The Damned Utd by David Peace

Every match is a fight to the death
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The Independent Culture

'I want no epitaphs of profound history and all that type of thing. I contributed. I would hope they would say that. And I would hope somebody liked me."

That was the late Brian Clough on what he wanted to happen after his death (he died in 2004), and it's safe to say that of all the elegies and exequies he might have expected from British society he would least have foreseen The Damned Utd. David Peace's darkly glittering new novel casts Clough as the antagonist in a relentless tragedy of football and the British North in the dirty Seventies, where every match-day is a fight to the death and every press conference a post-mortem or a long rope. This is a Yorkshire of "bloated grey skies", where players "move their boots through white ash", where big black dogs bark "Clough out!" and where every week begins: "Bed, breakfast and ignore the papers. Shower, shave and ignore the radio. Kit on, car out and ignore the neighbours... hello Monday fucking morning."

David Peace's Yorkshire is like Iain Sinclair's London or Stanley Spencer's Cookham: a place where everyday life intersects terrifyingly with the mystical and the diabolic. It's a vision first expounded in the Red Riding Quartet, Peace's masterly sequence about violence, murder and police corruption centred in the Yorkshire Ripper years, and continued in GB84, a quasi-occult bulletin from the heart of the industrial north at the time of the miners' strike. The Damned Utd, his best book to date, marries the hard stare and apocalyptic inclinings of the previous work to a masterly evocation of the voice of its protagonist: Brian Howard Clough, Old Big 'Ead, The Boss; egomaniac and boozehound, pundit and professional, the manager who turned Derby County from an indifferent second-division side into league champions, who led Nottingham Forest to two European cups, and who was widely considered - not least by himself - to be the best manager England never had.

In between, though, there was Leeds, the side that Clough took over from the renowned Don Revie for 44 days in 1974, inheriting a side of league champions and leaving it 19th in the division. In Peace's vision, this is a time of revenge. Clough begins his first week by taking an axe to Revie's desk and burning his files as though trying to break a spell: Revie, with his dossiers on rivals, his vicious hirings and firings, his supernatural charm, is painted as the black magician of "dirty, dirty Leeds". His successor inherits his familiars, and the struggle for their allegiance breaks him.

It's hard to give a flavour in extract of how effective Peace's writing style is, since it operates in single-sentence paragraphs, in chants, in repetitions. Every line has the insistent rhythm of mutters, gasps, shouts, of orders barked from the dug-out, of drunken late-night certainties down hotel telephone lines. It has the potency of invocation and the incessance of mania, and - no easy thing, this - it transforms the description of a football match into the record of a higher struggle.

The Damned Utd is also an impeccably structured book. Peace cleverly counterpoints the story of Clough's career at Derby, from meteoric rise to public demonstrations when he left, with that of his failure at Leeds. Clough's subsequent success at Nottingham Forest is relegated to a coda: the story here is in the juxtaposition. But the real achievement is in the sense of uncanniness and terror that Peace summons, creating a world in which fragments of psalms and ancient curses co-exist with league tables, boardroom squabbles, away strips, cortisone jabs and Ralgex. It's a mystery, or an oversight, or worse, that The Damned Utd doesn't figure among the novels selected for this year's Man Booker longlist, because this is not only a welcome addition to a body of work that puts Peace among our most original novelists; it is also the most extraordinary novel about football yet to appear.