The inside story of Brian Clough at Leeds

The Damned United, the movie dramatisation of Brian Clough's notorious 44-day tenure as manager of Leeds, is released this month. It's great entertainment – but the real story is even more thrilling, argues James Lawton

Wednesday 11 March 2009 01:00 GMT

To a younger generation, the mid-Seventies must seem like a bizarre age. There was the hugely popular television warbler Val Doonican parading each week in a new and gruesome piece of knitwear, and Edward Heath glowering at an upstart named Margaret Thatcher. There were power cuts and three-day working weeks. And in football, we had rioters pouring like lemmings through cities both at home and abroad, while the superstar players lived in what seem now to be inconceivably modest suburban semis, with equally inconceivably big hair and kipper ties.

It was a bizarre enough time for those who can remember that decade in all its glory, let alone those coming to this era afresh, as many now will. But judging by the level of anticipation sparked by the film of The Damned United, which is released at the end of this month, it's an era easily as compelling as it is curious. The movie of David Peace's controversial novel which, published in 2006, tells a partly factual, partly fictionalised account of Brian Clough's catastrophic 44 days in charge of Leeds United in 1974, allows that age to live once again. Those who go to watch the film will see the cars, the hair, the wallpaper and the clothes in a way that no novel can possibly deliver. They will see, too, another masterful performance by Michael Sheen who, after taking on the role of Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon, turns in an uncanny performance as Clough. And they will get to relive the tale of Clough's brief reign at Leeds, without doubt one of the most dramatic of sporting tales.

Yet the most fascinating facet of this film is that it provokes a whole series of intriguing questions. They spring from the line trodden between fact and fiction, a line that has prompted Nigel Clough, Brian's son, to publicly state that he won't be among the many thousands who will flock to see this sure-fire blockbuster.

The bare bones of the story are surely familiar to anyone who will go along to see the film: Clough succeeds the legendary Don Revie as manager of Leeds, the most powerful club in British football; he tells the team to discard the many medals they have won, accusing them of gamesmanship and winning ugly; the team gets off to a disastrous string of results, leading ultimately to Clough leaving, just 44 days after he joined.

For all the uncanny parallels of their journeys from the poor streets of Middlesbrough, including the pride that came when they played for England, Brian Clough and Don Revie did indeed become locked in a rivalry marked by contempt and, in the end, something that could not be distinguished from outright hatred. Thanks to the film and book, the animus burns on.

These great football managers, who had nothing so much in common as the ferocity of their ambition, now have been exhumed. The Damned United will no doubt achieve a flood of rave reviews and box-office reward, but it will also delve into a drama which, in its current telling, is critically short of persuasive answers for those survivors who were most intimately involved.

Could John Giles (by far Leeds' most influential player despite the fact that Revie had given the captaincy to his fiery but much less secure Scottish team-mate Billy Bremner) have been so ambitious for the managerial succession that he was a conspirator-in-chief hell-bent on destroying the new manager?

Were the Leeds team, who had brilliantly annexed the first division title a few months earlier really no more than a gang of surly, nicotine-addicted, cheating recidivists who had been controlled not by a man of relentless achievement who had created the most powerful team in the land and had just been appointed manager of England but a master of nothing so much as the dirty trick?

This is the thunderous implication of the book and the film, and in this at least they are firmly in line with the prejudice of Clough when he drove into the Elland Road, Leeds' ground, with an aggression many ascribe to than pure fear.

Fear, partly, it is theorised, of a team he had reviled even as they moved to levels of performance that eventually outstripped their grim reputation for relentless gamesmanship and brutal tackling, and maybe most crucially, the fact that for the first time in his managerial life Clough was tackling a challenge without his former team-mate and mentor Peter Taylor.

Some time later Clough, still carrying the bruises from his humiliating dismissal from Leeds, told a reporter, "It's not true that Mafia headquarters are in Sicily. They are in Leeds and the top man is Johnny Giles."

More than 30 years later, at the publication of Peace's book, Giles successfully went to law with a battery of supporting witnesses, to impose what he considered a necessary separation of fact from fiction, debunking Clough's claim that Giles was the conspirator-in-chief who sided against the incoming manager.


Yet perhaps the most damning verdict on a hugely praised work and an undoubtedly entertaining film – superb performances also come from Jim Broadbent as Derby County's cigar-drooling chairman Sam Longson and Timothy Spall as Clough's much abused sidekick Taylor – is supplied by Joe Jordan, a young player at Leeds when Clough arrived and one who would go on to play for Manchester United and Milan and appear and score in three World Cups for Scotland.

