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Football novels

Here I review football fiction as a complement to the article on football fiction on this blog at: I will include novels and short stories, but to qualify, a book must have football as one of its main themes; though not necessarily the main theme. I do not include books like Priestley’s The Good Companions in which the game features briefly, if brilliantly, nor Green’s Living. I welcome suggestions and contributions. You can subscribe to this blog on the right or comment below. I want to eventually make this the best reference source on football fiction – so I start off with a sizeable challenge. I might even have to promise to read Fever Pitch again with a fresh objective eye!

A novel about football or containing football is a problematic thing – just by calling it that you automatically seem to put off 80% of readers who think: “I don’t watch football, so I won’t like that.” And yet they don’t pick up a novel about a sailor and think: “I have never been to sea so I won’t like that.” Of the remaining 20% most think that football fiction must mean something like Billy’s Boots or Roy of the Rovers. It doesn't have to be that way: football and literature can combine. There are books that prove that.

David Peace – The Damned United

This is the best football novel written to date. It is the 10 out of 10 benchmark against which all the others are judged.

It takes a character we all feel we know to some extent, someone everyone over forty owns a part of, and it makes us feel we get to know and understand him better in a way that only fiction can. We add to the character already in our heads through the creative process of reading and through the words that Peace puts on the page for us. Everyone of us will read it differently – for me, my reading is tinged with bitterness from every player who went up the M1 to hateful Leeds: Mick Jones, Tony Currie, Alex Sabella, and so on and on. Add to that an admiration for the character I saw on TV and that last match of his when the whole ground, Forest and United fans alike, chanted “There’s only one Brian Clough.” The Clough family hated the book – of course they did: they had a different version of him, the family man not the Cloughie we saw and loved.

We think we know the story that the book covers: his too early exit as a player, how he told the Leeds players that they didn’t deserve their medals; we think we know about his drinking, we know his footballing achievements, and yet somehow you still read on wanting to know what happens.

They way Peace writes about football itself is superb: I read this whilst turning over in my mind how to convey the excitement of the game in words for the novel I was formulating. Newspaper match reports never capture the thrill, the atmosphere: how could you do it? David Storey came close in one scene in This Sporting Life (even though that is Rugby League), but Peace’s book was a revelation. It is pacy and exciting and very readable. I make no apology for trying to emulate something of that (and build on it?) in The Evergreen.

Peace’s work is like performance poetry – it works so well when read aloud: you can hear the speech patterns, hear Cloughie in the words (even though they are Peace’s not Clough’s). All those: “down the corridors, round the corners,” and things like: “I still can’t sleep so I open my eyes again; I am still in my modern luxury hotel bed in my modern luxury hotel room, with an old-fashioned hangover and an old-fashioned headache, my modern luxury phone ringing and ringing and ringing –”

Lots of people tell me: “Oh, yes, good film, but, no, not read the book” – which is a great shame: letting all those images be created for you by someone else rather than in your own head.

It is a book that will still be read in a hundred years’ time.

Robin Jenkins – The Thistle and the Grail

Published in 1954, this is possibly the first football novel, although there were many earlier short stories. Set in a Scottish town called Drumsagart, somewhere in the Lanarkshire, it follows Andrew Rutherford and his obsession with Drumsagart Thistle in a Scottish lower league. Rutherford has troubled relationships with all around him and seeks solidity, a point of reference, through the Thistle – the team he is president of. It goes to the very heart of why football means so much to so many people: a focus in life, an escape, something outside mundane reality, something to make people feel alive.

There are wonderful, rich, characters and some superb writing. Don’t expect a Roy of the Rovers big-kids story from this – it is a good read but is fiction for grown-ups – a novel that makes you reflect on life, makes you think, and which you come away from having learnt something.

