The Times carried the news on its front page in September 1974: “Mr Clough dismissed by Leeds United”. To readers preoccupied with soaring inflation and the general election campaign that had just begun, the sacking of their manager by the English Football League champions after 44 days must have seemed insignificant. Certainly, few would have imagined that, 35 years on, Brian Clough’s brief but tumultuous spell as manager of Leeds would be the subject of one of the finest English novels of the early 21st century, David Peace’s The Damned United, now adapted for the cinema by the director Tom Hooper and the screenwriter Peter Morgan.
In making football his subject matter, Peace was taking a risk. For all its current popularity, the sport has seldom attracted the attention of serious literary writers. First-class books about the experience of playing and managing in British football (as opposed to books about watching it, like Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch) are few. Arthur Hopcraft’s The Football Man, Hunter Davies’s The Glory Game and Eamon Dunphy’s Only a Game? (which covers the season that ended with Leeds being crowned champions for the second time under Don Revie) are about the only notable examples. But in Clough and his nemesis Revie, who preceded him at Elland Road, Peace has the ideal subjects: characters of richness and complexity whose lives say much about what has happened to Britain over the past four decades.
In 1971, when Revie’s Leeds were in their pomp, his team were in effect cheated of the League title by an appalling offside decision in a game against West Bromwich Albion. The players besieged the referee; irate fans invaded the pitch. Some years later, David Miller of the Times would describe that match as “the definitive moment of moral corruption in English soccer, from which point the domestic game moved steadily downwards”.
That may sound like an overstatement – especially to fans today who are turned off by foreign ownership of English clubs, satellite television and the present dominance of the “Big Four” – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. After all, the world of Peace’s novel was one in which talented, domineering managers such as Revie and Clough could take unfashionable provincial sides from the Second Division to First Division titles, League cups and European glory; a time when footballers lived in modest three-bedroom semis and took the same package holidays as many of the men who watched them every Saturday.
However, the The Damned United is a darkly claustrophobic reminder that football in that decade, like so much else in British life, was genuinely rotten. Indeed, 1974 was a particularly bad year: Manchester United fans rioted when their team was relegated; Spurs fans went on the rampage after their team lost in Holland, the first time Britain had exported hooliganism on a large scale; and England sacked their World Cup-winning manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, with all the consideration of an aristocrat dismissing a disgraced parlour maid. Even the Charity Shield match between Leeds and Liverpool, a showpiece occasion held at Wembley for the first time, was disfigured by the sendings-off for fighting of Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner.
Other years were worse still: 1971, when 66 fans were killed in the Ibrox Stadium disaster; 1975, when Leeds fans rioted in Paris after their team were victims of appalling refereeing in the European Cup final; 1976, when weeks of pitch invasions led to the erection of iron fences at many grounds, so that spectators were now caged like animals; 1977, when drunken fans ripped up the Wembley pitch after Scotland’s victory over the Auld Enemy; and 1980, when hooligans disrupted the European Championship game in Turin between England and Belgium. As millions of television viewers around the world watched English players choking from the tear gas used to control their own fans, no serious observer could deny that something had gone terribly wrong.
English football in the 197os was a profoundly ugly business. Tactics were sterile and bad fouls routine. The FA’s Centenary Cup Final, played between Revie’s Leeds and Arsenal in 1972, was
a memorably dreadful occasion, blighted by persistent fouling and a dearth of attacking opportunities. There were many games like that one. Football, Rodney Marsh once said, was a “grey game played by grey people on grey days”. Marsh was one of many flamboyantly gifted players in this era who were mistrusted by managers and singled out for rough treatment by uncompromising defenders.
Yet what happened on the pitch was blissful compared with what was happening off it. The terraces, wrote Arthur Hopcraft, were “hideously uncomfortable. The steps are as greasy as a school playground lavatory in the rain. The air is rancid with beer and onions and belching and worse. The language is a gross purple of obscenity.” The game seemed “crude”, “prehistoric”, agreed Duncan Hamilton, who covered Clough for the Nottingham Evening Post and two years ago published an award-winning book about their years together. In polite society, soccer was “regarded as faintly repellent, like a sour smell”.
Sociologists and cultural theorists claimed that football was the victim of a broader, politically motivated attack on working-class values: the growth of violence on the terraces was, they argued, greatly exaggerated and, in any case, was part of the game’s rich proletarian tradition, a form of “resistance through rituals” to the pressures of a capitalist society in crisis. Although they came perilously close to making excuses for hooliganism, such analyses did at least register that football in the 1970s was a mirror in which were reflected the dysfunctions of the country at large.
