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Damned Utd author David turns from Clough to Shankly

By Burton Mail  |  Posted: August 01, 2014

By Nigel Powlson

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WHEN David Peace's The Damned Utd was published in the summer of 2006, the quietly spoken writer wasn't prepared for the storm of controversy his book about Brian Clough would generate.

The author had been named as one of the country's best young novelists in 2003 and his intelligent, stylised writing had earned him a dedicated following, but The Damned Utd thrust him into the limelight in an unexpected way – the Clough factor taking over.

At the time, Brian's son Nigel was manager of Burton Albion and the legendary Derby County and Nottingham Forest boss was still greatly missed by fans and former colleagues. Cloughie had died less than two years previously and when The Damned Utd seemed to portray a darker side to the man than was the public perception, some of his former players leapt to his defence.

For the author, it was a shock to the system that still troubles him.

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"I never thought the book would be successful in any way and reach such a wide audience – let alone that the people involved would ever read it. Had I known they were going to read it, I would have contacted them before publication. It was not an attempt to be controversial at all and everything that was in the book, as far I was concerned, had been touched on in biographies or so forth and I thought was in the public record. I didn't think it would upset anybody and, basically, I didn't think anyone would read it.

"In terms of people who bought and read the book and who weren't involved personally in the story, I have never yet met somebody who really took objection to it. Critically, it did very well. But those involved in the story had a different take on it."

The Damned Utd experience hasn't, however, put David off the theme of football and he has returned to the subject with his latest book Red or Dead, which explores the life and times of another football legend, Bill Shankly.

"I had thought after The Damned Utd it was better to stay in the world of police corruption and union politics and not do anything controversial again," laughs David.

But a film producer asked him to write a screenplay about Shankly and it struck a chord.

"As soon a he said the word 'Shankly' I knew I had to write a novel," says David. "It was if Shankly himself was sitting in the room and I hadn't noticed him. It seemed that right.

"I also needed a break from the dark, crime-based stuff to refresh my batteries – the very reason I did The Damned Utd."

David was living in Dewsbury and struggling to write the final chapter in his Tokyo Trilogy, a police yarn set in the aftermath of the Second World War. Having lived in Japan previously, he had planned a return to again immerse himself in the culture but ended up frantically running around in his last two months in Britain gaining facts for Red or Dead.

Like Clough, a whole mythology has sprung up around Shankly, so how difficult was it for David to get to the truth?

"That was one of the challenges and reasons I wanted to write the book," he says. "There was an item on Sky Sports News where they used a quote from Shankly – 'football is a team game' – but the full quote adds that 'it's a form of socialism, it's a collective' but they cut that bit. Shankly was a very witty man, very articulate, very intelligent. On Merseyside he's revered and his life story is known in context, but outside the city I feel he has been reduced to witticisms; the odd line. Also, the more I researched his life the more I admired what he achieved at Liverpool from 1959 to 1974; it was an incredible story. So I did try to strip away the myths and legends to get to the man."

But was David wary about dipping back into football culture after The Damned Utd?

"With Red or Dead it was different as I knew people would read it because of the success of The Damned Utd. So with this book I contacted and got to know the people involved before it was published. The Shankly family read it before publication and I wish I had had the brains and sense to have done that with The Damned Utd.

"From the first moment I contacted them the Shankly family have been very supportive, which to me is humbling. That could sound like an unfair comparison with the Clough family, but it's a different kind of book. It's a much more positive portrayal. I'm not saying that if I had contacted the Clough family they would have liked The Damned Utd any more, but I wish I had given myself more of an opportunity and that it had been handled differently."

The Damned Utd turned into a very successful film starring Michael Sheen as Brian Clough, and the movie of Red or Dead is now in the pipeline. David says: "They waited very graciously two years for me to complete the novel and then I attempted to write the script, but I had to put my hands up and say I'm just not a screenwriter – which was a relief to everybody and I'm still in weekly contact."

As well as The Damned Utd, David's Red Riding Quartet has also been filmed, by Channel 4, with Burton actor Paddy Considine in a lead role.

David says: "I have been incredibly lucky. I have written nine books and they have all been optioned for films and four of them have been made already. That's very rare. If you are going to be churlish and complain then don't sell the film rights to your books. I think the film of Nineteen Seventy-Four (part of the Red Riding Quartet) is much better than the book.

"The Damned United film wasn't quite as I thought it would turn out as there were several versions of it. If I'm honest, I think the earlier ideas of it being in black and white and more gritty were more to my taste.

"But that film has brought people to that book and others I have written. It has all been a positive experience.

"For Red or Dead I have been more involved. It's still fresh in my mind and I still have ideas."

David is now working a 'regular day' in his small office ("the house in Japan is very tiny," he says) completing the Tokyo Trilogy.

"It helps not being immersed in British culture to write about Britain. I get a sense of perspective. But I never lived through the times when the Tokyo books are set and I'm not Japanese, so to it helps to be here and be connected. The city has changed in many ways but when you walk around the rise and falls of the streets you get the sense of the place."

After the completion of that work, David will pen his long-planned book about Labour PM Harold Wilson and then admits he may return to football.

"It might be time to refresh those batteries again," he laughs.

David Peace will be in conversation at QUAD in Derby discussing Red or Dead and his wider work on August 13. Audience members will have the opportunity at the end to ask questions. The event starts at 7pm and tickets are £7 or £6 concessions. Go to www.derby quad.co.uk to book.

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