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Brian Clough's name is not known to many Americans, but in the United Kingdom, among football (that is, soccer) fans it is the stuff of legend.
As the youngest team manager in the league, Clough (rhymes with stuff) turned the second tier Derby County club into national champions. Later he took the even lower-ranked Nottingham Forest on to greater heights, winning back-to-back European Cups. But it is the 44 days in between those achievements that director Tom Cooper's film, The Damned United (rated R for what I am told is a realistic level of profanity in football circles), primarily focuses on. It is a time in which Clough (Michael Sheen) rides a wave of ambition, obsession, and pride to victory before being slammed by these very same qualities into defeat.
Slighted early in his career by Don Revie (Colm Meaney), the beloved manager of the great Leeds United, Clough feeds on a bitter desire to prove himself a better coach than the older man. And he is well on his way to succeeding thanks to his innate leadership skills and his assistant coach Peter Taylor's eye for talent. But Clough takes his vendetta too far, abusing Revie in the press, insulting his own board of directors, and making expensive player acquisitions without authorization. Finally, he astonishes the nation by cutting ties with Taylor (Timothy Spall) and agreeing to become manager of the team for which he has so long nursed a very public hatred: Leeds.
With a persona so arrogant and mouthy, it would have been easy to play Clough as one big walking ego. ("I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the country, but I'm in the top one," he tells a reporter.) Yet Sheen manages to capture the insecurities driving the man's bravado. But what really separates The Damned United from the typical sports movie is that it doesn't show the successes Clough, who died in 2004, went on to achieve. This is something of a gift. Because for once we have a movie in which learning humility-learning that ambition can be as self-defeating a force as laziness given faulty motivation-is the point of the film and not some short stop on the way to a thunderous comeback.