As a fan of a number of sports – professional cycling, rugby, cricket, even boxing - other than football, I've never quite understood the commanding place football occupies in the collective consciousness of this country. It's eternally astonishing to me how the game's so often used as the fountain of choice when people want to reach quickly for a quick analogy, and how assumption is made that everyone's switched on to the jargon and personalities. So I went along to the touring football show Damned United from Leeds-based Red Ladder Theatre in the hope of explanation as well as abrasive entertainment – abrasive because I well remember Brian Clough from his salad days of the 70s and 80s, dominating TV interviews with a strange mixture of aggression wrapped up in the gauze of simmering politeness.
details of Clough's 44-day reign at Leeds Utd were unknown to me beforehand,
and by the end of the 65 mins play enlightenment was still limited. The set of two
tables, a phone and a couple of changing room lockers was potentially enlivened
by the ominous presence of a full bottle of Bushmills whisky – two-thirds empty
by the end – and a hatchet leaning in one of the lockers. A backing sheet of
corrugated plastic acted as a screen for projection of silhouetted players,
newsreels and an interview with Clough's predecessor at Leeds, Don Revie.
The bottle was duly raided as Clough and to some extent his assistant Peter Taylor fortified themselves for the endless battles with playing foes and theoretical allies alike: players used to a fouling, physical style of football, the Leeds owner who appeared to have signed them on a whim that he regretted almost from the first, and the demons of suspicion amounting almost to paranoia that beset Clough and infected Taylor.
The dialogue ranged from ranting (the excision of 'fucking' would have lost 10 minutes of running time) which became tediously numbing well before the end, via relatively rational discussions with Taylor about results on the fields, the strength and weakness of opponents, and on to brief meetings with the chairmen of Leeds and Clough's previous club, Derby, as well as encounters with (I think) a changing-room kit-man. There were also a couple of little bursts of descriptive musing from the great man ('my favourite time of day.... the crowd shifts... gusts of confetti'), and I could have done with a few more of them to break up the stream of anger and sarcasm ('the grounds are full, the churches are empty').
latter might perhaps have offered scope for a display of wit or warm humour or just
anecdotes as a contrast to Clough's besetting bombast, but in fact they were in
shortish supply, and the fairly sparse audience around me – only one football
shirt in evidence - having shown initial appreciation of the sheer vitality of Clough
and the energy of the acting, became progressively muted, maybe numbed by the
bludgeoning effect of the script. The end came abruptly, probably in
consequence of its being a cut-down version of Anders Lustgarten's original
script, and we filed out meekly.
I was left with approximately as many unanswered questions as at curtain-rise. The demons driving Clough on: were they primarily football-specific – the paramount requirement for results, the short-termism of club owners, the backstabbing from vested interests - or was he a man born with a larger-than-normal reservoir of both adrenalin and testosterone? Had no one foreseen the problem a new manager might have in stepping into the shoes of the legendary Don Revie? To what extent was Clough's display of ego-driven, supremacist management style the exception rather than the norm? What were the qualities other than ferocity that inspired adoration as well as loathing in those who surrounded him?
successful aspect of the drama was the quality of the acting. Jamie Smelt played
two club chairmen and the kit-man, the former with a degree of bonhomie
underlaid by ruthlessness and the latter by means of head-shaking darts of
locker-room wisdom. David Chafer was assistant manager Peter Taylor, loyal friend
and confidant, playing the part as a man accustomed to picking up the pieces of
the firework next to him.
As that firework, Luke Dickson showed us both the glitter and the gunpowder – shouting, blustering, cod-philosophizing, a man obsessed. In the way he modulated his voice with that NE Yorkshire accent, he brought back to life for me after 40 years those Clough post-match TV interviews. The actor's variation in facial expression without resorting to stylized tics was as good as any I've ever seen on stage.