Up in Manchester for a speech yesterday, and what an unexpected treat to get
back to my hotel room at half ten and channel hop my way to the ITV documentary
on Brian Clough. 

Non-football fans stay with me …. this was not just about football. It was
modern history. A look at one of the most fascinating characters of our
lifetime, and full of wonderful moments

Among the best was seeing Labour
MP Austin Mitchell – then a Yorkshire TV presenter – making a contribution
without once mentioning the vagaries of the Common Fisheries Policy. When I
read David Peace’s ‘The Damned United’ – the novel on which the film released
tomorrow is based and which angered the Clough family into co-operating with
the documentary – I assumed the joint TV interview with Clough and Don Revie on
the day Clough resigned from Leeds was fiction. My God, it happened … and
there was Austin in the chair. As ITV are in a bit of a pickle at the moment,
why don’t they show the whole thing again? It was brilliant.

For younger readers, how to explain? It is like Alex Ferguson leaves Man U for
an international job, Rafa Benitez takes over, tells the players they’re all
useless, never won anything fairly and everything’s going to change, gets
hounded out by the players after 44 days, then pops into the TV studio to do a
chat with Alex about why they hate each other.

Austin said in the modern day interview that what came through
was the two characters of the men. Clough still lippy and arrogant in a moment
of failure – did he really call Revie ‘lad’? – and Revie buttoned up and
looking tortured.
There were some fabulous contributions from old players. The interviews with
the Leeds players – particularly Peter Lorimer and his observation that Clough
saw them as ‘rats’ and calm, measured Gordon McQueen (whose daughter Hayley I’m
seeing this morning for an MUTV documentary about Alex F and the 1999 treble
… small world) – made me feel much more symathy for them than I did in
reading the fictionalised account. The interviews with Derby and Forest players
were a better reminder of the skills that made him take two unfashionable clubs
and turn them into world beaters. As for the clips of old Clough interviews –
I’d forgotten he remained as a TV pundit for much of his managerial career –
ITV should bring out a DVD.

The family were unhappy about the book and so was Leeds’ midfielder Johnny
Giles, who successfully sued. But if they were hoping the documentary would
sate people’s desire to see the film, I doubt they have been successful. The
clips of Michael Sheen as Clough looked fantastic.

These biopics are bound to be controversial. One of the most commonly asked
questions I get – it happened again at a post-speech book signing yesterday –
is ‘what did you think of your portrayal in The Queen?’

The answer is I thought it was an ok film, and that it worked because even if
they treated me, Cherie, Prince Philip and one or two others as caricatures,
they did not do that with the two main characters, TB and the Queen. Looks to
me like for TB and Queen, read Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor as the
characters who really matter in The Damned United. 

I’ve been portrayed in fictionalised accounts of recent
events a few times, and even if they invent whole dialogue, as they do, you
have to kind of trust the public to work out whether there is some sort of
truth in there. The one I had a bit of a problem with was the film about David
Blunkett’s private life where I was portrayed as the brutal hatchet man urging
TB to get rid of him. Put to one side that David is a good friend …  I’d left Downing Street long before
those events. So it was a bit odd to be getting letters from members of the
public asking why I had been so horrible to him. One even suggested I was
anti-blind people!

So everyone who goes to see The Damned United, and who was involved in the
actual events, will be able to say that ‘no, it wasn’t quite like that.’ But I
heard Martin O’Neill, who played for Clough and had a very balanced view of him
in the documentary, saying very positive things after the premiere of the film,
and that’s good enough for me. Sport is such an important part of our lives and
yet there have been relatively few great sports films. I heard Michael Sheen on
the radio saying This Sporting Life, starring Richard Harris as a rugby league
player, was his favourite. Probably mine too, especially after my time with
Keighley Cougars at the weekend, 
along with Chariots of Fire. And both from a fair few years ago.

If The Damned United goes down in that league, then the Clough family should
feel very proud amid whatever anger the book first caused them. They should see
it in the same way as they view the statue in Nottingham town centre – proof
that there was something about Old Big ‘Ead that makes people want to remember
him, think about him, talk about him forever.

Oh, and he was Labour. (You didn’t think I’d get through a whole blog without
a pro-Labour message did you?)