Interesting to note in this interview with David Peace that the first game of football to which he was taken by his father was also the very first of Brian Clough’s time at the helm of Leeds United, a friendly against Huddersfield Town. That goes a long way to explaining the psychological genesis of the idea for The damned Utd, as few things can make a greater impression on a youngster than their first sight of the emerald green turf at the centre of a football stadium slowly filling up with tens of thousands of people.
There are fourteen pieces of puff on the covers or inside the British paperback edition of David Peace’s The damned Utd (Faber), a fictional recreation of Brian Clough’s short tenure at the helm of Leeds United. All of them are by men.
It’s safe to say that not many women are going to feel any pull to immerse themselves in the all-male world of a top-ranking football club in 1974. For legal and no doubt more honourable reasons, Clough’s wife is a necessarily neutral figure, an adumbration against the flesh and blood portrayal of football’s greatest-ever motivator. There is therefore nothing to leaven the weight of masculinity in the book, no Sam Tyler to challenge Gene Hunt with 21st century values, as in Life on Mars. Instead – inevitably, unavoidably – the reader is fed a non-stop diet of ciggies, brandy, swearing and enmity (though it strikes me that I may just have listed the chief ingredients of a girls’ night out in the Leeds of 2008).
The hellfire and damnation of Clough’s six weeks at Leeds are cleverly intertwined with the glories and troubles of his career to that point, and a convincing portrayal of a monomaniacal manager emerges, one that lives up to the originality and simplicity of the idea – that a novel focussing on those forty-four days could be written from inside the head of the man at the centre of the whirlwind. The episode, and Brian Clough’s subsequent achievements with Nottingham Forest, must have coloured the young David Peace’s understanding of the game, beautiful or otherwise, as much as it did not only mine, but a whole generation of technically undernourished football lovers and players. I envy him the moment of inspiration in which the idea crystallised.
Now I’m off to read some chick-lit so that my feminine side can reassert itself.