as chairmen or directors of clubs.

Clough is an alcoholic. He spends days in the claustrophobic world under the grandstands, a world of corridors and offices, changerooms and lounge bars. He seems to be constantly walking down corridors and around corners. Constantly drinking and smoking and swearing. Cup of tea, bacon and eggs and chips, swearing at Jimmies and Johnnies and Alans, Jags and Vauxhall Victors, bottle of scotch, a week in Majorca, sideburns and ducktails and Brylcreem, Match of the Day on the telly, then more tea and cigs and a couple of pints and eggs, beans and chips, champagne, brandy, more swearing at Johns, Billys and Roys. Then sack a tea lady or two for laughing when the team has lost.

Clough is such a bastard, but I found myself willing him to succeed, even though I know what really happened and that it must also end in tears in the book. (Years later he was astonishingly successful with another club, Nottingham Forest).  Unlike Australian Rules football, players are bought and sold every week of the year. After months in the reserves they might be given a game just to showcase them to potential buyers. Everyone has a price.

I haven't had a book in a long time that I have read so avidly, yet couldn't really imagine anyone else enjoying.

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