Jenkins writes about football beautifully. If Peace captures the pace and excitement, Jenkins captures the emotion and beauty of the game. For example: “ Each team excelled itself; and the result was football transcendental, full of fast attacks, audacious defence, subtle stratagems and subtler counter-movements, individual juggleries, much heroism, and seven great goals. No wonder the watchers’ faces were transfigured; no wonder normal animosities were stifled. The Angel of Football, in which all believed but which few had ever seen, was hovering over Tara Park that afternoon. One team must lose, and its followers must be disappointed; but it would be a defeat and a disappointment far more soul-satisfying than many victories and fulfilments. If Carrick won, then Drumsagart would wish them well during the rest of the competition; if Drumsagart won, then Carrick would pray for them to reach the final round and would be at Hampden Park in Glasgow to cheer them on.” Or: “The ball flew like hawk, skimmed the grass like hare, bounced like kangaroo; it had in it not mere air but the hopes, fears, frenzies, and ecstasies of that great crowd. It went everywhere – up on to the terracing even, into the grandstand, into this, that and every section of the field – everywhere except into one or other of the goals.”

I don’t need to say more. Read it for yourself. Judge for yourself.

Rodge Glass – Bring me the Head of Ryan Giggs

This is the story of Mikey Wilson, a fictional player from Man United’s so-called golden generation – a player as promising as the rest, as a youth player. He could have made it but for one incident on the pitch in a Premier League game in 1992 when he was brought on as a late substitute. A badly placed lob from Saint Ryan Giggs sets off a chain of events. From then on, one rises to stardom, the other falls and falls – the book telling the story of that fall and collapse into psychopathy.

It is cleverly written with flashbacks to two different eras from the present (the 2007/2008 season). So it is three narrative threads in one which all come together in the end as the story is rounded off. Thankfully, each one is in a different typeface which helps the reader, as well as each being written in a different ‘person’: first, second, and third.

Mike’s life is dominated by football and his unhealthy obsession with Ryan Giggs: so symbolic does it become that it displaces real things in his life, the things that really matter: relationships, family etc. It requires a bit of commitment from the reader – it is not quite the big-kids fiction of some examples here but is not a difficult read for all that, once you get the hang of what’s going on.

Brian Glanville – Goalkeepers are Different

This is the book many of us remember from when we were kids – one of those Puffin books that were so ubiquitous. If you were lucky you got to read this at school instead of some of the other dull stuff that was approved for kids in those days (remember Wide Range Readers?). Thing is, I don’t even remember finishing it back then – it was more a thing you liked to think you read rather than actually enjoyed reading. For a start off it was so London-centric. I waited for a reference to my team but it never came (and we were definitely worthy of a mention back then) – my team air-brushed from history again, like some party official who upset Stalin. It was like flicking through Shoot magazine for a poster of one of your heroes – but at least that did happen every now and then (unlike kids who support Football League teams these days: fed a constant, monotonous diet of Premier League through Match of the Day magazine).

Reading Goalkeepers are Different again as an adult I realise there was probably another reason I don’t recall finishing it – it is actually quite boring except to a football obsessed nutcase with a one-track mind. It has little in the way of a story, no twists or turns, no plot and it is quite a difficult read: at the age of ten, when I wanted to be seen reading it, I probably wasn’t a good enough reader, and by the age of fourteen, when I was, I had moved on. It is a predictable ‘ordinary boy comes good’ story, and that’s about it. There’s not even much of an explanation of why goalkeepers are different, if, as we all suspect, they are. Still, it is now at least a good read for the 1970s nostalgia.

David Alejandro Fearnhead – Bailey of the Saints

This is an easy read: the sort of book to read on holiday when you don’t want to be too challenged or to have to think. It follows Jack Bailey from rejection by the Premier League to a new start in New Zealand and a reassessment of his life. It has some nice imagery of New Zealand and takes the reader reasonably well to places they might never have visited. It has enough to help keep you going to the end; though it is not terribly well crafted as a novel.

