Monday, 30 June 2014

Football fiction - reviews by the World's expert on the genre ;-)



Here I review football fiction as a complement to the article on football fiction on this blog at: http://stevek1889.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/football-fans-wont-read-fiction.html. 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.

Up next: Hunter Davies - Striker and Oi ref - Joseph Gallivan

Matt Carrell - A Matter of Life and Death

You shouldn’t expect great literature from this novel, but you might find it entertaining – particularly if you like football and enjoy a rant about the state of the modern game, don’t mind a laddish perspective on relationships, aren’t too bothered about accuracy of detail and are tolerant of cliché. Set around the fictional football club Coldharbour Town (imagine if the rise of Brighton and Hove Albion had been in Newhaven), the book opens with one of several murders of young women and follows various players in the story (some of whom have only cameos that are irrelevant to the plot – such as that of a referee at one point). The story itself, though, generally flows quite well and is quite pacey. 
    I had a real problem with the accuracy of the research – it is quite sloppy at times. For example, the Health and Safety Executive carrying out a safety inspection at the football ground – they don’t, it is the local authority who do that, as a simple web-search would reveal. There is a police detective inspector who doesn’t know basic police procedure – no one could get on in a detective role without knowing PACE back to front. It’s like the author can’t be bothered to find out so makes their character shoulder their ignorance instead. There are also quite a few mistakes that should have been picked up at edit stage: someone is described as having a 200 kilo frame: “there was virtually no fat on his 200 kilo frame.” (That’s about 31 stone, or 440 lbs!) There is a character who accidentally changes name, punctuation issues, and the reader gets lost a few times with regard to timeline, due to an apparent reluctance to use pluperfect tenses. There is also a rather exquisite mixed metaphor that seems to have been used without any sense of irony: “fat cats feathering their own nests.”
    It is definitely not a book for anyone with a feminist perspective – the sexism strays beyond the casual into Benny Hill territory – it is mostly done from the perspective of rather vile characters, and is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek but it does get a bit wearing.

Eduardo Sacheri - Papers in the Wind (Papeles en el Viento)
It took me a long time to discover this book – it never came up on search engines for football novels. Given that the game is played with such artistry in places like Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil and given their rich literary heritage, I thought it curious that South America hadn’t produced a great football novel. It turns out it had. The problem is probably the same as why the literary world in this country looks down its nose at the concept of a football novel: why would search engines pick up on such obscure novels, when no one in Islington is vaguely interested in them?
    This is a great novel, by any measure. It is well written – the three main characters jump to life. It treats the subject of male friendship and loyalty really well. The two parallel story threads are nicely done. The football backdrop is weighted perfectly – not overdone, but enough to show a passion for the beautiful game and explain its importance without detracting from the story. It is easily one of my favourite football novels.
    The translation is not always the best – especially to a British English speaker – I would have enjoyed it more had I not had to keep translating it properly to myself as I went: soccer player = footballer, light tower = floodlight, alternate = substitute, knee-highs(F.F.S.) = socks, cleats = studs, tied and scoreless(!) = nil-nil draw, ‘lateral defender’ and ‘wall pass’ = f— only knows!
    The thing that stops this being totally perfect is the pace of historical story thread doesn’t quite keep up and doesn’t quite exploit all the ideas that come through in that sequence to its fullest. You’ve got to read this though.

Michael Bearcroft - Dangerous Score
I have read more football novels than anyone else. (Please prove me wrong if you don't agree - I'd love to be in touch with anyone equally as sad.) I understand the genre and why people write them. It is not unusual for the stories to cross genres - something that dates from the very beginnings of the genre (see the book I have put together: Historical Football Stories). Most are written by fans of the beautiful game looking to combine their desire to write with their passion for football. Some are even written by writers who know how to write and who set out to tell a great story that just happens to have the game as a backdrop – though they could probably stand alone without the football. Some are grossly under-rated just because they mention football: most people dismissing any football story as Roy of the Rovers stuff – fit only for comics: literature and football like oil and water – one cannot possibly mix high and low brow, surely?
    Michael Bearcroft, the author of Dangerous Score clearly understands the game and has a passion for it. He has been involved in football all his life and brings to this novel an understanding of the politics of the lower levels of football, its finances, its deals and the behind the scenes running of a small club. That knowledge and passion is a key strength of the book. There is also a decent storyline and plot to keep the reader going. For some that will be enough and they will enjoy the novel.
    What was missing for me was feeling I was in the hands of a craftsman when it came to the writing. I don't want to see the puppetmaster's strings – I want a novel to flow so smoothly that I forget the words are actually set out on the page by a person. That's the art and craft of the novelist - to weigh up every word to make sure it serves the end purpose and to cut it out if it doesn't. Clichés remind me of the person behind the pen or keyboard, and authorial ticks things – things like “it seemed” and “apparently” – get in the way. “Seemed” or “was apparent” to whom? It does not always feel like it is the characters telling the story when you see distinct phraseology of the author. There are too many superfluous words in the novel. We don't need to be told about every shower the characters have, or that they had breakfast in the morning, or that they were satisfied by the sex they had – unless it's really relevant. What they had for each course of a meal is of no consequence. The reader can assume that people are grateful for gifts without being told. There is no need to be to slow the pace down by posing questions about how people feel before proceeding to tell us how they feel. There is a reason why creative writing guides/courses bang on about “showing” not “telling” – readers are best left to fill in much of the detail without describing it all to them.
    (I was sent a copy of this book in return for an honest review.)

Anthony Cartwright - Iron Towns

It is very rare that I give up on a book – there’s usually some incentive to get to the end – even if it is only for the sake of reviewing it for this blog. Sadly, I got just over a third of the way through this and stopped. I thought I might come back to it, but I just can’t face it – life’s too short. It was with a sinking feeling that I picked it up each evening.
    It’s weird how some stuff gets critical acclaim. This book has had great reviews. For example, Mark Blacklock in the Guardian said it is “accomplished.” He said: “Indeed, deftly handled as it is, the plot is a sideshow to the real work of Iron Towns, which is the mining and forging of a poetic mythos based on the folklores of locality and football, of place and game, of industry and fantasy. In places the prose becomes almost visionary, reminiscent of the contemporary re-animation of Blakean themes...”
    Hmm… there’s a word to describe that too.
    For me, Iron Towns fails on several levels.
    Firstly the writing is poor in places. It starts from the third paragraph in:

‘You know how it is,’ she says, and walks down the hall, through the empty bar, chandeliers catch the morning light through a half closed curtain, out into the yard.

You struggle to get the understanding – what’s with the chandeliers? Is it that they catch the light through the empty bar, or is the morning light out in the yard? Now presumably she is meant to be walking through the back and out into the yard. If so, it should say that – you shouldn’t have to read a sentence several times to get the meaning. It is poor.
    Here’s another example:

There's a painting which hangs in the Hightown Town Council chamber, a copy you can buy as a postcard at the Heritage Museum, of this first James Greenfield stood at the head of the valley like Moses.

Can anyone understand this at first reading? Here’s another:

He has lived at the hotel for three weeks now, since pre-season training began, since Greta and Jari went back, got a deal from the manager, Amir, an old school mate.

Who got a deal? On what? Punctuate it properly and it would read:

He has lived at this hotel for three weeks now, since pre-season training began, since Greta and Jari went back. He got a deal on the room from the manager, Amir: an old school mate.

If you want to join sentences together use a semi-colon: that’s what they’re for. You don’t have to follow the advice tripped out by morons quoting Kurt Vonnegut out of context (First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.)  Don’t make your reader have to re-construct your sentences in their heads to get to the sense of them.
    Punctuation other than commas and full stops is rare in this book – when semi-colons make a rare appearance they destroy sentences not help them. Why would you not bother to try to punctuate properly? They are universal rules to speed up reading and make you writing clearer. Can you just abandon it if you think you are a good writer? To hell with it – I’m being avant-garde?
    If that was the only gripe I could let it go, but there are other problems: there are bits thrown in about Saxon kings and 1950s European football that have no bearing on the plot – and are supposed to link these characters in the story with their roots or something – but it is just pretentious nonsense.
    There are things like: “The porcelain still radiates cool…” – What? Something cold does not radiate anything – heat travels from hot to cold – it’s nonsensical. Like saying: “the water flowed up the stream.”
    Tenses are mixed up and meaning gets lost as a result. So we get:

He asked for a ticket to Lowtown.
‘Return love?’
‘I ain’t coming back.’

At this point he is already in Lowtown and is presumably looking back to before he got there. In which case did the author mean: “He had asked.” Cartwright gets himself in a pickle over tenses because he tries to write the novel in the present tense. More pretentiousness.
    There are times you don’t know whose point of view you are following.
    There are strange American words like “turnaround” (bus terminus) and “contrails” (vapour trails) that leave you scratching your head.
    Just too many throw-the-book-at-the-wall moments. Add to that a plot that is pretty uninspiring and characters who don’t hold your interest – you just start getting interested in one and then it switches to another.
    I found myself quite intrigued by Liam and his story, and his tender reflections on his distant family – maybe had the novel focused on him and not kept flitting around it might have worked. It is not a patch on Heartlands, his other, more naturally written, football novel.


