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Football fans won’t read fiction?

A version of this appeared in the Italian Literary magazine Inutile in April 2014:

Aspiring novelists rarely get any feedback from agents or publishers but one to whom I am indebted told me that a novel based around football isn’t marketable because football fans won’t read fiction; they lap up biographies and autobiographies (almost entirely ghost-written, and works of fiction in themselves?) but not novels.

There may be some truth in this, but is it just because there aren’t many examples of football fiction out there? Do football fans really lose a taste for fiction once they grow out of comic books?

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. David Peace’s The Damned United is the best. It is fresh, and a compelling read. It brings out the excitement of football and even though you know the ending you still want to know what happens – if that makes sense. The second best is The Thistle and the Grail by Robin Jenkins, a largely forgotten and ignored novel, written and set in the 1950s. It tells the tale of triumphs on the pitch and football politics off the pitch over one season of a Scottish lower league team. It captures the spirit of the game – the essence of a lover of the game’s obsession and why a relationship with a team is more enduring than many a marriage. Rodge Glass’s Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs is worth a read. It is stylistically clever and crystallises the madness that most fans harbour, if they dare admit it. People say: “What about Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch?” – it certainly caught a mood in the early 90s and tickled a London literary scene that had newly discovered football, finding it trendy in the wake of Gazza’s Italia 90 tears, but that’s about it: being more a self-indulgent whinge than a story. Can it even be described as fiction? Does anyone doubt that it would have disappeared without trace if it had been written about Notts County, Bury FC or Crewe Alexandra and not the metropolitan elite of Arsenal? (But then it sold in the thousands so perhaps it’s just me.) The other books worth a mention are Goalkeepers are Different by Brian Glanville, a book for boys, which now has a certain 1970s nostalgia but no real story at its heart, also a light, entertaining, if not well-crafted, novel Bailey of the Saints by David Alejandro Fearnhead, and finally This Sporting Life by David Story, but that is about Rugby League so doesn’t count.

There are one or two novels of merit in which football features: A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines (though it is really the film that excels and sticks in your mind not the novel), The Unfortunates, by BS Johnson, and finally, there is also one brilliant and all too brief a paragraph about the game in J B Priestley’s The Good Companions. Next time someone asks you what the point is watching grown men chase a ball around, quote Priestley at them: “To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.”

I am not aware of any football novels written in languages other than English. If they are hiding out there I would love to discover them. Surely calcio must have inspired someone to put pen to paper? Or the passion of the South American game? The Uruguayan Carlos Martínez Moreno wrote a brilliant story about pigeon racing for goodness sake! Albert Camus famously said “what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA” (the team he played in goal for). Sadly he never converted that knowledge into fiction.

So why is there so little football in fiction when it looms so large in our culture? (The Americans seem to hold no similar qualms over baseball novels: for example, Shoeless Joe, by WP Kinsella, adapted for cinema as Field of Dreams, the much hyped The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, for which he collected a $650,000 advance, and The Natural, by Bernard Malamud.) Is it class prejudice: ‘literature and football’ being regarded like ‘opera and pop music,’ oil and water? Or is it that the game itself is such a fantastic story in its own right? Every season being a novel, made up of chapters, sub-plots, plot threads, rounded characters and flat characters, cliff-hangers, highs and lows, and everything a good novel has?

Every fan has stories to tell: like how me and my dad left the ground with only minutes to go when Sheffield United were losing 1-0 to Walsall and we needed a draw to stay up. It was just too painful to stay: like averting your eyes as a beloved pet was put to sleep. From outside the ground we heard a cheer go up and rushed back up the steps just in time to see our team lining up for a penalty. Don Givens stepped up to take it, the usual taker having bottled it. Givens missed and United went down to the lowest tier of English football for the first time ever. Grown men who never weep at funerals wept that day.

Is this why there is a dearth of fiction? That it is hard to capture half the drama and excitement of those real stories in print? That fiction can’t compete with real life? I don’t believe so: although a match report can rarely capture the drama of a game, we still love to read the stories over again in the newspapers. Football is one big fantastic story – we fans love stories. We tell them over and over; in the pub, on the way home from the match, on the way to the next match. The game is a metaphor for life – a metaphor that assumes an importance out of all proportion to reality. And isn’t that part of the beauty of the game? – that it fulfils an evolutionary need: something very primeval, tribal? The way fans dehumanise the opposition is just the same as in wartime propaganda. But if we can see the game as a substitute for those instincts, contain it, and share those stories, then we can unite in love of the game. Gary Armstrong and Matthew Bell get close to it when they write in Fit and Proper:

“We enjoy at times the possibilities the club’s fortunes offer for us to collectively submerge our very being. At an individual level football and football clubs allow us to reflect on the arbitrary nature of desire and hatred and consider – and be reminded of – the precariousness of success and failure. The game and its players offer audiences endless pantomimes that facilitate narratives on morality and deliberate on quintessentially human issues, such as character, strategic thinking, bewilderment, pity, farce and those occasions when brute force is preferable to sweet reason. The game and its clubs mirror our existence; the football calendar offers a beacon of predictability in a confusing world. The very certainty of the club and its position in the footballing hierarchies assists in diverting us in some way from the inevitability of death.”

Football fans won’t read fiction. After I had written The Evergreen in red and white, the story of the first Romani footballer Rabbi Howell, I was faced either with consigning thousands of hours of my labour of love to the bin or going down the indie-publishing route. I look forward to seeing how people react. Whether it is any good, or breaks through that barrier, is for others to say.

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