The main problem is that there are a number of loose plot threads that the reader thinks may have some relevance later and expects to be tied up. They never are. This is perhaps explained by the blurb on the back which says: “Incidents woven into the story are inspired by true events revealed to the author by players he has interviewed during his career as a football journalist.” None of these little anecdotes that may amuse over a pint should have stayed in the edit as they have no place in a novel unless they can be genuinely woven into the narrative – instead they just sit there: loose annoying threads. For example, at one point Jack chases a burglar and lets him fall from the edge of a building – you wonder who the burglar was, what they were trying to steal and what relevance that was, whether they survive, or when they’ll re-appear, whether Jack was partly responsible for his death by not saving him? But no, all these questions turn out to be irrelevant and unanswered. This ‘anecdote’ has nothing to do with the main plot, tells us little about character or anything. There are more like it.

Another problem with the novel are the sudden and disturbing changes of point of view from Jack to other characters, and then whooshing out to an omniscient narrative. Basic errors that anyone who studies creative writing learns. The worst example is as follows. We are with Jack in the tunnel on the way out to the pitch and we share his thoughts of the game ahead in free indirect style. It starts well enough: “The line started to move. It bunched, tight, the music began, the crowd vocalised… ” [vocalised? – never experienced a crowd use collective management speak before] “…It was show time.” Then all of a sudden this happens: we don’t follow Bailey out onto the pitch, instead we get: “Soon the tunnel was just an empty corridor. A lone paper cup , half-crushed, was caught by a draft…” [‘draught’ surely] “…Its uneven somersaults distracted the eye…[but you just said the tunnel was empty, whose eye is it?] …as it rolled along.” The book also contains the non-word ‘alright’ throughout which is not correct in English – it is ‘all right.’

B S Johnson – The Unfortunates

This is the novel in a box – a pretentious idea: loose chapters which theoretically are intended to be read in any order. It’s a real shame because the gimmick outshines and spoils what could have been a good novel. It doesn’t really work in any order: you want the author to guide you through it in the best order. So instead I found myself trying to sort it into some kind of order that made sense as I read it – if anyone borrows it from the library after me, hopefully it will make more sense to them. I had to strongly resist putting a whopping great staple or two through it afterwards. Life is ordered to some extent, time is linear, events happen in a certain order, or are recalled in a certain order – it is not a random process. It is a gross pretence to expect the reader to make sense of it all. So you see, the gimmick has taken over from the fiction and I’ve wasted a paragraph on it before even mentioning the story.

Is it even a football novel or within my definition of football fiction? It is borderline. Part of it certainly is set around a trip of the narrator (a football reporter) to cover a match at Nottingham’s City Ground. There is an account of the match (one of those irritating loose chapters) which is quite good, showing how the reporter tries to write something interesting about the match. That, and how it is sub-edited down to a typical meaningless, boring match report is well written and the result amusing.

The rest of the book is him wandering around reminiscing about old friends which is more the point of the book: his relationship with a dying friend. Those parts are certainly well written and poignant and might have been more moving had I not lost patience with the whole pretentious concept which put me right off anything the pseud of writer was trying to convey. It summed up for me so much of what was wrong with the late 60s and those self-appointed intellectuals who took themselves so seriously.

Steven Kay: The Evergreen in red and white

I can't review my own book obviously so you could take a look at: or:

Gareth R Roberts – Whatever Happened to Billy Parks

This novel fits to some extent the stereotypical preconception of what a football novel is. It is fairly safe, drawing from Goalkeepers are Different in more ways than one. It could be described as an adult version of Glanville’s ‘classic.’ It charts the rise of Billy Parks – a naturally gifted footballer, but unlike in Goalkeepers it also describes the fall – a talent wasted by excess of alcohol and a 70s footballer’s lifestyle. It is a good read on the whole.