 Ian Ayris - Abide With Me (& April Skies)
This novel was a real discovery – it had gone under my radar despite doing this blog post for 3 years.
    It makes me mad that the broadsheets and the literary world rave about a novel like A Natural and overlooked this novel – one with a much stronger story, really important messages about family and belonging, and social breakdown – a novel that is much more skilfully crafted. But perhaps they can’t see beyond their prejudices and the fact that it contains dialect and colloquialisms – and a lot of effing and jeffing – that  it was written by someone so obviously working class. It is too easy to dismiss it as soon as they start reading: “There’s things happen in your life what go clean out of your head. They don’t mean nothing see. Most of your life’s like that.” That is not badly written – it is superbly written – you just have to put aside your literary snobbishness and see things for what they are. This novel is carefully crafted prose, without wasted words – every word pulling its weight (possibly with the slight exception of use of the f-word – but there you should see that for what it is – punctuation).
    There are some great observations on growing up in the 70s and 80s and moving accounts of family relationships and the struggles faced by people to make ends meet; a depiction of how easy it is to slip into crime. The plot is also very strong. The football is an important theme – especially in what it says about father-son relationships. It is really nicely integrated into the plot – doing what football does best: providing a metaphor for life.
    The second book April Skies is worth a read but is not quite so strong – suffering the way many sequels to superb works do: how on earth do you follow that. It has a lesser football theme, and a slightly more contrived plot, and is not quite so well crafted.
Ross Raisin - A Natural


Image result for ross raisin a natural the observer
I downloaded this book after reading gushing reviews in The Observer and The Guardian.  Jude Cook in The Guardian described it as an exceptional novel – it presents “a brave and subtle portrait of a soul in torment. It’s a winner.” William Skidelsky in The Observer, said it is “is a gripping, mature, important novel. It would be a travesty if it does not win prizes.” I hesitated at the hefty £9.99 tag; then hesitated again, having read the Kindle sample and not having read much in that sample that was exceptional. However, having now read and reviewed over 40 football novels here on my blog. I couldn’t not buy this, with such write-ups. It sadly didn’t live up to those reviews.
    Firstly I kept waiting for something like a strong plot to emerge, but it never really did. At times it meanders off into things totally irrelevant to the plot – particularly when it gets on to the point of view of the secondary characters: the repressed Chris Easter and his wife Leah and their often banal domesticity: “from the fridge she took out a couple of yoghourts, a pack of sausage rolls, a foil plate of quiche, a KitKat and, after a slight pause, another KitKat.” Fascinating stuff… Later we follow her, pointlessly, to a textiles exhibition in Milan, and equally gripping the details of what was going on in the knitwear pavilion with her and her friend marveling at “all this stuff that’s going to inform trends before designers even know what trends are going to be.’’ By this point I was cursing the hype, the lack of progress through the story, and my £9.99.
    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t resent writers are getting a fair whack for their efforts, but I do expect something exceptional when I am paying twice the market rate for a Kindle book. I had also at this point completely given up on Leah as a character – I couldn’t really see the point of her – she lacked depth as a character and was all over the place – inconsistent and not believable. This is the best friend of someone who comes out to her as gay, someone she has known for years, and yet she remains friends with him despite her rampant homophobia and disgust, and her ultimate betrayal of his confidence – just weird. Then towards the end of the book, she hugs a fisherman who has just caught a fish at a lake, completely out of the blue – someone she doesn’t know – all apparently for no reason: I couldn’t even see the point the author was trying to make, however, contrived that might be.
    But the thing in the novel that most jarred, however, was the strange shifting of point of view. One minute you’re following a character, then it drifts to another, then to an omniscient point of view: the character you were following having been abandoned somewhere, or left the room. Sometimes this drifting point of view is just plain unnerving: like when the main character, Tom, is watching Leah and Liam meet up at a cafe in a furniture store. He is spying on them from the car in the car park, and sees them through the glass at the upper level. He also appears to see Leah’s small child eating at the far side of the table and Liam bend forward to stroke his hair, and the child “finishing his food.” You wouldn’t see half of that from the outside in a car in the car park – it’s like you’ve drifted right up to the window.
    That’s the technical, structural stuff that spoilt it for me. Otherwise, the writing itself isn’t bad and the main character, Tom, with his conflicts, is well drawn. And the book gets to some of the issues of loneliness, and the pressures on the young players. It’s also good to see a novel taking on the topic of homosexuality in one of the last bastions of “exclusive straightness” – or so the game would have us believe. There just aren’t any gay footballers, apparently, even Justin Fashanu wasn’t gay according to some newspaper interviews his brother gave…


Shawn Stein and Nicolas Campisi - Idols and Underdogs (Por Amor a la Pelota)
Review first published by The Football Pink
Don’t judge a book by its cover: this is nothing to do with Pele or Maradona, nor is it really about idols or underdogs. This is probably just a quirk of modern publishing – the original Spanish title is Por Amor a la Pelota (For Love of the Ball) – but their thinking is, you have to assume, sadly, that a picture of Pele and Maradona will make you more likely to buy it.

I blog about football fiction and have wondered in the past why there was not more of it originating from South America – I had found very little. It turns out I was looking in the wrong place. Instead it seems that, particularly in recent years, quite a lot of football short stories have been written in South America, but very few translated into English.
I hadn’t spotted this new anthology – it was one of the compilers, Shawn Stein, who contacted me bringing it to my attention. In his foreword to the book, Shawn describes a stigma, a prejudice, that any fan of football writing will recognise – that it is supposedly lowbrow and therefore cannot cross over with literature. This snobbery is universal, but in South America originated with the likes of Jorge Luis Borges who apparently said “football is popular because stupidity is popular” and “football is a game of imbeciles.” (Should I be rude to one of South America’s finest writers or let it pass… no, rise above it.)
It is puzzling why people feel the need to place any fiction that even mentions football as some kind of inferior sub-genre. With my own novel, The Evergreen in red and white, I say it is no more a football book than The Mayor of Casterbridge is a “farming book.” People think: “I don’t like football so I won’t read that kind of thing.” Do they say: “I don’t like war so I won’t read Birdsong” or “I get sea sick so I would never read anything about pirates” or, “I’ve never been fishing so I won’t read Moby Dick”? And yet we single out a facet of life, a sport that holds up a mirror to what it means to be human, and dismiss it.
These stories hold up that mirror to human existence. The collection is like a Copa America of fiction – with stories from each competing nation: eleven in total. As you’d expect from that, they are very varied – covering all aspects of the game from street football to professional football. I don’t suppose everyone will like all eleven.
I can’t review every story, but a few merit a mention in my view. I particularly like the story by Carlos Abin (Uruguay) – a story which takes me to the other side of the world and sits me down in a bar to observe and listen. I was told about two old men sitting opposite, hardly speaking, hardly touching their drinks. They come every Friday and share a mutual respect. It all goes back to a particular game – and leaves you with a question of whether an “unnecessary victory is not in some way a crime.” It does everything a short story should do. For me if it is it is the standout story.
Others are good too: the story by Roberto Fuentes (Chile) almost has it all – reflections on friendship, things to make you think, but it wasn’t quite rounded off – possibly just me not quite “getting it.”
The story by Sérgio Sant’Anna (Brazil) is excellent – written in 1982 it is in many ways a traditional football story, reminiscent of the writing of Brian Glanville. It tells the story of a coach at the end of his career (it seems). It follows his final game – a heavy defeat – interspersed with his reflections on the game, his life, successes and failure.
Some of the stories are challenging: the one by Edmundo Paz Soldán (Bolivia) is really good, but it takes you a few pages to realise that it keeps switching point of view – quite disturbingly. I would have preferred something to signal this change to me in the text – be it an extra line break or a change in font.
More alarmingly one story (Javier Viveros) even starts off with mixed points of view in a single block of text – I struggled with that story for several reasons.
The story by José Hidalgo Pallares is worth a mention for its ending – one for all the boo-boys who like to release the pent-up frustrations of their own lives on a Saturday and single out their own team’s players for that special treatment.
This anthology has made me rethink Latin American football writing. I’ll now have to hunt for other things that have been hiding – not sure my 1980s O’ level Spanish is quite up to reading them without translation. But then again… where’s that old English-Spanish dictionary?

A note for British readers and perhaps a football (soccer) language lesson for our US cousins…

Bleacher – stand
Give-and-go – one-two
Football matches come in two halves – there is no such thing as a “period” in football
A football score where one team score two goals the other none is described as two-nil, not two-to-nothing. A game that has no goals is a draw not a “tie.”
Players get their kit on in dressing rooms (or changing or stripping rooms) not “locker rooms.”
There is no such thing as a “head shot” – only a header.
5-on-5 field – 5-aside pitch
Tryout – trial
A goal is scored, not “made.”
The centre of the pitch is the centre spot – not midfield (that is an entirely different concept).

Paul Breen - The Charlton Men
I was intrigued to see where Paul Breen was going to take this story: a follow up to The Charlton Men (see below). The strongest thing in the first novel was the characterisation – especially the main characters: Fergus, Lance and Katy.
    It is pleasing that the reader continues to get to know these characters, and the developing plot as the book progresses further builds interest. The football backdrop is still there – but that is all it is: a backdrop. The Bones of a Season is not really about football: it is about friendship and relationships, and people looking to make sense of their lives – so its appeal should be wider than football fans.
    There are one or two loose plot threads that you think might go somewhere but don’t: the women’s football team for example, but the main plot is strong.
    It was a relief not to be distracted by puzzling metaphors as I was in the first novel. In fact there were some I quite liked such as this: “each word in the sentence carried its weight like a curtain hook” – simple, but somehow works.
    Some of the writing could be better: there is a misuse/overuse of dialogue tags, for example. Such as this: ‘Sport wasn’t for the working classes in those days,’ Lance nodded. Or: ‘Then came the Second World War,’ Lance groaned. You don’t nod words. You can’t groan and speak at the same time. Generally it is better to stick to simple tags: “ said,” “replied,” etc – and the fewer the better, or followed by an action separated from the dialogue.
    There are some bits of authorial intrusion – little passages of information that are conveyed and which don’t seem to fit into the story. Some of this is back-story that is needed for the reader to understand the plot, but it could perhaps have been introduced more subtly.
    I also found the ending problematic from a police procedural point of view. Without giving too much away, it seems to me that the police act in an unrealistic way: more to serve the plot device than anything else. It would have been better to find a more realistic way to achieve the same ends.
    Despite all this I did enjoy this novel.