Even as Revie and Clough were leading Leeds and Derby to League championship success, the newspaper headlines were full of sectarian murder in Northern Ireland, picket-line violence and the endless miseries of the national economy. David Peace’s Red Riding sequence of crime novels, also set in Yorkshire in the 1970s, captures the stench of moral sleaze that hung over British public life at the time – from the financial corruption of the architect John Poulson (who appears in Peace’s 1974 as “John Dawson”) to the casual brutality of the West Yorkshire police force that underpins the whole of the Red Riding cycle. To many, it seemed that the established
order was falling apart.
No novelist could have dreamed up a better symbol of national decline than the disgraced Revie walking out on his job as manager of England in summer 1977 to coach the United Arab Emirates, and informing his employers, as well as the nation, through the pages of the Daily Mail. The following day, the Times regretfully observed that “team games were nurtured in Britain a century ago as a visible expression of a code of ethics which, roughly speaking, governed the attitudes of society at large. Demonstrably, many of those attitudes have changed. We may deplore the transformation, but it is naive to suppose that sport can indefinitely preserve old standards in isolation.”
Revie’s reputation never recovered from his decision to abandon his country. He was “prickly”, “utterly selfish” and “lacking in candour”, declared Mr Justice Cantley when the row between Revie and the FA reached the high court in 1979. The manager’s behaviour, he also said, was “a sensational and notorious example of disloyalty, breach of duty, discourtesy and selfishness”. It was Cantley’s second high-profile case of the year: a few months earlier, he had presided over the trial for attempted murder of the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe.
Whatever Revie’s flaws, however, that verdict was too harsh. In his own estimation, he was an ordinary working-class man fighting for a better deal for his family. Born, like Clough, into a settled working-class culture that was at once supportive and suffocating, Revie reached maturity in a world that offered individual rewards unimaginable to his father’s generation. His critics lampooned him as “Don Readies”. And certainly he was obsessed with money, forever threatening to walk out on Leeds if he didn’t get a pay rise. Alan Hardaker, the curmudgeonly secretary of the Football League, once grumbled that with Revie it was always “money, money, money”.
Yet this was hardly unusual. Like so many working-class men who enjoyed postwar prosperity, he never managed to shed the insecurity born of poverty. Clough, too, was obsessed with squeezing every last penny out of his sporting career. Like Revie, he had grown up in highly straitened circumstances; like Revie, he was constantly agitating for pay rises; and, like Revie, he would ultimately be accused of crossing the boundary between legitimate ambition and outright corruption. When Clough was sacked from Leeds United, he cheerfully brandished his £25,000 severance cheque in front of the media like a badge of triumph. The more buttoned-up Revie would never have done such a thing, but he would have appreciated the sentiment behind the gesture.
Born in 1927 and raised in a small terraced house in Middlesbrough, Revie vividly remembered the privations of the Depression, when his father, a joiner, had spent years out of work. Middlesbrough in the 1930s was not a particularly happy place to grow up:
J B Priestley memorably called it “a dismal town, even with beer and football”, the twin obsessions of many local men.
Revie’s mother died of cancer when he was 12. Four years later he moved to Leicester as an apprentice footballer. In effect, he missed out on family life as a teenager, so it is not surprising that, as an adult, he was fanatical about providing for his own family (sending his children to boarding school, for example). At Leeds, too, all the talk was of family, Revie even calling himself “the head of the family” and earning the nickname “The Godfather” in the process.
Hopcraft observed that the junior players at the club were “taught carefully about bank accounts, table manners and sex”. Revie delivered “regular homilies about keeping their hair short and their clothes smart and not getting caught up with loose girls”. Many other managers did the same, though none as assiduously as Revie.
In the early 1970s, when television pictures caught the Leeds manager glowering from the dugout in his “lucky” dark blue suit, sheepskin jacket and driving gloves, he seemed like a man slightly out of time. There were only eight years between him and Clough, even though often it seemed more like 18. While Clough relished the media and financial opportunities available to him, and flourished in a climate where irreverence and rebellion were increasingly celebrated, Revie always seemed to be struggling to keep up.