It plays quite well on most football fans fantasies of “what if” – what if that ball had been 3 inches lower, what if X hadn’t got injured in the run-in etc. If only? – then everything would have changed and life would be better; the world would be better. It even provides a mechanism for righting one of the most painful moments in football for any England fan over 50 – England’s defeat to Poland in 1973 – via the intervention of some sort of footballing angel – something that wouldn’t be out of place in The Hornet or The Hotspur in the 60s or 70s.

The chronicling of the fall of an alcoholic is realistic; Parks is a very believable character and the way he reflects on where his life went wrong is handled well. That aspect of the book is better than the fantasy get-out which almost trivialises his real life struggle.

Less convincing are the Football Immortals (Busby, Ramsey, Clough, Revie and Shankly) and their conversations which come across as artificial and stilted – especially their consideration of Nietzsche and Hegelian dialectic. I also think it lazy, if you are going to single out the all-time greats of football, not to go back before the modern era: wouldn’t the likes of Tom Watson be a more significant figure?

The book is really let down by some errors: the use throughout of “alright” which is not standard English and some clumsy sentences. For example: “‘Good,’ she said and I looked down knowing that she was staring at me, hoping that I’d say something that would make everything somehow better, even for a second, but I couldn’t,” or things like “grinning and gurning like a melon” (how exactly does a melon grin? – or does he use ‘melon’ to mean a stupid person – ‘lemon’ possibly?).

There is also one thing in the book that is unforgivable and heretical – a heinous literary crime that should carry criminal sanction. It is acceptable in fiction to play fast and loose with facts some of the time but Roberts uses a real game: England v Northern Ireland on 23rd May 1972. He has to put his fictional Parks in the real England eleven so he has to write one of the real eleven out of history: so who does he choose to substitute fictional Parks for: Tony Currie that’s who. Unacceptable Mr Roberts!

Christian Flinn – Sunday League

Flinn has written a nice easy read for football fans – not great literature – it won’t make you think, or teach you anything, or make you feel better for reading it, but it does entertain and has some witty observations about the game. That, to be fair, is probably all Flinn sets out to provide.

The story of Danny Milburn ending up in a very thinly disguised Newcastle United first team is implausible – it requires a huge suspension of disbelief that I struggled with. It happens through a twist which reminds you a bit of the BBC “The Wrong Mans.” Twenty-nine-year-old Milburn plays Sunday league football for a pub team and is overweight, drinks, and is not very good at football. Somehow we have to go along with the idea that in just 4 weeks he gets fit enough to be accepted, at least grudgingly, into the first team, and to be able to play if only for a few minutes in the Premier League due to player shortages. Even a 16-year-old from the juniors would be better than that I found myself arguing. Just one session in the gym, as described, and he’d need a week to recover. Nevertheless, if you can get over that hurdle there is enough to keep you reading to the end. It is not proper grown-up fiction, more fiction for big kids – a sort of Billy’s Boots without the magic boots.

(Another book where “alright” makes an irritating appearance.)

Mal Peet – Keeper

This book is aimed at teenagers (they would need to be very good readers to manage to read it to themselves earlier) but it will undoubtedly appeal to big kids as well. Aimed at a similar age group, it is a more engaging read than Goalkeepers are Different. It is a fairly short novel, but a good length for that market. It reads aloud really well so is a good one to read to your kids.

During the period of just one night a World Cup winning goalkeeper tells his life story to a journalist. Unlike most footballers whose interviews are pretty dull, even when only 30 seconds long, this one is articulate and interesting. The story is built around the premise of a ghostly goalkeeping coach teaching the main character what he needs to reach the top. Accounts of life in a South American rainforest and of the work of loggers are well done, as are the themes of learning the goalkeeping art and the psychology of being the last line of defence. The accounts of the matches are written in a very readable way.

More could have been done to explore the main character who remains pretty much flat throughout the book: you never really get a strong sense of him as a person. Another problem is the occasional ungainly shift of point of view from the goalkeeper to the journalist; and, bizarrely, at the end of the book, to a hawk (presumably a kite because it eats carrion) hovering above the forest.

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