Paul Breen - The Charlton Men
This book is a self-proclaimed work of literary fiction. That was a worry before I’d even turned a page. What makes a novel “literary?” — you’ll not find anyone who will define it precisely, but it seems to be a book that appeals to intellectuals, or, sadly, in some cases, is self-absorbed. Anyone who describes their own book as a “literary” work risks the perception that they are saying: “I have written a book for clever people because, I too, am clever.”
    It is not easy, though, publishing a novel without the backing of a commercial publishing company: those books in Waterstones are rarely the work of just one person: they are a team effort: editors, proofreaders, marketing people. What you often get with an indie-published work like The Charlton Men is an authenticity: the work of one person without the flaws polished out by a corporation. 
    I was frustrated by the book though, because I feel this could have been a good novel had it not tried too hard, had it had that good polish. It is a shame: it probably needed a hard-nosed proof-reader who could give it a bit of a reality check — bring the author’s flights of fancy down a bit.
    Lots of weird metaphors and sometimes abuse of language don’t make a book literary, they are just irritating. It starts from the first line and makes you stop dead: London faced the greatest fight of her life, as dark waves of danger enclosed the Thames River’s tremulous coil. So, if you manage to get past the first bit: the greatest fight of London’s life — not the Blitz then? you get to waves of danger — can run with that — then you get to those waves enclosing the river’s tremulous coil. Tremulous? perhaps, but “coil” — a coil has to go round on itself — something like a spring or a coil of rope. But the most a river can do is a bend or a bow surely? As you read on you are punched left and right with metaphors which make you stop each time — as opposed to a good metaphor which just comes up an image without tripping you up: something that creates an understanding of mood, an emotion or a visual truth. Here they are mixed up. Such as this: a building being likened to a white stone fortress which seemed a fragment broken off as a street in Rome or Athens and transported like a ship inside a bottle to the edge of the Thames. How exactly is a ship inside a bottle transported? And how can a fragment of a street be transported in that way? This is followed a few lines later by His grey eyes changed to a pair of blue dolphins swimming as he swept his hand through the blonde mane. How can eyes change to dolphins — and what is a blue dolphin, aren’t they grey? It is a bit heavy on clichés like “blonde mane” and “flame-headed,” and “golden locks.”
    Some of the metaphors are just perplexing: A faraway gaze masked his features in an expression which transformed his face to a pint of Guinness. Golden Blonde upwards from the brow. Black bitter beneath.  Or: The man who spoke was middle-aged, shaped like a stick of rhubarb. His nose was rhubarb too, pushing through skin of custard. Stars shining like silverfish. How do those little insects dance? What is star-like about them? Or does it mean silver fish. If so how does a silver fish dance? Some of the metaphors just made me think of Humphrey Lyttelton’s or Jack Dee’s closing remarks in I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue — a pebble caught in a spinning top of uncertainty, or: England’s army greens pushing through the loosed pinafore of winter, or: getting high on the sensation of memories percolated through a tinder box of trees.
    Tenses get muddled at times. At one point, in a pub, a character is recounting an interview earlier in the day during which he described a historical event, interspersed with real-time internal dialogue (…I think). The lack of use of the pluperfect in the passage leaves you feeling completely confused as to who was told what and when — if at all. There is an odd choice of words at times: “sanguine” is used to describe “waves,” “glory” and “celebration.”  None of which strike me as ever being particularly “sanguine.” Someone “turtles” downstairs.
    These flaws are a real hindrance: you get going again and something else unsaddles you. It has meant this review has focussed on the negatives. It makes me feel uneasy reviewing it. Do I rein back on my attempt to review honestly?
    All this is a great pity because if stripped of such over-writing, and cleaned up, this could be a good read. If the author stopped trying so hard to impress and gave the characters control. Those three main characters are well rounded with solid back stories. They should be allowed to get on with it. It is a debut and apparently the first in a a trilogy so hopefully lessons will have been learned, before 2 and 3. The writing about football is believable and very well done on the whole; though I was less convinced that any Charlton fans would really relate to the rather high-brow legends described.
    Very much a case of “less is more.”

Iain Macintosh - Johnny Cook: The Impossible Job
There is not a huge amount you can say about this book. It is not great literature, it doesn't have a great deal of substance to it, it won't get you questioning the meaning of life, the value of relationships, or even, really, the price of success or failure - despite the subject matter (though it does touch on this a little). It does none of these, and it is not terribly original either: the theme being "unlikely person thrust into football management." It is very much in the Roy of The Rovers mould of football writing. However, despite all that, I did find myself being entertained. There is not much to dislike about it - if you like football (if you don't like football you probably won't get on with this, and it is quite a blokey book). It is quite amusing in places and not taxing on the brain - quite good bedtime reading, or if you don't read books except on holiday, and you don't want to be too challenged, then you'll like this. It is also quite forgettable: a year later you won't even remember you've read it.  And I honestly don't mean to damn with faint praise. It does what it sets out to do.

Leonard Gribble - They Kidnapped Stanley Matthews


Leonard the Gribble is largely forgotten about today, but it is worth reminding people that he used to sell books in the millions. Like The Arsenal Stadium Mystery this is not really a football-themed novel except in one respect: one of the main characters in the story is that most legendary of footballers — Stanley Matthews. It may not be a great work of literature but it has it’s own merit and a certain charm arising from the passage of time. It was published in 1950 so the characters smoke pipes, say “crikey,” or do things like polish lino.
    It is no spoiler to say that the story involves the kidnapping of the footballer. He, of course, remains stoical throughout his ordeal and being an upstanding fellow, does what he can to foil the baddies. Matthews was a genuine celebrity in an age when that meant more than just appearing on some third rate TV soap, so this book in its day would have been something of a novelty. Today this still gives as added interest. To the modern reader, the knowledge that Matthews subsequently cheated on his wife Betty throws a different light on the idealizing of the relationship in the novel.

Peter Handke - The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter)
Just like there are probably people who genuinely derive pleasure from listening to modern jazz, or even from listen to the “music” of Stockhausen, you can’t help but suspect there have always been people who have nodded along to such stuff because they think it is good for their image. Similarly I suppose there must be people who have genuinely thought the time they spent reading The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick well spent, as well as those who rave about it because they think it reflects well on them. That they are insiders, that they have profound insights and that anyone who doesn’t “get it” is just not the right sort.
    Normally, I would never read someone else’s review before I post my own: I want it to be my own opinion, but I was left so bemused by this novella, that curiosity got the better of me. The question was more ‘why’ than ‘what.’ Lots of people claim to understand it, as well as like it, many of them asserting things like: it charts a descent into madness. I am not sure anyone who claims to understand it really does, just like anyone who taps their foot along to Stockhausen surely can’t be making a deep connection. Certainly the main character, Bloch, does something not very normal, i.e. murdering someone, and we get some insights into his character we don’t really want and which are quite nightmarish, but I am not sure you can draw many conclusions about state of mind from that, given how little the author really reveals.
    The character, an ex-goalkeeper, leaves the place of his crime and spends the rest of the novel wandering about in an Austrian border town, observing things in minute detail and trying to work out the significance and hidden meanings behind everything. The title and the ending is, I think, supposed to be an allegory for the predicament Bloch finds himself in. Not much happens and the prose is not easy to read, and it takes a lot of concentration. Thankfully the book is only short. Even so it is rather like chewing through a plain bowl of wheat sprouts in the belief it is good for you. Life is too short in my opinion. People call the writing avant garde but if you wanted to call it “pretentious bollocks” I am sure that is an equally valid view.

Nick Richards - Memorabilia
This is Nick Richards’ only novel to date, published in 2011. It is an interesting read – the study of the characters of two men, Jerry, a 62 year old who lives on his own following the death of his son, and Alex, who is half his age. They meet through a shared interest in football memorabilia: Jerry because he lives in the past, through memories, and Alex because he is a gambler and a dealer.
    It is another of those books you can’t really call “a football novel” – it is a novel exploring two characters who have been thrown together by fate at a matchday programme auction who otherwise wouldn’t have met. It is sad in parts but also very funny especially towards the end.
    It would translate to the small screen very well – I’d love to see it. It is the study of the characters and their influence on each other which makes the novel, and that would create two great acting aroles. Then, throw in a huge American football player who everyone thinks is “The Fridge” but who is actually just a journeyman player nicknamed “The Hot Tub” and the humour gets a bit “Boys From The Black Stuff.”
    It is indie-published and contains a few errors of spelling etc – it is incredibly hard to eliminate them all – especially when you’re doing it yourself: spotting the error when you know what you meant, so your antennae are less well tuned. That said, errors occur all too often in commercially published work too, though less so. Nevertheless, a good edit would have improved Memorabilia greatly. Had, for example, Richards read it aloud to himself to avoid things like: “… there’s just the distant noise of a hedge trimmer in the distance…” There are a few of these clunky bits of prose. But they are forgivable, and the novel is strong enough and unique enough to make it well worth reading.


Various (Adrian Searle editor) - The Hope That Kills Us
This is a collection of short stories published in 2002 all with a Scottish football theme. As with any collection like this the styles and quality varies, but on the plus side, there’s probably something in it for everyone. Whether you like football or not is largely irrelevant: some are laddish, others are not.
    There are several which read like personal reminiscences, a story of self-discovery told by a woman who goes on holiday leaving behind her husband because he can’t miss a match that could mean his team progressing to the quarter finals – a bit in the mould of Shirley Valentine. There are stories written using Scottish dialect, which is something I like, but which does slow you down a bit if you’re not familiar with all the words.
    My personal favourite is Heatherstone’s Question by Des Dillon. It has less of a football theme than any of the stories but is so nicely written. The Bigot by Denise Mina is also a very clever story, and The Last Man in Scotland Who Doesn’t Like Football by Colin Clark is also really neatly told and doesn’t waste words – it is very visual.

