Brilliance and self-destruction go hand in hand in Tom Hooper's The Damned United, a portrait of English football coach Brian Clough and his decades-long obsession with the rival club Leeds United. But despite flashes of game play (from back when soccer was a "beautiful game, that needed to be played beautifully") and a brief, impressive bit of juggle-and-shoot by former player and star Michael Sheen, this is anything but the action-packed sports film you might expect. Rather, it's an account of a man desperate for recognition who burned a lot of bridges and made a lot of mistakes on the road to glory, the story of a legendary football coach before he ever became a legend and the personal demons that almost completely ruined him.
In his opening scene Hooper obscures Clough's head from view, the point being that Clough and his driving ambitions were a mystery to most. Why did Clough, an outspoken critic of the dirty tactics of the Leeds United club, take a job running it after the departure of his biggest professional rival, the celebrated manager Don Revie? As screenwriter Peter Morgan argues, it was Clough's desperate need for Revie's respect that drove him, and it all stemmed from one fateful 1967 match between Revie's league-dominating Leeds United and Clough's own Derby County.