The Damned Utd by David Peace

During my gap year I worked as a nanny. My ward was a tremendously shy and emotionally inhibited young boy. One of my tasks was to take him to watch Chelsea FC play. The first game we went to together was an evening kick off. What I remember is the otherworldly green of the grass under the floodlights, the almost phosphorescent white glow of the chalk lines. But most of all what I remember is the uninhibited joy of my ward when Chelsea scored. We became the best of friends after that evening.

While I can’t say I’m at all interested in reading about football, I am interested in David Peace because he’s a writer I greatly admire. He’s something of an original, a great stylist who likes making fiction of fact. He’s written about the Miners’ strike, the Yorkshire Ripper and a serial killer in post WW2 Japan. Here he turns his attention to the legendary football manager, people’s champion and outspoken maverick, Brian Clough.

The novel has two timelines: Clough’s phenomenal achievement of winning the championship with a small and ailing club, Derby County and his subsequent job at the tremendously successful but universally hated Leeds Utd. Peace does a fantastic job of ventriloquism in appropriating what feels like an authentic voice for Clough. Peace’s familiar fragmented, hypnotic prose style is present, in which he gives his prosaic cataloguing of detail a dark poetry through his mastery of cadence and rhythm. “Saturday’s come, with Saturday’s stink. The sweat and the mud, the liniment and the grease. The steam and the soap, the sewer and the shampoo.”

The novel is both fabulously humorous and poignantly tragic. It’s a brilliant character study of hubris, of a man being his own worst enemy. It’s also clever how emotionally involved Peace gets you in the results of each new football game. But with Clough it wasn’t just about winning, it was winning in style that mattered. He wanted and needed to be loved by the working people. He wanted to be a kind of Robin Hood. At heart it’s a novel about the little man fighting and being defeated by the complacency and corruption of the establishment. download-1


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