Brian Glanville - The Dying of the Light
Brian Glanville’s understanding of football in the post-war years is without question. It comes through clearly in Goalkeepers are Different (1971) and The Rise of Gerry Logan (1963) (reviewed below). Where those novels fail, though, as I have said in my reviews, is that they lack a novelist’s skills of weaving stories and plots. By the time he came to write The Dying of the Light (1976) Glanville had grown into a novelist as well as a football man.
    In Gerry Logan, the best insights come from Mary Logan. In the Dying of the Light he has developed these ideas with the telling of the story from the point of view of Jenny Rawlings, the daughter of ex-England great, Len Rawlings. His writing from this point of view predominates, but with the story also coming from the point of view of Len Rawlings himself.
    My only real quibble with the novel is whether Jenny could really have thought the way she does towards the end and whether that plot construct could have been dealt with better, but it can be overlooked with a little suspension of disbelief.
    The story’s theme is how footballers are abandoned by everyone once they reach retirement: that they really die when the referee blows the final whistle of their last game. “Thirty-five. A whole life lived, half a life to go.” As Jenny says: “While other men were growing up, he wasn’t allowed to grow up, he was actually encouraged not to.” “It’s part of the swindle, and I’m sure it still is, even though the players earn so much now, and Father earned so little. While they need them, they pamper them and cosset them, they make them totally dependent, they wash their kit, buy their tickets, transport them from place to place like a lot of little schoolboys; then, when they’ve no more use for them, they kick them back into the world, completely unprepared. They’ve always been helpless, except on a football field, but now there’s nobody to help them.”
    These ideas are strong and still relevant, if not more so. It could be argued that the infantilisation of players even affects them on the pitch today. One of the problems in Brazil, for the England team is that they appeared incapable of thinking for themselves like grown-ups as situations unfolded – they could only continue doing what they’d been told even when it was clearly not working.
    There are other insights into the game throughout the book – that have you nodding in agreement – things that were true then and still ring true today. Things like: “A game for boys, played by hired gladiators, whose allegiances could change tomorrow. My father had been cheated, but the whole thing was a cheat and a masquerade, a weed that grew grossly out of brutalising cities, and reconciled people into living in them.” The theme of men behaving like boys recurs throughout. And, when you start to analyse football, and why it is important to you, it makes little sense. It really doesn’t feel a very grown-up thing to do or to follow. But then, do grown-ups even exist any more? In modern consumer societies aren’t we all infantilised? 

Danny Rhodes - Fan
Danny Rhodes novel sets out to capture the experience of a football fan in an authentic way. His character, John Finch, a 33 years old ‘former’ Forest fan who moved south to escape his former life, is on a quest fifteen years after witnessing the Hillsborough disaster from the Kop end. For reasons that for me don’t quite ring true, the death of Brian Clough, followed by news of the suicide of one of the mates he lost touch with from the terraces, severely disturbs his mental state – what you could call PTSD. His trip back to Grantham for his mate’s funeral, which he ducks out of, becomes a kind of self-therapy – a quest for answers to various long-buried questions.
    The tragedies of the Bradford fire and Heysel are also told from an omniscient point of view – though I am not quite sure why. It feels like we are being given a selective history lecture by the author. These events were not witnessed by the main character directly and preceding Hillsborough, seem unlikely to be events that exacerbated the character’s mental state as is suggested. It is not clear for the purposes of plot or story why Rhodes feels the need to pile up the tragedy (he even mentions Kegworth and the Herald of Free Enterprise) – it’s as if he’s perhaps not quite convinced by the psychological effect of Hillsborough alone on his character.
    He largely succeeds in capturing the experience of an ordinary fan (more successfully than Kevin Sampson) though the football-related violence aspect still has too much prominence in my view. It was a part of football in those days but to suggest it was ever-present seems to overstate it, and borders on romanticising it.
    Some of the language grates. My Kindle tells me that the word “fuck” and its derivatives occur 1173 times. If that seem like a lot, it is. I’m no prude, and strong language is good for effect, but rather like listening to someone talking who puts such words into nearly every sentence, irrespective of context, it loses its effect and just starts to irritate and get boring.

    The flashbacks are cleverly woven into the story with the two plot threads merging at the end, though there is an annoying and unnecessary tease for the reader at the end.

David Trueba - Learning to Lose (Saber Perder)
Learning to Lose is the translated version of the Spanish Saber Perder. It is  not a particularly uplifting read and at about a quarter of a million words (near to the length of Ulysses – about three times as long as your average modern novel) requires quite a lot of stamina. A case of never mind the quality feel the width – and presumably they try to justify the cost (£7.99 for the Kindle book) by the length.  A fat paper book might justify a higher price, because of higher print costs, but not a bigger MOBI file.
It is well written for what it is but I found it ultimately unsatisfying. It is not strong on plot – it tells the stories of four main characters from their four points of view: a 16 year old Spanish girl, her father, her grandfather, and a 20 year old Argentinian footballer who arrives in Madrid to play for one of the top (unnamed) clubs. It basically follows their lives and some stuff that happens to them. It explores relationships and frailties of human beings well, but it’s not exactly a page turner – it doesn’t leave you needing to know what happens next. By about half way through you realise that when you pick it up to read it you’ll just read about some more stuff that happens. There’s a little in the way of suspense or intrigue and don’t expect any great denouement.
It would have been better in my opinion to shorten it and tighten up on the plot and story. Presumably the point of the book, if there is one, is that these are a bunch of people who have to deal with the sort of stuff that life throw at them and somehow muddle through – they all learn to lose. That could be achieved in far fewer than a quarter of a million words.
There’s a bit of football in it, but, line for line, more sex than football – and quite explicit too if that’s your thing.
It is translated by an American, so for a Brit it is really quite irritating at times, especially when it comes to the football. Calling a free kick a “foul shot,” a strip/ kit “a uniform” or studs “cleats,” or saying: “he scored of the tying goal.” Or how about this when someone is subbed off: “he went to sit on the bench and loosened the laces in his sneakers, lowered his knee socks, and tossed his blue ankle supports to the ground.” What?
Another irritation is the lack of speech marks. Of course their use is an old convention and it can be intrusive if you let it – reminding you that you are reading something artificially constructed. But few readers are so picky, and the convention does help the reader work out what is going on and who is speaking. Not using them can be just pretentious. Most of the time Trueba gets away with it, but every now and then you have to stop and work out what is going on, who is saying what. Here for example, the 16 year old, Sylvia, is talking to her mother, Pilar:
Pilar gathers up the glasses and brings them to the sink. Do you have a boyfriend now? Sylvia is taken by surprise. Now? As if I ever had a boyfriend before. Sylvia shakes her head, takes a bite of her toast. There’s no rush, says her mother. Well, I hope it’s before I’m an old crone. Pilar turns, amused. I notice a certain hint of desperation. A certain hint? I’m totally desperate.
29 other footballl books reviewed at: http://stevek1889.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/football-fiction.html

Brian Glanville - The Rise of Gerry Logan
First published in 1963, this is a perhaps one of the pieces of evidence that people cite to back up their hypothesis that there is no such thing as a great football novel. It was certainly one of the first so the field was pretty much open when it was published. It is not without merit – it has some interesting insights into the professional football world of the late 50s and early 60s. Brian Glanville knew his football and his inside knowledge from his work as a leading sports journalist shines through. It feels very authentic and is clearly based on real people and anecdotes that Glanville picked up over the years.
What it lacks, however, are many of the elements you'd expect from a novel – it could almost be described as a fictional biography rather than a novel. It charts the professional career of Gerry Logan, a gifted player and flawed human being. It is similar in many ways to Glanville's later Goalkeepers are Different which charts the career of our young boy through to becoming a professional player. Both books lack anything amounting to a plot – there are no events linked by causation. As Forster said a story is: "The king died and then the king died," but a plot is: "The king died, and then the queen died of grief." The Rise of Gerry Logan his heavily tipped in favour of the former.
There is little in the way of suspense – very few questions planted in the mind of the reader or the characters. And very little is revealed about the motivations of the characters. The nearest it comes to a plot is provided by the point of view of Logan's wife, Mary.
The story is told from what point of view of three characters: a fictional Brian Glanville, and Gerry and Mary Logan. The best and cleverest bit about the book is a different interpretations those points of view place upon the breakdown of the marriage. Logan himself, whilst being intelligent in footballing sense, is perhaps intended by Glanville to be intrinsically shallow, and it takes Mary Logan to give the novel an element of being three dimensional.
There is certainly story in here and had the been more made of the characters, had we engaged more with them, we would perhaps cared whether they split up or not, or whether Gerry Logan was a success on the pitch – as I see it, few readers will care either way. In the best football novels I've reviewed here, those are common elements: the characters face challenges and you will them to succeed. You become a fan of their teams and want them to win. You don't get that with the Rise of Gerry Logan.

Robin Jenkins - A Would-be Saint
At last, in the season of 1931 – 1932, that glory was almost in sight. Never had it been more needed. Many men were out of work. Faces were grey with worry, breath was bad with the eating of too   much bread and margarine, clothes were threadbare, and tempers were on the edge because of the   peevishness of wives. Goals did not put meat on the table, as those bitter wives too often pointed out, but they did give moments of ecstasy that lifted the soul as no choice gigot could.

Robin Jenkins writes really well about football and makes people come to life on the page.
    Football is not as strong a theme here as in The Thistle and the Grail, though, and that is, in a way, the point of this book. The main character, Gavin Hamilton, the “would-be saint” is a talented player but he spends (wastes?) his life trying to live by the teachings of Jesus and decides to stop playing football because of the violence it provoked. He perhaps should have listened to his grandfather who said:
“Maybe we get rid of a lot of badness in us at fitba’ matches. So maybe it does us guid.” He continues: “You’ll no’ like me saying this, but you gie a lot mair pleasure playing fitba’ than you dae preaching religion.”
That was the truth, thought Gavin. Football had taken the place of religion in Scotland. Christ the Redeemer was of less consequence than the scorer of the winning goal.
    Gavin was also a talented scholar, but his grandmother put an end to that after the death of his mother – citing the need to crush pride and ambition, and not to “get above your station.” At this point in the novel he could have kicked against it, but he misses his chance: he is only young, but also recognised the truth in what she said: he did have pride and ambition. He goes along with his grandmothers decision  a decision his teacher brands as “disgraceful.”
    The reader can’t help but see Gavin’s fate as self-effacement, but maybe those of a religious bent will take something different from it: and see someone with principles so strong you can be inspired.
    A large part of the book is given over to his role as a conscientious objector and Gavin’s eventual hermit-like withdrawal from the world.
    There are some interesting questions posed about what constitutes a good life and how possible it is to live without making compromises with conscience and morality. Worth a read.

