There was a lot more football chat in the queue than you would expect for teatime Fringe theatre. But The Damned United is a show about Brian Clough and his ill-fated 44 days in charge of the then-mighty Leeds United in 1974; and Cloughie has always been star quality, one of the beautiful game’s true originals.
Opening with archive footage of the end of Clough’s career, on a screen that doubles as corrugated steel fencing – familiar to anyone who went anywhere near a football game in those pre-Sky days – we’re reminded that he was one of the most prolific strikers of his day until his career was ended early by shattering injury. The story is driven by Peter Taylor (David Chafer), Clough’s assistant from his pre-Leeds career, reminding Clough of the course their careers have taken. It is a successful device and allows the more urbane Taylor to gradually bring out the bitterness over his lack of financial reward and credit for their achievements that eventually comes between them.
The play chronologically covers Clough’s very successful periods at Hartlepool and Derby, intercut with scenes from the disastrous spell at Leeds that followed. The seeds of his failure were sown in his hatred of Leeds – he felt they were cheats who didn’t deserve their success, and was unequivocal in telling his new charges so.
The central relationships – Clough and Taylor, Clough and Don Revie (his predecessor at Leeds, whom he loathed, and is a vocal but shadowy off-stage presence here) – should be the heart of this production, illustrating how Clough’s inability to separate himself from his public image left him unable to resolve relationships with either friends or enemies. Instead, the emphasis is on the quips and anecdotes – and they are delivered well by Luke Dickson, who is great as Clough without resorting to impersonation. Indeed, the acting is uniformly good; Jamie Smelt as the third member of the cast manages to clearly delineate a number of different directors and coaches.
But it is perhaps an inevitable consequence of trying to squeeze so much rich source material into an hour that it feels rushed, with no time to allow the story to breathe. At times it felt like we were constantly been shouted at by the voluble Clough. Of course, some elements work really well, such as when he berates members of the audience as if they were poorly-performing players in the dressing room at half-time. However, issues such as Clough’s drinking are touched upon but not fully explored, and I don’t think it was entirely clear until too late that Peter Taylor had not followed Clough to Leeds, a crucial point.
As a tribute show to one of football’s most memorable characters, The Damned United is a satisfying hour at the theatre and certainly left the audience happy. But it felt like there was a better story in there trying to get out.