Was ever another phrase so obviously coined with one intention, only to be taken up and brandished with pride to the completely opposite effect? Author David Peace – a Huddersfield Town fan – has described his book “The Damned United” as “an occult history of Leeds United.” The word “history” in this connection is somewhat optimistic – the book is decidedly fictionalised, and the point of view is the imagined perspective of Brian Clough as he struggled through his 44 days in what could fairly be described as enemy territory. The book was a success, met by a measure of critical acclaim. The film it spawned was of more dubious quality, famous for the lengthy list of goofs on its Internet Movie Database page, and widely regarded as particularly one-eyed in its depiction of personalities and events, none of which bears much resemblance to actuality.
It is the tag though – that Damned United tag – which seems set fair to achieve iconic status, and not with the intended pejorative effect. With a typical sense of gallows humour, devotees of the Elland Road club have taken the label and made of it a badge of honour, waving it under the nose of the millions who despise Leeds United as a symbol of inverted defiance. We Are The Damned United, they say – do your worst. The tiresome recycling of allegations about Don Revie, the endless litany of “Dirty Leeds” myths and the omnipresent attitude that the West Yorkshire club exemplify all that is shady about football, all of this is held up to ridicule as those who love the club glory in the new name. Sod the lot of you. We are Dirty Leeds, The Damned United, and we are proud. It’s a unifying message, the foundations of a siege complex that can rally support behind any popularly-hated institution. It’s an assertion of individuality, of a refusal to conform to the cosy standards beloved of media and Establishment. It takes gritty character to be a Leeds fan in the face of such universal hatred, and those of sufficient character know they’re part of something unique and special. We Are The Damned United.
It’s also had the welcome effect of reclaiming a measure of ownership and identification with that word “United”. It’s highly doubtful that Town fan Peace could have foreseen or desired that effect, but there it undoubtedly is. For decades, the press, the football establishment in the UK and elsewhere – and of course Man U themselves – have been unrelenting in their efforts to corner the term “United” exclusively for the Salford-based franchise. It’s been an important marketing tool, a vital part of the attempt to sell the myth of The Biggest Club In The World™ (Copyright © The Gutter Press since the late 50’s) to children of all ages from Devon to Singapore. It’s seeped into the public consciousness like the subliminally insidious selling technique it is, and of course the tat-consuming, replica-shirt-buying, Sky-subscribing suckers have fallen for it in their millions. But now there is The Damned United, inextricably linked with Dirty Leeds, and suddenly that formerly football-related suffix isn’t quite so exclusively Man U any more.
Thanks, Mr Peace. You could hardly have aided our cause any more effectively, and Dirty Leeds have gained from the exposure in popular culture. The book may have been an attempted exposition of Clough’s state of mind as that complex character negotiated his time in purgatory; the film may have been an amusing romp through the mythical hinterland that borders but rarely intrudes on the territory of actual fact. But the label will probably out-live the pair of them, and will flutter bravely and proudly in the vanguard of the Leeds United juggernaut as it – eventually – thunders its way back to The Top.