Kevin Sampson - Awaydays
Can this even be called a football novel? True one of the main themes is 1970s football violence, but football only seems to be a passing interest of the main character – he doesn’t really seem that much of a Tranmere fan, and football itself barely gets a mention in the book. Instead, the main themes are thuggery, the sex obsessions of an 18 year-old, image consciousness, and, as with Freshers (see: ), drink and drugs bingeing.
     The main character is a middle class A level drop-out who, for reasons not entirely, clear falls into this lifestyle in some sort of quest for self-affirmation following the death of his mother from cancer. It is not explored much beyond the statement: “I see now the time I knew for sure that Mum was dying is the time I started hiding in their midst, looking for a new outlet, a way of expressing myself. Not that I really felt like saying much. I wanted rude action. I wanted out of school. I wanted a job and money. I wanted stuff that that was me (sic), mine – nothing to do with this plan Mum and Dad had mapped out…” That’s about as deep as it gets.
     The sex and violence are pretty graphic and I found myself speed reading chunks of the book. Only towards the end did I slow down when something of the protagonist’s relationship with his mate Elvis is explored. But even that is left hanging. I’m not even sure the book gets to the heart of what football violence is/was all about. The violence is romanticised and overblown – it is not a realistic representation of football violence in the 1970s. There are better books that cover football violence, such as James Bannon’s Running with the Firm.
I’m coming to the conclusion that giving Kevin Sampson is not my thing… 

Tom Palmer - Over the Line
This is a great little story for any child aged 10 +, or teen, who is into football and also likes Horrible Histories, combining as it does a tale of survival of a footballer with accounts of the battlefields of Flanders in the First World War. The main character, Jack Cock, based on a real person, played professionally for Huddersfield and Chelsea and was part of the Footballers’ Battalion. It is well researched – all the historical details read authentically – so it would be also be good for teachers wanting to give kids, who may not find World War 1 very motivating, a way-in that the football angle may provide. The only historical inaccuracy I found was that, when a game is played at Highbury in 1915, the ground is described as having a ‘glass and stone entrance and marble halls’ – that, I believe, didn’t arrive until 1932.

Barry Hines  - This Artistic Life
I include this here, not because it is exclusively football fiction, but on the strength of three of the football short stories in the collection. These three stories: Another Jimmy Dance, Tottenham Hotspurs and First Reserve make this collection worth buying for themselves; some of the other writing is interesting as much for the insights into Barry Hines, the man. It makes for an eclectic mix of reminiscences, short stories and poems, and was put together at the time that Barry was starting to be troubled by Alzheimer’s. (Sadly, he is now quite poorly.)
For me, though, it is these three short stories that stand out. The first two are similar tales of football in the 1970s. Anyone who remembers those days: running around on the terraces and swinging on the barriers as kids, rattles and scarves etc, will delight in this trip down memory lane. But the stories are much more than that – they capture, superbly, that awkwardness between dads and sons that us “modern parents” like to think we’ve overcome, and how football brings them together. (That something special about football as a largely male environment – not that I am not happy for women and girls to be at football – as long as it doesn’t stop being a place where men and boys can ‘escape’ – getting a bit deep, and ‘in a bit deep’ here. Happy to discuss with anyone who finds that contentious.) There are moments in these stories where that awkwardness is overcome and there is an understated tenderness. There is some great economical dialogue, for example:

“Terrible defensive play that. There was no cover at all.”
Ian started to pull at Ronnie’s coat.
“Dad?”
“What?”
“I want a wee.”
Ronnie looked away and swore softly.
“I can’t help it.”
“I asked you if you wanted to go before we came in.”
“I know, but I didn’t want to go then, did I?”
Ronnie led him back up the Kop and out through one of the exits. While he was waiting for Ian and a second shout went up and Ian ran out of the toilet, zipping up his jeans.”
“What are they shouting for Dad?”
“The Town have scored again I would imagine.”
“It’s not fair. We’ve missed it.”
“Well if we’d asked them nice, they might have held the game up ’til we got back.”
Ian looked up at him.
“Would they?”

 First Reserve is on a different theme – featuring a non-league team preparing for a match –  taking place entirely in a decrepit changing room – all very well observed. Again the writing is very economical – no wasted words – just enough to paint a scene with a lovely ‘fade out’ at the end,  leaving you feeling satisfied. You’ve briefly glimpsed another world.

Colin Shindler  - The Worst of Friends - the betrayal of Joe Mercer
The job of a football manager is a tough one – the full range of skills demanded don’t often come together in one person – coach, strategist, tactician, PR man, scout, man-manager, businessman, politician. In fact they rarely come together in one person, and the most successful managers are often those who surround themselves with good advisors and people who work together as a management team. It sometimes works as a partnership – two people working together, possessing the majority of those skills between them: think Clough/Taylor, Busby/Murphy, Shankly/Paisley.
    This book deals with one such successful partnership: that of the genial, gentlemanly manager, Joe Mercer, and brash, maverick coach, Malcolm Allison. The success of their partnership spoke for itself:  5 trophies in 5 years. But, perhaps inevitably, when two large egos are forced together they eventually collide.
    The Worst of Friends charts that partnership and its break-up. It was clearly a labour of love for Shindler and is incredibly well researched. He has used a large network of superb contacts to get first hand accounts which he has woven into this story. It is written as a work of fiction but probably comes close to the truth. It will be of particular interest to Manchester City fans – especially those who don’t subscribe to the views of Shindler’s Allison who says: “Football wasn’t a game played in the past except by middle-aged supporters nostalgic for faded glories. It was about the next match, the next half-hour, the next goal.”
    Despite its merits, however, this book suffers from being torn between being a novel and being reportage. Shindler does not have Peace’s skill as a storyteller nor his craft as a novelist. As a result this cannot compare to The Damned United. Unlike Peace, Shindler doesn’t put the story-telling first. A novelist, when editing, should read every word and if that word doesn’t contribute to story, plot or character, then those words should be cut out. Frequently, Shindler tells details, such as the fate of players who don’t feature in the story, and who, to be frank, the reader doesn’t care about (except perhaps for some Manchester City nerds). There are too many super superfluous words – repetition of things the reader already knows, if they’ve stayed alert. This book takes a good eight hours. It would much improved by a good re-draft and slimming down. Readers are busy people and if you’re paying £8 (or a steep £4 for an e-book) writers owe something to their readers not to waste their time.
    There is not enough focus on character – a sense of Allison and Mercer emerges reasonably well, but you never really get a feeling that Shindler has got to the bottom, particularly of the complexities of Allison’s flawed character. Other problems are shifts in point of view: sometimes you think you are following one character’s thought, but it turns out to be another. Or you get insights into a minor character’s thinking that you don’t really want to know about. For example, at one point, we inexplicably, and fleetingly, get inside the head of Bobby Charlton.
    At times dialogue doesn’t flow very well and comes across as a bit wooden. Shindler also cannot resist superimposing his own views – you can’t help but get the feeling that, when Allison talks about his loathing of Manchester United, that it is really Shindler speaking: “Malcolm’s anger at Manchester United was a more intense feeling. A conviction that the world was an unfair place and that it was made unfair by Manchester United and their acolytes.” Shindler also blatantly dives in towards the end and says: “Oh Mal, for such a clever man in so many ways you can be a really dumb sonofabitch.” It is clunky and adds nothing to the novel – the characters should be left to express themselves and the reader should be left to make up their own mind, not told what we should or shouldn’t conclude from the reading.
    This lack of skill spoils a really good gag at one point. Shindler tells us about Vienna and the things it had seen over the years – but rather than being lyrical and interesting it grates and you think you are being given an unnecessary history lesson straight from Wikipedia – then he comes in with the brilliant line: “Until 29 April 1970, however, Vienna had never witnessed Francis Lee dancing on a piano in his underpants.” Such a shame – if the first part leading up to the punch-line had drawn the reader in, the delivery of the punch-line would have knocked you out. As it was it was a bit like a badly told joke: “The Irishman… no hang on, the Scotsman said to the Englishman… no wait, the Welshman – ”
Simon Cheetham  - Gladys Protheroe... Football Genius
Here are some “guess who?” questions:
 - Which English manager guided Real Madrid to three successive domestic titles?
 - They managed the England national team after the war and played a key role in the England management set-up in the 1966, 1970, 1990, and 1994 World Cup campaigns?  Not got it yet? Here’s another clue:
 - They brought Elton John and Bernie Taupin together and managed Elton John’s tour in 1971?
 - The also launched the career of Bruce Springsteen.
 - They discovered and signed the young John Barnes (following a high-speed dash on a motorbike owned by a Watford-supporting police officer across allotments, through a churchyard and across a rugby pitch with a match in progress – bet you’d never heard that one.)
 - It was Brehme whispering a rumour of this person’s death, run over by a milkfloat, that was the reason for Gazza’s tears.
- This female footballer is one of the few to have played in the men’s league and had a cameo appearance for Shankly’s Liverpool in a friendly against Bilbao in her sixties.
    This is of course a spoof and the answer is Gladys Protheroe.
    This book is bonkers. It start off mildly bonkers and by the time of the 1990s arrives (i.e. the modern era – given the book was published in 1994) it becomes completely, stark-raving bonkers. Is it a novel? Well, it is certainly fiction. It is written in the style of a biography, with no dialogue – but from the point of view of an omniscient narrator: someone who has the privileged position of knowing everything that happened. So none of the usual constraints of a biography. It contains every football cliché  going, and retells things such as the Bobby Moore Bogota bracelet incident in an amusing way. You perhaps have to be a certain sort of football nerd to keep up with some of the humour, but it is, on the whole, an entertaining read.
    Is it any good? It’s main merit is in its idiosyncrasy – there’s nothing quite else like it. It was probably a complete aberration on the part of the publishers to publish it, but I am glad they did. It is rather like a bizarre Victorian medical instrument in a museum of curiosities: it is nice that it is there, but only worth a look because of its eccentricity rather than its intrinsic worth.

