Illegitimati Non Carborundum
by Satyajit Sarna | March 03, 2011
[The Damned Utd; David Peace; 2006]
Derby County's championship winning team 1968-69. The players are [L-R from top row]: Frank Wignall, Jim Walker, Alan Durban, Les Green, John Robson, Roy McFarland, Ron Webster, John McGovern, John O'Hare, Dave Mackay [captain, with the trophy], Kevin Hector, Willie Carlin, Alan Hinton.
Image above is from ~Duncan~'s photostream on Flickr.
At the end of Tottenham Hotspur’s historic victory over AC Milan at the San Siro, Gennaro Gattuso participated in some thought-provoking palaeontology. After an uninspired performance, he finally lost his rag with Spurs Assistant Manager Joe Jordan, grabbed him by the throat and headbutted him. He subsequently claimed that he was heckled and abused by the sixty-year-old “speaking Scottish” from the sidelines. More interesting to me were the instant responses from Spurs Manager Harry Redknapp, who claimed he was protecting Gattuso from Jordan, and ITV commentator Graeme Souness. Souness said, “He's a little dog at best … I just wish Joe Jordan had ten minutes on his own with him in a room now. In fact, five minutes is all it would take.”
Taking into account even the inexplicable childish biases of British commentators, the idea of a sixty-year-old man, “well hard” as he might look, beating down a professional athlete in his prime has an air of unreality to it. Why would anyone make a claim like that? Who was Joe Jordan, that the “Bulldog of Milan” wouldn’t last five minutes in a room with him? Looking into the history of English football is a little like shining a flashlight into a recently excavated cave and discovering clear evidence of cannibalism in human history.
David Peace’s The Damned Utd finds Joe Jordan in the dressing room and out on the pitch for Leeds United. Jordan, hilariously nicknamed ‘Jaws’ for his utter lack of front teeth, was just one of the many hard men who were part of the Leeds United team that dominated England for a decade under Don Revie. Some would have called them consummate professionals. Others called them cynical cheating bastards with a bent towards injuring their fellows and a history of bribing referees. Leeds were epically violent, a squad full of players like Billy Bremner or Johnny Giles, who never hesitated to put the boot in. The pick of the bunch was probably Norman Hunter – once, when he was told Norman Hunter had gone home with a broken leg, trainer Les Crocker asked “Whose is it?” Leeds were Champions, but they were feared, not loved. But winning erases a great deal of history, and Leeds are still known as the only otherwinning team to wear an all-white strip.
But The Damned Utd is not really about dirty Leeds. The book is about Brian Clough, the legendary, straight talking, media-icon, hard-drinking Manager, and his ill-starred forty-four day spell as Manager ofLeeds. Brian Clough dragged Derby County Football Club from the bottom of the Second Division to the very top of the First Division in just five years. In today’s terms, the equivalent would be takingScunthorpe United to the top of the Premier League, past Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and the two Manchester clubs. But then, everything that goes up must come down, and when Derby slumped the next season, the manic ego of Cloughie was to blame.
In a parallel story arc, after Clough is forced out of Derby, he takes the Leeds job – Don Revie has taken the opportunity to manage England. From the minute he steps in to Elland Road, from his first meeting with the players, the enterprise is damned. “The first thing you can do for me” he tells the veteran internationals, “is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you’ve never won any of them fairly.” Clough’s distaste forLeeds’ cheating and physicality sounds modern and delicate, till you realise how dirty football really was. “Irishman,” he tells Johnny Giles, “God gave you intelligence, skill, agility and the best passing ability in the game. These are qualities which have helped make you a very wealthy young man. What God did not give you was them six studs to wrap around someone else’s knee.”
The locker room is always a black box to us, and we can only wonder what happened there in case of a second-half turnaround. David Peace takes us inside, and it is nothing as I imagined. I’ve always visualised it as a place where a spectacled gentleman works on a blackboard while physios give well-behaved players well-earned rubdowns. What shocks is the violence and profanity of the world under the tiers of seats. I don’t just mean the language; the air itself is profane, charged with hate and desire, suffused with sweat and pain spray. It’s shockingly obvious, but the adult professional athlete is almost a different species, a class of humans given the keys to the world for their physical superiority – why would we think they wouldn’t be gladiators? In the players’ lounge after practice, they walk in “in their denim and leather, with their gold chains and their wet hair, teasing and touching, picking and pinching, a gang of apes after a fuck, their heads as low as their knees in their easy chairs”. The menace is palpable, roiling like a quiet part of A Clockwork Orange. These are not gentlemen sportsmen. They are animals kept for the delight of the working class on overcast Sunday afternoons. If they bleed for it, so much the better.
A statue of Brian Clough at Nottingham.
Image above is from ian.plumb's photostream on Flickr.
For the forty-four days Brian Clough was manager at Leeds, he rarely went home, putting up in a “modern luxury hotel”, where he could go slowly insane from the insecurity of working against the players, against the fans, against the board, against the staff, against the proverbial tea lady even. It didn’t hurt that he fancied a drink before he did anything. Every night was a haze in the company of strangers, until there were no more strangers, and then “the barman takes my arms, the waiter takes my legs, but no one takes me home”. Clough believes in alcohol, and in little else. He repeats ad nauseum that he does not believe in God or in luck, but only in Clough, and evidently only in the good folks at the liquor store, till he ends up, “face fucking down on the floor” once again. Clough fights battles in his head against his doubt and fear. The difference is that at Derby, those battles were won, and atLeeds, the hatred and doubt and fear broke loose and devoured him. There are terrifying nihilistic monsters loose in the labyrinth of his imagination, vengeful half-prayers, and half-heard mutterings in dark corridors. In the darkness of the northern night, there are no stars, and the constant reminder that before Christianity and before Rome, there were a people who lived here, and their magic remains.
The Damned Utd is a document from the past of football. And like looking into the crypt and seeing the shards of brainpans, I want to deny it. This is not my football. My football is not a pig’s breakfast of a pitch under a gray and bloated sky. It is not a two-footed studs-up challenge from behind which takes with it the ball, tendons, and half a foot of mud. It is not a “man’s” game that stinks of Scotch and cigarettes. It is not two banks of four and ten men behind the ball and taking two minutes over a throw-in with a towel.
No. I believe in something else. I believe in a perfect spongy green pitch. I believe in mathematical passing and cunning dribbling and beautiful finishing. I believe in touches of fantasy and improbable control in the sunlight, with laughter and delight pouring down from all sides, like a never-ending friendly at the Maracana. For me to believe in the football of Don Revie’s Leeds, I would have to have been fromLeeds. The modern globalised game requires football to be art because in far-off countries, we have the choice of changing the channel and choosing not to identify with any set of eleven men for ninety minutes. There is a reason that AC Milan sells shirts in South Korea but Stoke City FC do not, despite the very real possibility that, on a given day, I would bet on Stoke beating Milan at home.
It is a tremendously emancipating thought for every distant football fan who wishes he lived a little closer to that stadium that his allegiance is an aesthetic one, that if what he sees displeases him, he is perfectly justified in turning it off. There is no reason to watch a joyless, goalless draw between two cellar-dwellers, or two morons knocking skulls. Life is ugly enough.