Friday, August 24, 2007

"Peace" in our Time

David Peace's "The Damned United" doesn't really need my kudos to add to the many its already recieved, but I thought it was remarkable. Taking the 44 days that Brian Clough was in charge of Leeds United, and interlacing this real-time narrative with what had got him there - the past that drove him on to that fateful union with the team he most hated - is a piece of remarkable impersonation. I've been in Brian Clough's head for a week, and it's not a pleasant place to be - but endlessly fascinating. Importantly it feels real, with Clough a mixture of fear and arrogance as he knows that his dreams are only ever one bad result away from being dashed. For many people of my age - the football of that decade following the 1966 world cup - is a period of dashed hopes. English football would turn into the desperate hooligan-ridden debacle that would lead, finally, disastrously to Heysel and Hillsborough. But Clough's vision - of winning fairly, beautifully - "the beautiful game" is chronically juxtaposed against the realities of winning; of referees who turned a blind eye, of players not yet rich enough, and only a kick away from losing their liveliood, and of small-town directors who gained their power from their municipal football club. It's a brilliant decision to take this "small canvas" and use it to delve deep into the male psyche, the potency of sport, and the decline of England in the seventies. Yet, most of all its a portrait of one unique individual - and through him, an insight into what sport can mean to people, can achieve for them. If the book has a fault, then perhaps like all "biographies", its that the denouement is already known, that this chapter is destined for failure from the moment it begins. Peace doesn't quite know how to get out of the book; after all, Clough's real triumphs are poignantly there for all to behold - yet tantalisingly, in the future, in Nottingham Forest's triumph in the league and back-to-back European cups. In the "real time" of "The Damned United" there's no way of doing anything more than glimpse this. Its a perversity, to concentrate on the one abject failure of the most successful football manager of his time, yet it works, in no small part because of Peace's fascination with not only Clough but the small ponds that he trod in, of drink-sodden football journalists, smoking, swearing centre halfs, and local political businessmen on the make. Read it.

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