Imagine the scene: a small football club from the East Midlands rises from obscurity to topple the elite of the English game. It causes ripples, the like of which have rarely been seen on these shores. Amidst the chaos and confusion, the game's great managerial superstar is unexpectedly toppled from his pedestal as the king of English football, a victim of his own pummelling ego in a world that no longer makes sense. It's winter 2016, but it could just as easily be October 1973. In truth, there could hardly be a more fitting time to be re-telling the legend of Brian Clough.
The Damned United, adapted from author David Peace's 2006 novel and brought to the stage by Leeds-based theatre company Red Ladder, is the story of Clough's doomed 44-day spell in charge of Leeds United in 1974. Fresh from an unprecedented league title at Derby County, the side he dragged from the foot of the second division to a European Cup semi-final, Peace's novel and the subsequent stage play by Anders Lustgarten chart the collapse of Clough's relationship with the Derby board, his public spat with former Leeds boss Don Revie, and his ultimate failure in the Elland Road hot seat. It is the story of a man driven to extremes.
Andrew Lancel sits in the auditorium of Derby Theatre, in black jeans and t-shirt with a baseball cap drooped over one knee, relaxed as you like. Gone now are the Clough mannerisms, the defiant posture and the know-all smile which, five nights earlier, had made for such an authentic impression of Old Big 'Ed at the West Yorkshire Play House in Leeds. In making the short trip along the M1 to the place the show will call home for the next 10 days, Lancel has reversed the journey made by Clough more than 40 years ago from the Baseball Ground to Elland Road (albeit via Brighton), in a bid to try and crack English football's most enduring and fascinating enigma. For him the parallels between then and now are stark.
"I was at Goodison Park in December when Leicester beat Everton 3-2," he says, "and I said then that this Leicester team are just like Clough's Forest. They're big fuckers, people who've been in the game a long time and who've just been placed. They've got a manager who never shuts up right the way through. I reckon that day he [Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri] talked to every player right throughout that team, made really clever substitutions, and he's got a keeper who is practically unbeatable. Forest had all that."
That game came five days after City had beaten Chelsea 2-1 at the King Power Stadium to move 20 points ahead of the reigning champions at the top of the league. 72 hours later Jose Mourinho was sacked, seven months after guiding his side to the Premier League crown. A popular manager, cut down in his pomp to the considerable anguish of the club's fans (Clough was sacked by Derby in October 1973 just 18 months after leading them to the title), for Lancel the Middlesbrough-born manager was every bit as brilliantly flawed as the Portuguese, and courted the same cult of celebrity.
"He was kind of mad. When he was young as a player he was barking orders at people constantly, even as a schoolboy. He was putting in transfer requests almost every week at Sunderland and Middlesbrough. There was enough in just a week of Brian Clough's life for a play."
To recognise that Clough lived a chaotic life is one thing; to find a way of infiltrating his psychology – to get into his head and to make sense of what's inside – is quite another.
"I started with the words 'it's an English fairytale' echoing in my head. This play is all inside Clough's head, it's him and his demons, from the drink through to the death of his mother. And that's what this play is about: it's about loss, and need, and mistakes. Would Clough have done at Leeds what he did at Forest? Of course he would. But he had this self-destruction in him, this need to fuck it up.
"We know he was a genius of football, but he was also a guy who had his demons and a guy who made mistakes.
"What people forget about Clough is that he was so fucking famous. Before the internet, before Twitter, he was getting messages from Muhammad Ali when he was at Brighton. That's how famous he was. And he knew how to wind people up too, but he knew he was becoming this celebrity. He went out and got his hair done and his teeth done. He knew what he was doing."
There's something undeniably beautiful about the way Lancel intermittently refers to his muse as Brian, usually when he's deep in a forest of thought. The closeness is touching, but unsurprising; Lancel has had to make room inside his head for Clough's ghost to live permanently over the last four months of preparation, rehearsal and performance.
That intimacy breeds a kind of authority, and when Lancel talks about Clough, you listen. While thousands have and will continue to speculate about what motivated the twice European Cup winner, it's hard not to invest in the actor's ideas about Leeds, Derby, the dynamic with assistant Peter Taylor, and Clough's infectious persona.
"There's a mystery surrounding what happened during those 44 days. I've got my theories. For me, it was all about timing. It was summer, and summer was family time for Clough. I think if he'd gone to Leeds mid-season he would have settled down, got used to Don Revie not being in charge. Maybe if Syd Owen had managed them for a couple of months and then Clough had come in October, I think it would have been a different kettle of fish."
The production itself is a gripping watch, yet somehow leaves every question you might ever have had about Clough unanswered: what fuelled this madly destructive ambition? Why did one of the English game's brightest sparks fail to heed the triggers whenever crisis threatened? To have achieved what he did with Derby, from the second division basement to the last four of the European Cup in six years, and still have engineered his own demise at the Baseball Ground, is a feat as dumbfounding today as it was 40 years ago. Lustgarten's script lays those questions bare, without forcing answers on us.
The media circus Clough generated, the controversial and un-sanctioned comments in the press, a reckless approach to the spending of Derby chairman Sam Longson's money; these all go some way towards explaining 'how'. But 'why' remains intractable.
"A lot of the reviews have been comparing it to a Shakespearian tragedy," says Lancel. "Which it is, I think. It's opera. It's Tosca. There's a bit in the play where one of the board members walks down the corridor and gives a note to Peter Taylor telling him he's been sacked, and that really happened. Even the interview between Clough and Revie after he's been sacked by Leeds; if Alan Bennett had written that scene you'd have thought 'no way'. You just couldn't write it."
There's a moment in Peace's novel, absent from the stage production, where Leeds chairman Manny Cussins picks through the wreckage of Clough's dismal 44-day tenure, admitting that "in truth, we should probably never have hired you without Peter Taylor." If one side of Clough's coin bears the tarnishes left by failed relationships, the other glistens with the shine of those that flourished and upon which he depended. There was no-one he needed more, personally or professionally, than Taylor.
"Apparently there are rare records where you can see it credited 'McCartney-Lennon'," says Lancel. "Early on it was Taylor-Clough; Taylor was the pusher. Somewhere along the line it changed. Tony [Bell, who plays Taylor] and I just tried to see them as two geezers who knew a bit about football, not statues or deities. We tried to place ourselves in the pub a lot of the time. That chemistry is so important. It worked when they were together, and it didn't work particularly well when they weren't. Clough needed Taylor, and he was lonely without him.
"One thing we talked about a lot in rehearsals was Peter and Brian getting in a car and driving the length and breadth of Britain looking for players together. I can't imagine many people doing that now.
"Something infiltrated football with these two. I can't think of another manager or assistant manager with statues in two towns."
The journey that brought Lancel and Red Ladder to this point is a drama worthy of Clough himself. In 2015 the company learned that they were to lose 100% of their funding from Arts Council England, putting their sustainability in peril. Peace ceded the rights to the Damned United to them for £3.68, one penny for each page of the novel, telling the Guardian in 2014 "[Red Ladder's] work is not for or about themselves." Lancel believes the gesture probably saved the company's existence.
Another footnote to add to the enduring legacy of Brian Clough.