Even if you’re not a soccer fan you should respond to “The Damned United,” another expert mining of historical record by Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”). It’s about an ambitious manager (coach in our terminology) who takes a second-tier British team to glory but stumbles when he’s tapped to succeed a legendary man at a long-dominant rival, and that story is fine. But on a more personal level it’s really about the deep friendship between him and his long-time assistant, a relationship that collapses when he takes the new job.

Michael Sheen, who played both Tony Blair and David Frost in Morgan’s earlier pictures, is Brian Clough, the ambitious, eager-beaver, short-cut-taking manager of last-place second-division club of Derby County, who, in tandem with his more sedate assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), who’s a great assessor of talent new and old, takes the team not just to the first division but a championship. In the process he develops a particular dislike for Don Revie (Colm Meaney), manager of the long-dominant Leeds United, who, he believes, shames the game by having his men play dirty in order to win. He also nurses a grudge because when their teams first met, Revie pointedly didn’t shake his hand (although that might have been purely accidental).

When Revie gives up the Leeds position to assume the headship of the English World Cup board, the Leeds governors offer his job to Clough, who’d finally pushed Derby owner Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) too far by not only spending wildly on new players but daring the governors to accept his resignation. Not only that, he’s offered them Taylor’s resignation too, without his knowledge—which causes a rift between them. Still, they remain together when Taylor secures them employment with the struggling team at sleepy seaside Brighton; and when Clough gets the Leeds offer, Taylor refuses to go with him, occasioning a furious argument that leaves them estranged.

So when Clough arrives at Leeds, his finds his new players, still loyal to Revie and his underhanded style, hostile; it doesn’t help that Clough adopts a superior attitude and continues to disparage his predecessor in the press. And with Taylor gone, he has nobody to depend on. The result is a disaster, but a short-lived one, and a humiliated Clough seeks out Taylor to apologize.

Morgan tells this tale not so much as a sports movie—the amount of soccer footage is actually quite modest, and the game action is frequently off-screen; and he (along with director Tom Hooper, who makes the transition from such fine television work as “Prime Suspect” and “John Adams” to the big screen with seemingly effortless aplomb) present it as a character study. But it’s a character study of two men, not just one, and of their almost symbiotic relationship; and Sheen and Spall play it with the dexterity and charm of an experienced vaudeville team doing a soft-shoe routine. Sheen has the juicier role, and he attacks it with relish, his extrovert energy contrasting beautifully with Spall’s portrait of a modest fellow who doesn’t mind being in the shadows but can be pushed too far. When they argue, the effect is shattering; but when they reconcile, it’s even more powerful (and, as written, funny too).

Stalwarts Meaney and Broadbent provide expert support, though the hairpiece on the former’s head, though perhaps historically accurate, is hardly what you’d call handsome. Among the others, only a few of the players stand out—especially Stephen Graham as the Union’s captain Billy Bremner, a gruff fellow with a habit of faking hits to get penalty points. But they’re all fine. This is definitely a man’s movie; the boys who play Clough’s sons have much more screen time than either of the ladies who play the Clough and Taylor spouses. But women won’t be turned off by the picture, because it paints such a subtle portrait of the relationship between the two men, without becoming mawkish or maudlin about it.

Visually the period trappings of the movie are dead on, from Eve Stewart’s production design and Andrew Holden-Stokes’ art direction to Mike O’Neill’s costumes, and Ben Smithard’s cinematography captures them in widescreen images that don’t prettify the time and place. Special praise should go to editor Melanie Oliver, who, working with Morgan and Hooper, keep the transitions clear though the movie jumps around repeatedly between the years 1968 and 1974.

“The Damned United” ends with a credits sequence that gives us the actual Clough and Taylor in archival footage, which shows that the former seemed more morose than Sheen plays him and the latter more ebullient, and less rumpled, than Spall suggests. I have mixed feelings about the switch from the dramatic to the historical, which somewhat undermines the effect the filmmakers and cast have worked so hard to create. But it’s interesting to see the actual guys for a few minutes, though not nearly as satisfying as the illusion Morgan, Spall and their cohorts have so artfully managed.