I called Jordan, now first-team coach at Tottenham, to ask him about the film. He said: "I read the book but I will not be seeing the movie. I read the book because I thought it was about a part of my life, but the more I read the less I believed it had any real connection with my past.

"There were just too many inaccuracies, too many people were saying things they didn't say, and doing things they didn't do, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time and of course you lose faith in what you are reading. There is no doubt that Brian Clough failed at Leeds – or that he had proved before and would again later that he was a brilliant football manager – but I never suspected that he was ever drunk in the presence of the players, and if you read the book you have to imagine that it would have been inevitable.

"I'm told that in the film there is a scene where Norman Hunter [the fabled destroyer of opponents] attempts to cut Clough in half with a tackle on the training field, and almost succeeds. It didn't happen. I'm also told there is a scene where Clough, putting out the players' kit in the dressing room, lays out ashtrays. That, no doubt, is a guaranteed laugh but the fact is that of all the players at Leeds, the only ones I recall having a cigarette after a training session or a match were Billy [Bremner] and Big Jack [Charlton] – and Jack had left when Clough arrived at Elland Road."

In boycotting the film, Jordan joins Clough's son, Nigel, who also played for England and is now doing the job that launched his father into the football stratosphere, managing Derby County. Clough Junior's reservations echo Jordan's. "If you base a film on a book filled with so much that isn't fact, then that film is not going to be so far removed."

The film, like the book, constantly cuts between Clough's successful reign, and then his fall from grace at Derby and his misbegotten Leeds mission, which came after a brief and troubled hiatus at Brighton and Hove Albion. But it is a lot of ground, a lot of football, and, those who know the story best, say, a lot of fiction to cover. The result is mesmerising and often extremely funny, but it doesn't help if you knew Revie – and know that there was a lot more to him than a desperate need to acquire an edge, and more, certainly, than the description handed to Taylor by the film script, that he was a "superstitious twat".

Revie was a more interesting character than the film portrays, larger in life than on screen. Indeed, he had his rabbit's foot foibles and special suits and was obsessive about the need to succeed , and there were also times when his players yawned when he extolled the virtues of the northern songstress Gracie Fields. But then the widely experienced Jordan is quick to insist: "In his planning, his knowledge of the game and the way he treated his players, he was the greatest football manager I ever knew."

Clough's own protégés, Martin O'Neill, the highly-rated manager of Celtic and now Aston Villa, and who has modelled his career on his former boss, routinely makes a similar claim.

Yet in Clough's meteoric rise there were also signs of a terrible vulnerability, and it was not hard to see it on a tube ride across London I took with him back then. Following his departure from Derby County in 1973, Clough had, for the first time in his career, separated himself from his assistant and ultimate confidante, Peter Taylor, who had elected to stay on the south coast, which Clough found impenetrably alien. Clough was retreating from Brighton, where he had wearied of the challenge of again fighting his way from the lower leagues, a task he thought he had put behind him after his and Taylor's eye-catching work at Hartlepool United. Clough was alone now – and plainly lonely.

He confessed to me that he might walk out of football. It was a possibility that emerged again after his failure at Leeds, and was banished finally only by Taylor's decision to join him at Nottingham Forest for the years which confirmed his status with the triumph of European Cup wins in 1979 and 1980.

The film's casting of Giles as an ageing player embittered by the appointment of Clough, and the fact that Revie's recommendation of him to the board had not been accepted, is apparently uninformed by the fact that, days before Clough arrived at the ground with his young sons Nigel and Simon, Giles had been offered the job, accepted it – and then turned it down when Bremner expressed his anger that he had been overlooked.

Peter Lorimer, the Scottish international and Leeds defender known as Thunderfoot for his formidable shot, recalls those days. "John probably made a mistake when, after telling Manny Cussins, the chairman, that he would take the job, he called the lads and told them what was happening," he tells me. "Billy was very upset, thought he should have been in the running and demanded an interview with Cussins.

"When John went into the ground the following day he was told by Cussins that while the offer was still on the table, the board had decided to delay an announcement until the smoke [metaphorically speaking] had cleared. John said that they could keep the job, he hadn't sought it and though he was at the time of his career when he had to start to think about the future, in the circumstances he would rather carry on as a player."


