In telling the tale of Brian Clough's ill-fated 44-day tenure as manager of Leeds United in 1974 author David Peace offers a fascinating, albeit fictional, insight into the mind of one of football's most gifted, enigmatic, belligerent, egotistical and insecure figures.
The novel skilfully intertwines two stories with one strand concluding where the other begins; one focusing on Clough's time at Derby, the other with his tortuous time at Leeds.
By telling both concurrently rather than chronologically, Peace displays a great ingenuity and in-so-doing injects 'The Damned Utd' with great style. This rather nifty narrative device also allows parallels to emerge between the Clough of the Baseball Ground and the Clough of Elland Road, and reveals the considerable flaws of both.
At times the novel reads like a harrowing diary entry as it lays bare the pain of a self-loathing soul, which will perhaps come as a surprise to those who associate 'Old Big 'Ead' with expressions of supreme arrogance, like the classic: 'He met me, you know. Frank Sinatra.'
The Clough conjured by Peace is a complex almost bi-polar character. A man at once ravaged by insecurities exacerbated by alcoholism; but at the time supremely confident, arrogant and certain of his position at the very top of English football.
While the book focuses on Clough the shadow cast over the story belongs to Don Revie, Clough's arch nemesis and the man he replaced as manager of Leeds United. In fact, in an interview with The Observer Peace admitted that 'The Damned Utd' was conceived as a story about Revie, but the author found that Clough took over.
Leeds were Champions and the most famous club in the country when Clough took charge at Elland Road, but he felt their success was tainted by deceit, cynicism and cheating. Behind enemy lines Clough hoped to alter the club's football ethos to the purer form of the game he championed on the pitch, and off it in his controversial newspaper columns and TV appearances.
On his arrival at Leeds Clough found a club so ingrained in Revie's likeness and approach that, despite the considerable force of his own character, he was unable to affect the change he desired. As such Clough became an unwanted interloper, an outsider in what should have been his domain.
The demons that wracked Clough surface in Peace's carefully constructed prose, which includes a number of inspired literary moves which succeed in enthralling the reader, from repetition and alliteration to the sparing use of poetry. It might sound unnecessary or out of character for such terms to be used in a book about football set in the North of 1970s England, but it works wonderfully.
This 'warts and all' account fictionalises real events to bring back to life a complex legend.
While there are accounts of alcoholism and hints of financial impropriety, Peace clearly holds some affection for Clough and allows us to glimpse the other side of a monster by interpreting his insecurities to reveal a doting father, loving husband and fierce ally.
Anyone with an interest in football's heritage or simply in the popular culture and events of 1970s England will be captivated by The Damned Utd. This not just a great sports novel, but a great novel.
The Damned Utd is published by Faber and Faber and is available here.