Although he was not a churchgoer, Revie prayed on his knees before bedtime every night, and advised his players to do the same, much to the horror and amusement of his England squad in the late 1970s. At Leeds, he insisted the players take part in bingo and carpet bowls sessions, for which he was much mocked. (Clough’s idea of pre-match preparation frequently involved the players working their way through crates of champagne.) Like much that Revie did, the bowling sessions were his way of trying to impose old-fashioned collective values on an increasingly disordered world.
That was the paradox of Revie: his attitude to his own career was nakedly self-interested, but his management style was all about collective solidarity. And that explains why Clough failed so spectacularly as his replacement at Leeds. Having spent years deriding Revie’s team as thuggish and corrupt, Clough would probably never have won the Leeds players over. But the way he set about the job, described so vividly in The Damned United, was reckless. Out went Revie’s carefully calibrated routines and rituals; out went the dossiers, the bingo, even the office desk. In their place, Clough tried to impose a culture of improvisation and self-expression, of free-flowing, attacking football with no place for fear. Not surprisingly, his tenure was a disaster; and less than two months later he was gone.
There is a third principal character in Peace’s dramatisation of the battle between Revie and Clough: the city of Leeds itself. In the 1970s it was a tough and unforgiving place. The decade began with the city’s police in the dock, accused
of murdering a homeless black man, David Oluwale, in 1969; it ended with them attempting to catch the Yorkshire Ripper.
Old industrial Leeds, with its grimy terraces and belching chimneys, was dying. A new world of concrete flyovers and high-rise council flats was sprouting in its place. The city fathers – among them Alderman Percy Woodward, vice-chairman of Leeds United and a key figure in the Revie-Clough psychodrama – had proclaimed it the Motorway City, which back then seemed like a badge of honour. The city’s population was changing, too, with the influx of thousands of black and Asian immigrants.
Football often seemed to be lagging behind these wider social changes. The young men who played for Leeds or Derby were certainly far
better paid than Revie and Clough had been in
the 1950s, when a maximum wage was still enforced. First Division footballers earned between £5,000 and £10,000 a year, more than twice what the average working man took home, and were often photographed by football magazines like Shoot in front of neat, semi-detached suburban homes and gleaming, brand-new cars.
In other ways, however, players were almost laughably old-fashioned. When, for example, Hunter Davies joined the Spurs squad on a trip to France in 1972, he was taken aback by their distaste for the local food. Even Clough, for all his iconoclasm, could be astonishingly conservative. Asked what he thought of women playing football, he replied: “I like my women to be feminine, not rolling around in mud.”
Like those other mainstays of mid-century
urban working-class existence, the chapel, the cinema and the pub, football seemed doomed as long as wages kept rising and leisure opportunities continued to expand. Attendances at matches had been falling steadily since the mid-1960s, as middle-aged and older men abandoned the pilgrimage to their local ground. In their
absence, the informal constraints that had once governed crowd behaviour disappeared. The fans who watched Revie’s Leeds and Clough’s Derby were younger and more aggressive than their predecessors. And they worshipped at shrines that grew more dilapidated almost by the day.
One of the incidental pleasures of The Damned United is the way it reminds us what a remarkable showman Clough was: a populist television star who knew how the media worked and played to the cameras like a practised professional, he was a celebrity before the term became debased by overuse. Yet it was Revie, the older man, who really pointed the way to the future. He was responsible for numerous commercial innovations – at Leeds, he commissioned tracksuit tops with the players’ names on the back and numbered sock-tags that were thrown into the crowd at the end of every match; as England manager, he arranged a revolutionary shirt deal with Admiral and replaced “God Save the Queen” with “Land of Hope and Glory” at international matches at Wembley.
When he arrived in the United Arab Emirates in 1977, Revie insisted that he had always thought of himself as the “typical Englishman,” an odd thing to say for someone who had just abandoned his country to live in the Gulf. But his decision to move east – at a time when imports from the Continent were virtually unknown in the domestic game – represented one of the first cracks in the hard shell of footballing parochialism and insularity.
Revie would no doubt have been astonished if someone had told him that, three decades later, Arab oil money would be paying the wages of Premiership footballers; that England internationals would own homes in Dubai; or that Arsenal’s new stadium would bear the name of the national airline of his adopted home. The last days of the typical Englishman, indeed.
Dominic Sandbrook is the author most recently of “White Heat: a History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties” (Abacus, £12.99)