But that's not to say that the film paints an entirely false picture of Clough at Leeds. Johnny Giles still recalls vividly his disbelief, and that of his team-mates, when Clough advised them to throw all their medals into the nearest dustbin. "It didn't make sense. We were the champions and like all players in every situation we were committed to doing well. Clough had had his success and whatever he had said about us in the past, we imagined he would be as keen as us for the club to succeed."

Most famously, Clough told the brilliant but injury-troubled Eddie Gray that if he had been a horse, he would have been shot long ago. He told Norman Hunter that he was hated across the land but really he yearned to be loved. Hunter, a superb player whose ferocious tackling was also accompanied by such natural ability that he would have been an automatic choice for England but for the misfortune of being born at roughly the same time as World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore, muttered that he did not give a "fuck".

The story of Clough's verbal assault on his new players swept through the game and left no one more bemused than Ian St John, the celebrated star of Liverpool and Scotland who back then was making a strong impression as the young manager of Scottish club Motherwell. The first move of the Leeds directors after hearing that Revie had accepted the England job was to approach Jock Stein, the legendary manager of Celtic and the first British winner of the European Cup. Stein declined but strongly recommended the young St John, who had deeply impressed Stein with first impact in the managerial business. St John met Cussins at Scotch Corner on the A1 and felt the interview had gone well. Indeed, Cussins suggested that the job was probably his, but the club had one more candidate to interview. Stein called St John to say that he understood Cussins had been very impressed and that, "it seems to me the job is yours".

Of course, the last candidate was Clough. I asked St John how he felt about this twist of fate. "You could only say, 'Fair enough, Cloughie has a hell of a record for a young manager,'" he replied. "But then you heard the stuff coming out of Elland Road and you could hardly believe it. When I thought I'd got the job I could only think, 'Well what a basis for success – you're taking over the first division champions.' I'd fought some tough battles with Gilesey and Bremner on the field, but believe me they were guys I would always want on my side. No, for a young manager, getting the Leeds job was basically a dream assignment." It was St John's dream, Clough's nightmare, and Revie's hopelessly fractured legacy.

The Damned United, the film, moves at a blistering pace, borrows massively from the brilliance of Sheen, and then you come out into the street and think about all the shades of painful fate that lay behind its matter-of-fact conclusion provided by the lines playing across the closing shots: Revie failing with England, running away to the Middle East amid charges of financial impropriety, and then the supreme vindication of Clough, an unprecedented winner of back-to-back European Cups.

That, plainly, is too neat. Revie was indeed charged with bringing the game into disrepute for the way he ran away from the England job and suspended for 10 years by his former employers, the Football Association, but it was an open secret he was about to be sacked before he jumped and the ruling was revoked when he went to court. There was no doubt Revie played his tricks, and though charges that he attempted to bribe opposing teams were never proved, there is a telling example of the lengths to which he would go to gain an advantage. The referee for an FA Cup tie between powerful Leeds and lower-division Bristol City was surprised to see an envelope addressed to him on the table in his dressing room. When he opened it he didn't find banknotes but a sheaf of newspaper cuttings, all on the subject of a spate of misbehaviour by Bristol players in recent games.

Near the end of his life (he died of motor neurone disease at 61), Revie was visited by Giles. They had a long and poignant conversation in which the manager expressed his one great regret: "I should," he told Giles, "have believed more in the ability of you lads, I should have seen sooner that I needed only to let you play." In the end, he did – and the result was some of the greatest football ever seen on English fields. Leeds had days when they touched the football heavens.

If Clough had regrets they were, we know, largely submerged in the tides of alcohol that so sadly lapped over the last years of a life which had been so vital, but which so near its end was also touched by ignominy when he was named in an FA "transfer bungs" inquiry.

The closing scenes of The Damned United declare Clough the winner and Revie the loser, but what it could not do, those closest to both men will always swear, was to begin to assess the price of the war.

'The Damned United' is released on 27 March

'If we didn't want to stay on the training field, we had to let Clough win': By Peter Lorimer

Playing in midfield for Leeds United from 1963 until 1979, Lorimer was part of the squad Brian Clough inherited from Don Revie.

I know, like all of football, that Brian Clough was a brilliant football manager, but at Leeds United he was not brilliant – he was lost.

