A great football story - even if it's not true


SIDELINE CUT:THERE IS an army of otherwise gruff and time-wizened Irishmen who are liable to swoon and turn dreamy at the mere mention of Don Revie’s Leeds United. The “why” of football teams from England’s post-industrial cities holding such sway on the imaginations and loyalties of generations of Irish kids growing up in small towns will never be fully solved.

For whatever reason, the Leeds United of the early 1970s struck a chord with a generation of lank-haired and bored Irish teenagers living in an era when Match of the Day may well have represented the highlight of their week. That they were champions undoubtedly helped, and that they had, in John Giles, a brilliant Irishman at midfield, helped seal the deal. But there may also have been something in the attitude of that Leeds team – the fearless, confrontational swagger – that caught the mood of the times.

Those aging Leeds fans will be in nostalgia heaven next week with the release of The Damned United, the film treatment of the novel based on Brian Clough’s brief and infamous 44-day reign at Elland Road. The book was published in 2006 and set out its intentions at the beginning, quoting Chapter 12 from Jeremiah, and then opening with:

Repetition, Repetition – Fields of loss and fields of hate, fields of blood and fields of war

Their sport upon the walls, their sport upon the floor.

Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee . . . In her shadow time.

This heavily portentous and arresting opening either sets the mood and tone of northern England during the 1970s or signals a couple of hundred pages of what John Giles memorably summed up as “arty-farty nonsense, as far as I’m concerned”, in a candid interview on Off the Ball on Newstalk the other night.

Whatever your perspective, one thing is clear: we will wait a damn long time before we see Gary Lineker opening Football Focus in that sort of fashion.

Giles’ Thursday evening chats with the Off the Ball crew are among the highlights of the sporting week. Although he is the Don of RTÉ’s television coverage, radio seems an even more suitable medium for his unrivalled ability to lace great anecdotes from his playing era with pertinent observations about the state and fascinations of the contemporary England game.

It is no secret that Giles was not happy when The Damned United, written by David Peace, was first published, and he made a successful legal challenge to ensure several references to the John Giles character in the novel were changed ahead of the second print edition.

Talking about the book on air the other evening, Giles was generous enough to admit that people might find it to be a good read. But that did not diminish his central objection that the book blurs the reader’s sense of “where fiction starts and where fact begins”.

Furthermore, although he admits that he never particularly got on with Brian Clough during that period, he felt obliged to voice his protest at what was, he feels, an untrue and unfair depiction of his time at Elland Road.

The Clough family were upset by the book and have also expressed their unhappiness at the coming film.

All of Giles’ reservations and objections are sound and persuasive. One can only imagine how strange it must be to have a short and fractious few months in a long sports life held up and distorted by someone who was just a child during that period, who did not know the men involved and who, although born in Yorkshire, left because – as Giles pointed out – “he couldn’t stand the place”. Clough’s drinking during that time and Giles’ alleged plotting to get rid of him are fabricated. They were concocted.

But Clough’s time at Leeds, sitting in the chair of Revie, his nemesis, is surely one of the most strange and fascinating stories in English football history. As far as this reader was concerned, the novel did not portray Brian Clough in a bad light.

In the opening pages, the injury that ended his career is recalled.

You are on the ground, in the mud, your eyes open and the ball loose. Twenty-nine. You try to stand, but you can’t. Twenty-nine. So you crawl – “Get up, Clough!” someone shouts. “Get up.” Through the mud, on your hands and on your knees.

“Come on, ref,” laughs Bob Stokoe, the Bury centre half. “He’s f***ing codding is Clough.”

From then on, your sympathies are with Clough.

As it happens, Peace’s quasi-nightmarish vision of Yorkshire in the 1970s is in vogue now. His books – 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983 – are airing as a Channel 4 drama. All of those books are madly original and a bit mad and don’t do much to debunk the old saying, “It’s grim up north”. No wonder football was so important in those cities.

And in the ’70s, Leeds were the team. There has been much mythologising about Brian Clough since his death, much of it good, plenty of it bad. The version of Clough presented in this book undoubtedly appears like a phantasm to those who knew the real man. But John Giles was one of a select few who did. For the vast majority, for the millions out there, Brian Clough was and always will be a gigantic football figure: old Big ’Ead, quaffed and opinionated, at once both the lecturing patriarch and the tearaway son. He was too big to be contained by real life.

It was probably inevitable that he found his way into fiction.

Most people reading the book will be aware that what they are absorbing is make-believe. John Giles, naturally fastidious about the facts and that period in English football, was right to air his reservations. However, his fears are unfounded. The Damned United will go down as one of the best English novels of recent years. But it won’t diminish the legend of Brian Clough or Leeds United.

It is just a book – as the subtitle states – “An English Fairy Story”.

“ Brian Clough was and always will be a gigantic football figure: old Big ’Ead, quaffed and opinionated, at once both the lecturing patriarch and the tearaway son. It was probably inevitable that he found his way into fiction.