Ian Plenderleith  - For Whom the Ball Rolls
This collection of short stories is written by the author of The Chairman’s Daughter (see below). They are quirky, funny little observations on the lives of ordinary fans, lower-league players, or washed up ex-pros – often with a certain nostalgia to them which will appeal to many fans. You don’t have to be a football fan to enjoy them though: just like you don’t need to have witnessed a murder to enjoy crime fiction or to have lived in the Tudor period to indulge your obsessions for jousting and men in hose.
The opening story, for example: Save of the Day features a 9-year-old visiting Scottish relatives; bored, he takes his case-ball down to the local park and, because of his ball (they only have a plastic one), he gets invited to play in a game with some youths. When he makes a great save he goes from being a “wean,” in their eyes, to a “wee man.” (There must be an autobiographical element to this story.)
Then there is Carston Hicks, a 31-year-old who lives with his mother and has his life ruled by her, except for when he plays Sunday football (but, even then, daren’t be late for his Sunday dinner so never goes for a drink afterwards). On the day of the biggest match of his life – the local Cup Final he wakes to find his mother dead. What should he do? Miss the game?
There is a kids’ team so fed up with pushy parents on the touchline (we’ve all see them) that they get drunk the night before a crucial game in an attempt to throw the game, to get their own back. And the story of the mascot Topsy the Toucan, the comedy of FIFA’s experiment with a no tackling rule in a Lincolnshire pub league, and so on.
Plenderleith gets under the skin of these ordinary, flawed individuals extremely well – in a way he never quite does, for me, with the character of Carl Meacock in The Chairman’s Daughter.
This some of the best, short, football fiction I have read. The beauty of the short story format is that they can be read in five or ten minutes, before bed, or on a bus, without having to commit to setting aside the hours needed for a novel – they are the literary equivalent of a whisky shot. For any football fan out of the habit of reading these are a good place to start again.
(There are also a few non-football stories tagged on at the end which would perhaps have been better left for a different book – and are not as good as the football ones anyway in my opinion: other than Wendell’s End you could safely skip them.)

Anthony Cartwright - Heartland
Heartland comes close to being a very good book. It has strong themes: race, extremism (both religious and nationalist), politics, relationships, and football. It is refreshing to hear under-represented Black Country voices – I don’t remember ever having read another novel that does that (not that I’ve been particularly looking). It takes a little while to learn to read the code: “Yow’ve gorra be careful, mate,” or, “Well, he ay great. He ay gorra die, if thass what yer mean.” But once you get the hang of it, those authentic voices come through strongly – so much better than if it had been in standard English.
The idea of several strong threads coming together at the time of the 2002 World Cup is nice – the theme of football as a metaphor being tried and tested.
That said, the jettisoning of conventions of punctuation: worst of all being the total absence of speech marks is a massive mistake. It does not make the novel flow better, make it pacy, experimental, or literary – it just makes it pretentious and unnecessarily harder to read. As a result it is not until about half way through that you work out who is who. (Call me thick if you like – but read it for yourself first, eh?) You have to keep stopping to work out who is speaking – and even if anyone is, at all. You are sometimes a dozen lines into a conversation without any attribution before you work it out – and then have to go back and re-read it. As an example this comes a few pages in:
Rob thought about his dad’s voice, irritated by the telly and the papers.
Iss too much on one bloke, too much, I tell yer. He cor win it for yer on his own. He ay fit any road, not match fit, there’s no way he can be, look at him. Iss too much for one bloke.
I still have no idea whether this is Rob or his dad speaking. This pretentious/faux-literary style also means the reader isn’t fed enough information. I was a third of the way in before I finally worked out which character was the main protagonist’s dad. Why not just give the reader enough to follow it?
The punctuation, in general, is a bit loose and means you have to repeat sections to understand them. For example:
Rob had played well, really well, one of those games, like he knew what was going to happen before it did, so he was always there, tackles, headers, interceptions.
Or try this for an easy read:
When he asked her where she was from she said England, London, and that satisfied him for a while but she saw him studying her in the rear-view mirror when they stopped in traffic looking out across the Bedford-Stuyvesant projects, the people tiny on the sidewalks below, everything both strange and familiar, like in all great cities.
Or this (see if you can work out who is doing the ‘looking’ at his dad: him, the group of men or the wall):
Through another door he could see a group of men – white and black, all ages – looking down the table or across the tables, he couldn’t see for the wall between the two doors, looking towards his dad all laughing.
Cartwright often kills nice imagery with this clunky prose. He seems to have an aversion to semi-colons or breaking up his text for the reader’s benefit.
The different plot threads are run concurrently and are a bit confusing: the England-Argentina match runs the length of the book, but so, too, do stories that unfold over several months. Another football match – a local league game – runs into the England match in such a way that you think you’re reading about England but then you realise Cartwright has switched to the other game. The author’s presence is always there – he’s always jumping in with these irritating stylistic affectations rather than letting you get on with the story. If only it were written to be understood rather than to be clever. It is such a shame, as without these problems (or if you can ignore them) it could be one of the best football novels. Had the story threads been drawn together more conventionally the ending could also have had more of an impact. As it was it somewhat fizzled out.
Well worth a read though despite all that.

Barry Hines - The Blinder




I was pleasantly surprised to discover The Blinder. It is curious it took me so long to discover it as a football novel. It was written in 1966 and was Hines’ first novel, and in my opinion possibly his best.
Everything he has written has been eclipsed by the film Kes even the novel that Kes was based on: A Kestrel for a Knave. The Blinder is, if anything, more authentic and a more complete novel than A Kestrel for a Knave.  Even if it is not better (and it is very hard to compare because the film Kes is so strong visually that it blots out almost all imagery from the text), it is at least equal to it. There is an argument for the characters and dialogue in The Blinder being stronger. For example, Len’s mother and father are wonderful characters. In this extract, Len and his mum and dad are in the living room when Len returns with news that he is in the first team playing for “the Town:”
“I can get you a complimentary ticket centre, Mam; centre stand with all t’nobs.”
“Do you think I’ve nowt else to do but watch twenty-two grown men run around after a bag of wind?”
“That’s what I like about my mam, she’s such an expert.”
“She’ll be getting voted t’ sportswoman a t’year if she’s not careful.”
“I have better things to do wi’ my time. Here come and get your dinners now!”

The descriptions that set the scene are good without it being over-laboured: “Lennie tucked his shirt in and opened the curtains. The sky looked as heavy as lead, thick frost peppered the allotments, and a ragged white veil had been thrown over the muck-stuck at the side of the pit. Everything was grey, except for the row of green lavatory doors at the bottom of the yard.”
The “Blinder” refers to Lennie Hawk, an 18 year-old with a great talent for football (contrast with Mateo – see review of Antoine Bello’s Mateo). He is naturally talented (he plays a “blinder”) as well as being feckless and drinking and womanising (ah! the sixties and seventies, those were the days, a skin-full as long as there wasn’t a match the day after, a fag at halftime in the changing room, and “dolly birds” in miniskirts – proper footballers! – that was irony, in case anyone has any doubt).
The football is well written, and the treatment of the game feels right:
“Nobody’s right for you are they? Why don’t you run away and find yourself an island somewhere?”
“I’ve found one. It measures a hundred by sixty and they’ve goals at each end.”
“And what about the other twenty-one players?”
“They don’t count. It’s just me, and the ball, and the goal.”


So why is The Blinder ignored? I believe it is quite simply the cultural prejudice towards football. Any books set in the North have to overcome a massive a barrier to gain acceptance – and even then, can only do so if it stays within certain bounds – A Kestrel for a Knave breached that barrier, perhaps because it contained an animal: like a guide dog being a way to make blind people approachable, and thanks to Ken Loach, whose films managed to gain a certain acceptance as northern eccentricities. The Blinder, however, was not only northern, but football. So that weighs it down even further when it comes to jumping barriers; plus it’s lead character is male so it doesn’t squeeze into the Catherine Cookson/Georgette Heyer pigeon-hole. It probably wouldn’t even find a publisher in today’s publishing climate.

Antoine Bello - Mateo
Unfortunately Mateo is not yet translated into English, so I had to slog my way through the French. It was well worth it – Mateo is one of the best football novels I have come across.
The novel starts with the central character Mateo finishing his baccalauréat at 18 and turning down contracts from all the top European clubs. Instead he signs up to do his degree at the local university and sets out to win the university league. This is a personal mission for Mateo – his father was destined to lead the team to the title before the team coach crashed, killing him and much of the team. This is not a tale of David and Goliath – no unlikely Steeple Sinderby Wanderers-type dewy-eyed nonsense. Mateo is not a Roy of the Rovers footballer, born with supreme talent. Most of what he has achieved is the result of hard work and a singularity of vision any top sports person will recognise. He and the team’s coach set about achieving this dream, which doesn’t come easy. The book could almost be an instruction manual to any aspiring young footballer – or coach for that matter: an example of what it takes to succeed. The book is more than that though, it also provides an insight into a certain kind of male obsessiveness, of single-mindedness (or is it narrow-mindedness?) that relegates relationships, and almost all enjoyment in life, to second place. At the age of 7 or 8 for example he wouldn’t go to bed until he had succeeded in kicking a tennis ball at a drainpipe outside his house dead in the middle so that it bounced straight back to him. At the end of the novel he wonders if everything he got out of winning compensated for what he had lost. That he struggles to enjoy the present: “victory was already in the rear view mirror without him noticing he had overtaken it.” This is the paradox – that he cannot be happy with what he has: he sees in that “philosophy of humbleness the first steps on the slippery slope which leads straight to complacency and eventually mediocrity.”
The book also reveals something of the difference of approach between the English and continental games: that old-fashioned English belief in talent, endeavour and passion as opposed to the more developed technical and scientific approach to analysing, coaching and learning the techniques. All the English football fiction I have read assumes footballing ability is something you are born with – this I believe reveals a cultural difference wherein lies much of what is at fault in the English game. It is always interesting to see how others view us. On weighing up the pros and cons between Man U and Bayern, his agent says: “ ‘…But it’s true the English game is not very sophisticated.’ ‘Too brutal,’ interrupts Mateo, ‘ I would be in fear of injuring myself.’ ”
The characters of the coach Fischer, his mother Francoise and his girlfriend Valentine are strongly drawn. However, it is Mateo and his struggles and character flaws that carry the book. The football too is expertly described and well written, it doesn’t become boring in any way and Bello captures something of the excitement as the seasons build. It is not a predictable progression that might be expected. (Unlike in Steeple Sinderby – where the ending is anyway somewhat given away in the title.)