The whole period of 44 days didn't begin to make sense. We all knew that things had to change when Don Revie left, new players had to come in, old ones had to go. The process had started before Clough arrived. Then, when he joined Leeds, he gathered us together to tell us that we should throw all our medals in the rubbish bin, because we hadn't won them fairly. Imagine being told that a few months after winning the league title by a mile. Big Jack Charlton had left us by then, and I can't imagine how he would have reacted.

I should probably have been more aware of what to expect – a little while earlier, Clough had insulted me while speaking at a Yorkshire Television dinner for sportsman of the year, which I had won. I wasn't there when it happened, because I only went to the dinner to receive the trophy, and Revie's order was that I leave straight after the ceremony. But Clough's speech was apparently very embarrassing. Harold Wilson was in the audience, which was shocked almost from the moment Clough got to his feet.

The press were all over me the following morning, but I was just a bit bewildered. It was the same when he made his speech about Norman Hunter wanting everyone to like him, and Eddie Gray being shot if he'd been a horse (because he was injured so often), and how we had to throw away the medals.

It seemed that Clough had it in his head that John Giles was desperate for the job as manager of Leeds, and would do anything he could to bring him down. But Gilesey had already been offered the job and turned it down after Billy Bremner had got involved (Bremner was said to have objected after he was overlooked).

In the film, there's a big training-pitch incident between Norman and Cloughie, but that's just not true. In fact, the trainer, Jimmy Gordon, did most of the work, warming up and so on, and there wasn't much involvement from the manager. When Cloughie did participate, it was mostly in the five-a-sides, and we learnt very quickly that if we didn't want to stay on the training field for ever we had to let Clough's team win; so we'd play for a while, and then throw a couple of goals into our own net.

When the 44 days were over, and then later when you saw Clough succeed at Nottingham Forest, you could only could conclude that a big factor in him losing the plot at Elland Road was that he missed Peter Taylor so much. He faced a big job, and it seemed to get to him at the start; he had had good players at Derby County, but John and Billy would have been great players in any age.

At Leeds we didn't see anything of Clough the great manager, and that was the biggest mystery of all, after seeing what he had done at Derby and then his work at Forest.

Frankie Gray went on to play for Forest, and he explained that no one really knew why they played so hard for Clough, though perhaps one reason was that they never knew what to expect next. On one occasion, he gave the Forest lads three days off after a match and when they came into training they expected a very hard session. But Clough told them not to bother getting changed. They were all going for a walk beside the Trent. He had brought his dogs.

The class of '74: Where are they now?

Billy Bremner Went on to play for Hull City and Doncaster Rovers, where he became manager before becoming a columnist and speaker. He died in 1997.

David Harvey The goalie also had spells at Bradford and the Vancouver Whitecaps. He was last seen working on the Orkney Islands.

Paul Reaney A former mechanic turned England right back, Reaney went on to coach football to kids at a Norfolk holiday resort.

John Giles After playing for Philadelphia Fury and Shamrock Rovers, "Jonny Giles" is now a football pundit in his native Ireland.

Norman Hunter Part of the 1966 World Cup winning England squad, Hunter has gone on to join the after-dinner circuit and work for Yorkshire radio stations.

Trevor Cherry The defender and one-time England captain more recently ran a promotions company, a waste paper firm and a five-a-side football centre.

Joe Jordan Scottish striker who scored in three World Cups, Jordan made the switch to the touchline. He's now coach at Tottenham under Harry Redknapp.

Gordon McQueen McQueen played for St Mirren before Leeds and went on to coach. Last year he moved to Middlesbrough to be an assistant scout.

Paul Madeley The "player without portfolio", who occupied every position for Leeds except goalkeeper, is now retired and has Parkinson's disease.

Peter Lorimer The winger's career suffered post-Leeds with stints at Toronto, Vancouver and York. Lorimer is a publican in Leeds and a radio pundit.

Allan Clarke A striker who scored 10 goals for England, "Sniffer" Clarke quit football after a brief spell as a manager to become a salesman.

Terry Yorath The Welsh midfielder and father of TV presenter Gaby Logan went on to manage a string of clubs. He's now at Margate.

Eddie Gray Gray went on to manage Leeds in the early 1980s and again in a stormy 2003-2004 season. He's now a radio pundit.

John O'Hare One of only three players (with McKenzie and McGovern) to be signed by Clough at Leeds, O'Hare later coached, most recently at Aston Villa.

Duncan McKenzie The mercurial striker has forged a new career as a columnist and radio pundit.

John McGovern A Clough favourite, McGovern went on to coach children in Azerbaijan and the US.

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