THE DAMNED UTD has been in my unread pile of books for several years now, and with the new season of the English Premier League about to begin, there was never going to be a better time to dig in. The Times called it “probably the best novel ever written about sport,” and while I’m not sure I’m knowledgeable enough on the subject to make that same claim, I can honestly say it’s the best sports novel I’ve ever read.
Brian Clough cemented his reputation in the game before I was born, so he’s always been a bit of an ethereal figure in my mind. Of course, it’s impossible not to respect his achievements in the game, as both a player and a manager, and laugh at his quotes which have been transcribed for the ages, but having not witnessed him in person, on the television week in and out like I have Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wegner, I’ve never felt the same affection for the two-time European Cup winner. That changed with David Peace’s novel. Although THE DAMNED UTD isn’t biographical – it’s fiction based on fact, and I’ve no idea just how embellished it is (I chose not to investigate during my reading, as I didn’t want anything hindering my experience with the novel)– it paints a sobering picture of a legend; a troubled man, fuelled by cigarettes and alcohol, and burdened by the same doubts we all are, who achieved incredible success despite his troubles.
But THE DAMNED UTD isn’t about success; it’s about failure. It focuses on Clough’s forty-four day stint as manager of Leeds United, a club he had previously denounced as dirty and deceitful. A club that, in the season before, had finished top of Division One, and when Clough left, was fourth from bottom. Peace tells his tale through Clough’s stream of conscious, flicking back and forth between the start of his career, his first management role at Hartlepool, his major accomplishments as Derby County boss, and his time at Leeds. Baring witness to the downward spiral of a legend is disheartening – the relationships that strain and eventually the break, the decisions Clough makes that we, the reader, can see are wrong, but have no power to control. There’s no way of knowing precisely what Clough was thinking during these moments – that’s where the fiction takes over – but even if Peace’s is novel is wildly off the mark, nothing can take away from its sheer entertainment value.