Ian Plenderleith - The Chairman's Daughter
The Chairman’s Daughter is a fairly straightforward read: no fancy writing, no sparkling imagery, no clever plot twists and no characters of great depth or richness. This is perhaps deliberate, and, if so, may well succeed in appealing to an unsophisticated male readership who like football but don’t want to read poncey stuff – someone who doesn’t tire of all the use of f*** and c***. I don’t mind swearing in context and for impact, but, call me straight-laced if you like, I would soon walk away from a conversation with anyone whose speech was peppered with c***. Similarly, it didn’t endear me to this novel.
     The premise of a footballer who fails at the top level largely due to injury and who decides to drop down to the 11th tier in the game in pursuit of something more noble is interesting: “…  a sense of sticking my two fingers up to everyone in the pro game… there was little sense of mass expectation any more. There was no burden from the transfer fee…” The protagonist, Carl Meacock, is, in this sense, a little hard to believe. Is there any such a player in the game any more? Someone who would not turn down a bid from a team many leagues higher for double the money? A chance to get back into the professional game when only 29? I wasn't convinced Plenderleith had really got inside the head of a modern footballer: not as well as, say, David Fearnhead. As a character Carl Meacock never quite makes it into a rounded, believable character.
     It is not badly written though and there is enough in to get you to the end.
     The most annoying thing in the book, though, were the cheap jibes at Sheffield United: “Yet I was feeling resolutely driven to impress her, despite the fact that my whole life long I had generally cast of lost causes without looking back (why else would I have left Sheffield United?)” Nothing like kicking someone when they are down! We know we are not highly regarded, and we know we are the most under-performing club in Europe, but it is not something anyone has a right to put into print: except one of us.
     And there is no such word as “alright.” It is no more English than “alround” or “alnightlong.” These books are driving me to pedantry!

Antonio Skármeta (transl. Malcom Coad) - I Dreamt the Snow was Burning (Soňe que la nieve ardia)
When this book was recommended to me I was really looking forward to it. A South American football novel (I’d found one!) set in the last days of Salvador Allende before the fascist coup brought down his democratic socialist government. A book written by a Chilean and published shortly after the coup; a coup with a grim football connection: Pinochet’s thugs rounded people up in their thousands and took them to the national football stadium where they were tortured, killed, taken away and disappeared.
     I would like to say that I enjoyed it, but I can’t. It was like watching a subtitled film in the fog, through binoculars, wearing ear muffs.  I don’t regard myself as particularly thick, and I’m a reasonably good reader, despite never having studied literature academically, but nonetheless I really struggled to get more than a vague sense of this novel.
     Perhaps I am conventional, but I do like books to follow basic rules of punctuation. I can’t see the point in a single sentence lasting for pages and pages (the longest sentence I was awake long enough to count is six and a half pages long). Chapters begin without capital letters and paragraphs contain within them dialogue without speech marks. Call it avant-garde if you like – I’d use a choicer word. There is no need for a writer to set out to be deliberately obtuse or opaque; surely the whole point of writing is to convey meaning? Why put up barriers to that just by trying to be clever?
     Bits of the novel entertained me briefly before I lost it again as the prose slipped into a dream sequence, at least I think it did, so that I could no longer work out what was actually going on. I also struggled to work out who all the characters were.
     There is not a huge amount of football in the novel and what there is is a bit odd. One of the main characters is a footballer who comes to the city from the rural south of the country. There are two passages describing football matches that he plays in, told from the perspective of two radio commentators, Facus and Marquez, who seemed to me like Smashy and Nicey doing a Stuart-Hall-on-acid match summary. Take this for example:
     “ that’s for sure, Facus,  let me tell you I’ve seen the loveliest footballing roses bloom and wither before the day is out
    exactly so, Marquez, it’s beholden upon us at all costs to avoid any hint of tropicalistic hyperbole in our commentary or we may sow dreams which nature doesn’t allow to bloom
    so right, Facus, it’s a risky business building glass towers and castles in the air, but it can be said that a move like that holds out hopes of greatness, a young forward with a dizzying waist and commitment, Facus, the courage to dribble right into the penalty area…..”
     Or this:
   “ but more than to defend to paralyse, bury, grind his opponent into the turf rather than let him achieve his destiny of a goal, Facus
    exactly, Marquez, exactly, there was the first fragrance of a goal in that move, and rapidly that aroma which a fan’s discriminating nose recognises when his skin tingles and his body seethes on the terrace, became the penetrating perfume of a super-goal because the entire galaxy saw that that was a penalty, the entire galaxy apart from the ref….”


Narinder Dhami - Bend it Like Beckham
This novel, aimed at teenagers, is based on the Gurinder Chada screenplay of the 2002 film. It is what you’d expect if you’ve seen the film – a fairly close interpretation and containing immortal lines like: “ ‘Lesbian? Her birthday’s in March. I thought she was a Pisces.’ ‘She’s not Lebanese, she’s Punjabi.’ ”
    It is well, though simply, written – it is a teen book after all. Dhami has a number of children’s and teen books to her name.
    The film was an important, positive portrayal of girls who play football – and the book fulfils the same role.     It will particularly inspire and entertain girls who enjoy the game, but should also appeal to boys too and challenge their stereotypes (“What family will want a daughter-in- law who can run around and kick a football all day, but can’t make round chappatis?”) The resurgence of the women’s game and its growth in schools has to be a good thing (though I also would not want to see it become, in the process, lessened as an escape for men/boys: room for both).

James Riordan - Match of Death

Vladimir Gretchko is a 15-year-old, junior player for Dinamo Kiev with a great footballing future ahead of him – and then Germany invade and his future is ripped away from him. This is a superb story, told simply, but well, and being novella length (about 40,000 words) you have no excuse for not reading it. You will get more out of 2 or 3 hours spent with this than scores of wasted hours watching box sets of American series shown on Sky.
   It is grim in places but then how do you tell the story of what did Germans did in Ukraine after invasion in 1941. As Jews are deported they are brought to the Dinamo Kiev stadium: “It was all so orderly, like a school playground when the whistle blows. But where had so many Jews come from? It seemed as if the entire population of Kiev had turned out, claiming to be Jewish. By midday we had a bigger crowd been the first team usually enjoyed!” There are accounts of Nazi brutality that probably give this a 15 rating.
   The “match of death” in the title is apparently a match that actually took place in August 1942 between a Kiev team and the Germans and, there is no spoiler in saying, the Kiev team were told they had a choice: “win – you die, lose – you live.” According to the story, this is on orders from Hitler himself – it not being possible for propaganda purposes for the Germans ever to be seen to lose.
   Riordan clearly knew his stuff and the account has a very authentic feel, right down to things like details of the kinds of weapons available to partisans. It is economically written; there are no elaborate descriptions which some modern readers seem to shun, but still enough to set a mood in places: “It was one of those wild nights in early October when the wind was high, driving swirling grey-blue clouds across the heavens. The clouds would bare the bright moon for a fleeting second, like a searchlight flitting across the land, back and forth.”
   The only fault in the book is perhaps the scenes involving Stalin and Hitler. The author was clearly looking for a way to provide the bigger picture, but, that zooming out from the real story, jars and breaks the flow. It is a difficult one – perhaps the same overview could have been provided with a lighter touch in another way.

J L Carr - How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers won the FA Cup
This book is perhaps best read whilst sat in an old dusty armchair if you can find one, with a glass of Gold Label barley wine, wearing a vintage Harris tweed jacket (preferably with leather elbow patches) and a nice comfy pair of carpet slippers; and if you can puff away on a briar whilst doing so, all the better. It is a curious, rather eccentric novel, bizarrely set out, interspersed with random pictures, some seemingly unrelated to the story. Its humour is very English – there is something of the St Trinians’ about it – and if it were on the television you can imagine Timothy Spall in a leading role. You feel as if you ought not be enjoying it: that it is just not cool to be seen reading such a book in public. All that said, there is something endearing about it.
   That Carr was a teacher (no, probably a schoolmaster) is no surprise – it is peppered with little asides like some old buffers of teachers were fond of in days before a fixation on attainment levels and strict adherence to a packed curriculum. It also contains a wistful longing for a passing way of life, something you might expect from the author of A Month in the Country, on which the brilliant 1987 film was based.
   There are many clever little observations that make you smile such as this on the Cup final ‘Abide with Me:’ “…that vast, turgid, hopeless roaring of men swilling pity over themselves because the poor old mum was dead, their wife no longer the bright-eyed girl she’d been, their hopes of winning the treble-chance unfulfilled…” Or this on a footballer’s slide into obscurity, finding the game no longer meaningful: “so he was compelled to think and this is unnerving if you are not used to it. The only thing a football player should think about his football and how to obtain maximum remuneration for performing it.” Or this on supporters of a non-league side (although these creatures have morphed slightly since the 1970s and have discovered the benefits of synthetic fibres and may now pay £5 instead of 20p): “Mostly they were very respectable men, muffled against the winter day in home-knitted cardigans with large leather buttons; a phlegmatic, shuffling, stamping lot, grey men who had handed over 20p to cram close to grey men, huddling under a grey sky in a grey landscape on their grey way to the town cemetery. Here, lost in the throng, they had bought another identity for ninety minutes. They bellowed disbelief at incompetence, cried scornfully to the grey heavens in godlike despair, clamoured angrily for revenge. For 20p they did all this and were not held to account.”
   I also loved this on “the awful wilderness” from South Yorkshire up to and skirting Leeds: “Not so much black as blighted. The natives seemed to have lost heart and just let their litter lie… brick-strewn wasteland, drainage lakes choked with collapsed pit machinery and car bodies, the edge of one town lost in the next. Astonishingly it was inhabited.”

