The Damned United: Leadership Lessons

Tom Hooper’s The Damned United (2009) dramatises Brian Clough‘s 44-day stint as Leeds United football coach. You don’t have to be an English football film to appreciate the film which is a cautionary lesson on leadership, set in the downtrodden, rainy Northern English landscape that has become a Screen Yorkshire aesthetic.

Clough (Michael Sheen) makes several classic mistakes which self-saboages his leadership. He accepts the job because of personal animus with his predecessor Don Reavey (Colm Meaney), whose team has used dirty tactics in games with Derby County, a third league team which Clough and assistant coach/talent scout Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) have taken into the first league. Clough’s aggressive leadership style alienates the Leeds players who still feel loyal to Reavey, and who undermine their new coach. Clough does not have a 100-day transition plan and improvises his training sessions. Nor does he brief the Leeds players on pre-game tactics, whereas Reavey compiled detailed dossiers, in advance, on Leeds’ competitors. Clough’s overconfidence and chutzpah becomes a liability to the Leeds board when he fails to deliver results, and he blows-up. Anyone who has been through an exit interview will empathise with Clough’s sad observation outside the boardroom, ‘every story ends with two words . . . the end.’

Peter Morgan’s script (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland) based on David Peace’s novel (The Red Riding Trilogy) contrasts Clough’s troubles with his earlier success with Derby County. A sub-narrative reveals how Taylor’s expertise was essential to Clough’s success, and how the assistant coach ‘grounded’ Clough’s all-consuming ambitions. The relationship frays when Clough miscalculates during a brinkmanship negotiation with Derby County’s board, which accepts Clough and Taylor’s resignation, despite them getting the club to the top of the English league. On reflection, The Leeds board suggests that their error was in the wrong hiring decision: they should have hired Clough and Taylor, rather than Clough alone. Clough’s blindspot was a lack of political savvy: as a manager he refused to negotiate with Derby County’s owner or to heed his advice, and to listen to the Leeds board.

The film’s epilogue shows Clough and Taylor’s later success with Nottingham Forest, which won the European Cup in 1979 and 1980.The Damned United alludes to a deeper reason why Clough failed at Leeds: the ‘situational fit’ of talent to strategic circumstances that may only become clear in retrospect. Clough was a gifted turnaround coach whose chutzpah was needed to energise and motivate teams. Leeds had hired Clough with a different aim, to sustain and build its high performance team. Clough was correct to see how money would redefine English football, but in this transitional period, managers did not yet have the power to out-negotiate boards and club owners.