In his four collaborations with screenwriter Peter Morgan, Michael Sheen has played three public figures: Tony Blair in The Deal and The Queen, David Frost in Frost/Nixon, and now the legendary soccer manager Brian Clough in The Damned United. They are all, more or less, the same character type: Charismatic and witty at best, fatuous or arrogant at worst, perceived as shallow by many yet capable of slyly manipulating a dire situation to his advantage. At this point, the Morgan/Sheen roadshow may have finally run its course, but together they have a knack for understanding the recent past through men who are crafty and irreducible, usually despite all appearances to the contrary. Clough is probably their least consequential creation to date, but they still get a lot of mileage out of a prickly idealist who set himself up for a colossal fall and goes about it in record time.
Though Clough is talked about today as the best coach never to lead the English national team, The Damned United focuses on his 44-day flameout as manager of top club team Leeds United in 1974. Extensive flashbacks establish Clough’s boyish brilliance as a motivator and tactician who, alongside longtime assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), shepherded the dismal Derby County club far up the British table. When Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney), his bitter rival in the coaching world—for matters personal and philosophical—departs for the national team, Clough takes over his position, but commences to burn every conceivable bridge before he even gets to town. His public statements disparaging Revie and Leeds’ dirty style of play immediately sets the club against him, and not having Taylor around to be his better angel hastens his demise.
Sheen’s excessively prideful Clough sucks all the oxygen out of the room: In a sports world where athletes and coaches are trained to keep their mouths shut, his candor about Leeds’ disgraceful quality of play is both a shock and an inspiration. The problem with a character like that—in real life and in a movie like The Damned United—is it makes everyone else shrink into irrelevance. Meaney’s Flintstone-ian brute makes a terrific foil to Sheen’s prissy arrogance, but the other supporting players don’t make much of an impression. Ditto for this slice of history itself, though mileage may vary for soccer fans.