Fatou Diome - The Belly of the Atlantic (transl. by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman)
The Belly of the Atlantic (Le Ventre de l’Atlantique) is very different from the other novels reviewed here. It brings a very fresh perspective on the game: not only written by a woman, but, since Diome is Senegalese by origin, it is also makes it the only non-European novel about the game (I believe).
Football is only one theme of the novel and is not the dominant one – that is the difficult relationship between a European ex-colonial power (France) with its former colony (Senegal) and the effect that has on those living under the post-colonial spell: their lives, aspirations and relationships. Football is seen as the only way out of their situation by some of the boys – a sad and rather desperate hope: the game not being loved for itself but for the dreams of attaining a life like the stars of the game – the idols of the boys they see on the village’s one crackly TV.
The main character is Salie, the sister of one such boy, Madické who worships Paolo Maldini. Salie has ‘escaped’ and lives in France but far from having made it to the ‘promised land’ she is: “a hybrid, Africa and Europe ask themselves confusedly which bit of me belongs to them. I am the child brought before King Solomon to be cut in equal halves by his sword. A permanent exile, I spend my nights soldering the rails that lead to identity.” She treads European ground, with feet sculpted by African earth: “One step after another, it’s the same movement all humans make, all over the planet. Yet I know my western walk has nothing in common with the one that took me through the alleys, over the beaches, paths and fields of my native land. People walk everywhere, but never towards the same horizon. In Africa, I followed in destiny’s wake, between chance and infinite hopefulness. In Europe, I walk down the long tunnel of efficiency tha  leads to well-defined goals.”
It is a shame that the character of Salie doesn’t come out stronger – or only emerges right at the end. As it is, the book lacks something: the strength of the characters do not to pull it through. Nor is there much in the way of plot – it seems in some ways more like a collection of tales. There are a number of these tangential tales brought together: introducing new characters who then disappear once their tale is told. It is almost as if these are tales told around the fireside – whether this follows a traditional pattern of story-telling I am not qualified to say – but that is what it reminded me of. Nevertheless, some of these tales are well written and engage the reader. The themes of immigration and how Senegal is still under the spell of its former colonial master are also strong.
Some of the writing is very nice: take this great alternative way of saying something banal like ‘she went to bed at 8.30 in the morning,’ for example: “At the hour when, with a quick glance, the baker counts how many croissants are left, when motorists converge on the city centre, when tides of still-drowsy pedestrians revive the streets, when grumpy executives sink into their padded leather chairs barking for their secretaries, at the hour when, at last, Strasbourg listens lasciviously for the murmur of the Rhine while offering herself up to the day’s shy caresses, I was snuggling down under my duvet.” Or this, when she receives a parcel from ‘home,’ not from her brother, but from her grandmother: “While Madické who’d made a football reporter of me, remained silent, the boundless affection contained in this unexpected parcel filled the screen of my life. No one has taught the men back home that showing affection doesn’t make you less of a man, that on the contrary it gives more soul to the strongest characters. If people gather under the baobab tree, it’s not just because of its ability to withstand tempests, but also because it’s capable of imparting and spreading the sweetness of its shade.”
Also the descriptions of football are unlike anything else I’ve read – a refreshing change from the Roy of the Rovers or Sunday papers style. If only more match reports were like this: “Barthez and Toldo grimly faced each other, and, unlike the fishermen, each of the two goalies was determined to bring home an empty net. Mounted on springs and programmed to block anything that was round, they were as alert as starving tigers, ready to pounce on even a soap bubble. No doubt, those two alone, manning the barricades in May ’68, would have repelled the charges of the mounted police.”
Or this on extra time and the golden goal: “The Italians are reputed to have stamina in bed, but this evening the beauty they desire is playing hard to get and wants to be sure they’re capable of equal tenacity on the pitch. Mamma mia! After a brief pause with no kisses or even a peck, the two teams launch into extra time.” Or this (come on Paddy Barclay, raise your game!): “Stretching their muscles to the limit, the leather bubble has drawn them into this war of attrition. They know the king’s sceptre will go to whoever lasts longer but not necessarily to the best. At this stage in a match it’s no longer about talent; only a goal offers salvation and earns the scorer the gratitude of an entire nation.”


Laurent Mauvignier - In the Crowd (transl. by Shaun Whiteside)


Dans la Foule/In the Crowd shows the power of fiction – it takes the reader inexorably towards the events of the 29th May 1985 in Brussels when 39 people were killed and explores the thoughts and feelings of fans caught up in section Z as well as getting convincingly close to the mentality of a Liverpool fan who was swept up in the crowd, running at those trapped in Section Z. I was struck by the ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the book. ‘Us’ being the French, Italians and Belgians – their common shared perspective and the otherness of the Liverpool fans. This book, written by a Frenchman, holds up a mirror: one of the powerful things in reading the book as a British person is seeing how this event is viewed from a continental European perspective. I spent some time in France in 85-86 and felt accepted, but I remember the hostility towards a group of us England fans during the World Cup from people who didn’t know us, and the concern on some people’s faces at even our relatively understated support for our team: I felt that ‘otherness.’ The very fact of Faber’s glamourous British cover rather than a design more akin to the sober French one also tells us something.
French cover

 Heysel is a difficult subject and one we never really faced up to: not properly. This is a sobering read. It could be life-changing. Sadly, most football fans will never read it, or find it to challenging even if they were ever to pick it up. There is something very dark at the heart of football that books like this force you to reflect on. There are many pages given over to the grief of one of the characters and shock faced by two others: how could it be otherwise and deal with this story properly? However, it is well written and there is ultimately some hope of healing. It requires a fair amount of concentration, so it is not one for picking up and down or when there are distractions.
   It is one of those books that takes a while for you to get used to the style of writing: there is a lot of stream of consciousness and also the language is not easy. It suffers a little from translation from the French – no matter how good a translation you have to lose a little meaning or a little fluency. So you have to forgive what seems at times a bit of clunkiness. (I checked the first chapter using ‘Look Inside’ on Amazon.Fr just to see what was going on.) For example, the idiom for drunk: “rond come une queue de pelle” which translates literally as “round as a the handle of a shovel” gets translated for some reason as the non-existant “pissed as a parrot” which just makes you think “what the ..?” when “rolling drunk” would have done just fine. On the at same page there is also a peculiar translation: “désosseur de vielles voitures” becomes: “scrapyard bone collector” which is just weird: “vehicle dismantler” makes better sense. It is particularly problematic when the meaning of the author is a bit surreal in the first place. Anyway, if you can be a little forgiving, as the book goes on you do adjust and gloss over these quibbles. (I guess the answer is to read it in French if you French is more fluent than mine.)

Leonard Gribble – The Arsenal Stadium Mystery




This book has a claim to be the first football novel alongside The Thistle and the Grail. The football theme is not quite as strong as in the latter: Gribble merely uses Arsenal Football Club as setting for one of his thirty classic murder mysteries featuring Inspector Slade of Scotland Yard. Gribble was a prolific writer of crime fiction, more in the style of American realists than the likes of Agatha Christie. He was a founder of the Crime Writers’ Association in 1953.
    The murder takes place during a game and characters in the book are footballers and football managers, but the story would have worked just as well (and possibly better) if set in a theatre or some other location. The book was published in 1939 and made into a film that same year. The book features the names of the Arsenal team of the time: George Allison, the manager having the most prominent role. Allison also had a minor speaking part in the film. The use of this gimmick means that the early part of the book is rather heavy with name-dropping to the detriment of the plot. (I hold my hand up and admit I may have been guilty of the same thing.)
    A later version (the “replay”) was also published in 1950, with  names changed to match the team of the day.
    The football element is early on where there is a description of the action on the field; this is a bit wooden, being somewhat in the style of a newspaper report of the day. Thereafter there is not much in the novel that is  football-related.
It is an engaging enough read, as murder mysteries go, and the period detail is interesting. The Arsenal theme will appeal to Gunners fans and improve the reading experience for them over that of other readers as they bask in Highbury nostalgia.
    The means of the murder is totally implausible: look up how much 4 mg is and imagine how that could be administered subcutaneously? (Apologies medicinal chemistry module did for that one.)
    The typesetting of the Kindle version is not very good and makes the reading a bit irritating. There are also a number of errors in the text which is a shame when you are asked to pay over £3 for something that costs so little to publish. Alternatively you could fork out four grand for a first edition?

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 a nice easy read: a good one to read on holiday when you don’t want to be too challenged or to have to think overly much (contrast with In the Crowd for example). 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 feels like Fearnhead has got into the head of a footballer like Jack Bailey pretty well: it is believable and comes across as authentic. 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


This is what the Historical Novel Society review says:  "Rabbi Howell is twenty-eight. Born in a tent on the edge of Sheffield to Romani parents, he escaped the mines and became a professional footballer for the new-formed team of Sheffield United, but a heavy tackle leaves him on the bench for the rest of the season. Is this the beginning of the end? His in-laws regularly tell their daughter, Selina, that her husband needs a proper job. She is just glad that with young mouths to feed he is earning money, but sometimes it seems he is living a dream without her.
Rab is on light training until his leg mends, but he is being paid, and he has the support and encouragement of his brother, Charlie. Then he encounters a lame horse, and a red-headed girl… and everything changes.
This is a fictional account of a real man’s life, and much of the story is drawn from fact. The football history is fascinating and will engage even readers without an interest in the game. The life and work of a professional footballer in the 1890s was very different from the modern image – an employee of the club, players were expected to toe the line. There was no glory or adulation and Rab was looked down upon because he did not work in the pit. The social background is well crafted, drawing on real events such as the Queen’s visit to Sheffield. This was a world where everyone knew their place and duty; the common man respected his betters and did as he was told. A player who argued risked his livelihood; a married man who spoke to an unmarried woman was risking everything.
The story is about a footballer, but it is not a football story. Rabbi Howell is a Romani, but this is not a gypsy romance. It is an engaging, compelling, read, with finely drawn characters and a fascinating background. Highly recommended."

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.😊