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The Damned United (15)

Big 'ead is back

This film transported me right back to the Saturday-night television of my childhood. It majestically conjures that Match of the Day era of kipper ties, bouffant hair, sheepskin coats, Jimmy Hill's beard, orange footballs, and pitches that looked like the battlefields of Flanders. Yet it also brings to mind another 1970s favourite of Saturday nights on the Beeb: come on, don't say you've forgotten Mike Yarwood's impressions. In among his Jimmy Saviles, Harold Wilsons and Bob Monkhouses there would usually be a skit on Brian Clough, whose campy Northern drawl Yarwood caught brilliantly and, as I thought then, unimprovably. Michael Sheen's impersonation has changed my mind.

This isn't quite a one-man show, but without Sheen's cocksure Clough at its centre it would be hard to see the point of The Damned United. Peter Morgan, the screenwriter, has a liking for stories that seem to mark turning-points – the Blair-Brown dinner of The Deal, the mumbled mea culpa of Frost/Nixon – yet on closer examination they look more like footnotes than insights. Morgan cannot see a molehill without wanting to transform it into a mountain. Has he done the same thing here? The 2006 David Peace novel on which it is based was essentially a "voice" book, an attempt to get inside the head of Brian Clough and ventriloquise his raging hatred of another manager and his football team. That he also came across as a foul-mouthed and possibly alcoholic sociopath is perhaps the reason why the Clough family have been so alienated by the project.

Morgan's Clough is a different creature from Peace's book. Gone is the brooding, lonely obsessive, replaced by Sheen's neatly coiffed, beady-eyed, bumptious Northerner, shooting from the lip and working a kind of charm that almost defies people to dislike him – though plenty did.

The film traces the arc of a tragic hero, from hubris to nemesis, but whether the story of a passing managerial failure merits such gravity is a moot point. Clough's doomed 44-day reign at Leeds is sandwiched between periods of outrageous success, the first of which comes when he takes unfancied Derby County from Second Division obscurity in the late 1960s to a First Division title in 1972. Interleaved with this – entailing a rather fussy backwards-and-forwards structure – is Clough's arrival at Elland Road to take on the managership of Leeds, the damned, United.

The shot of him standing in the car park while the Leeds players, surly and tracksuited, look down from their elevated training ground is a bit like the moment in Westerns when a new sheriff rides into town, morosely monitored by the gunslingers who've been running the place. His opening speech to the team is a yah-boo-sucks to the Leeds system of brutal tackling and cheating: he intends to turn them into champions worthy of the name, and put one over their former boss Don Revie while he's at it.

Clough's obsession with Revie is seen as the force that drives his career. Revie allegedly brought his team to Derby in Clough's fledgling days, beat them soundly and left without even the courtesy of a handshake. A later scene in which Revie, superbly incarnated by Colm Meaney, denies any memory of this slight in a live TV interview makes you wonder if Clough imagined it all along. In the same interview the latter remarks on the difference between Revie and himself: "I'm a warm man... Don's a cold person".

It's an abrasively funny line, though the way the story is shaped it's impossible to judge its truth. Given how beloved "the Don" was at Leeds one is more inclined to take it as evidence of Clough's runaway egotism: he didn't want anyone else hogging the limelight, and Revie, like him a working-class lad hailing from Middlesborough, seems to have made a particularly galling rival.

Set against this bitter antagonism is the counterpoint of Clough's dependence on Peter Taylor, his assistant, super-scout, confidante and, in the film's view, the closest thing football ever had to a love-match. Timothy Spall, with his cherishable roly-poly face, doesn't look a bit like the shrewd, foxy-eyed Taylor and, more damagingly, is given little room to suggest his legendary tactical brain. "Superstitious twat", his description of Revie, is about the limit of his sophistication.

The film generally is weak on the alchemy that made Clough and Taylor such a formidable duo, and their temporary estrangement – Taylor refused to join his old boss at Leeds – does nothing to explain why Clough ballsed it up so spectacularly in those 44 days. The one time the film might have risked an explanation is ducked: Giles, Bremner and Co stalk into the boardroom while Clough is asked to wait outside. I very much wanted to hear their side of the story.

But this is the Life of Brian, and nobody else's. As such, it's never dull, and in many little details it's a back-of-the-net pleasure: I loved the moment Clough chests the ball, swivels and shoots while barely interrupting his latest monologue (Sheen was a useful footballer before he started acting) and there's a delightful sequence of him preparing the away team's dressing room, placing an orange – and an ashtray – by each player's towel. This scene has been rejected as inauthentic, but it feels right, and the laugh is irresistible. The mingling of contemporary match-footage and period recreation is also convincingly handled, even though I don't recall Tony Gubba commentating on quite so many football games as he does here.

What the film doesn't do is explain – anything. "I wouldn't say I'm the best manager in the country", Clough said famously, "but I'm in the top one". You could easily believe him, but you wouldn't understand why from watching this. And if he was the top one, how did he manage to fail so abjectly at Leeds? Damned if I know.

What did you think of 'The Damned United'? Have your say at independent.co.uk/filmforum and we'll print the best comments in the newspaper on Wednesday.