The long wait for football to be taken seriously as a literary subject
“The author of the best books written about English culture since the War…” reads the blurb on the cover of John King’s landmark 1996 novel The Football Factory, a rampaging yarn about a gang of miscreant Chelsea supporters strutting their stuff around a succession of English cities and football stadiums and offering an uncompromising portrayal of the dark motivation of the archetypal English ‘hoolifan’.
It’s a bold assessment of a bold novel, offered by King’s contemporary and fellow Jonathan Cape stablemate, the Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh. The Trainspotting author has himself occasionally wandered onto the football fiction turf, most notably in Maribou Stork Nightmares, in which the protagonist Roy Strang is assessed for his ‘casual’ credentials by a group of fellow Hibs supporters on a train to Motherwell. But King’s book is explicitly set in a world which takes football and the environs of fandom as its main setting and it explores attendant issues with the kind of trenchantly opinionated voice that one is unlikely to find replicated in national newspapers or on Sky Sports News HQ. Welsh’s comment is undoubtedly calculated to make the greatest impact for a debut author signed up by the same publisher, but even so – “the best books written about English culture since the War”? We’re talking about a football novel here. How did it ever come to this?
We’re used in our culture to separating schoolboys at a very young age into one of two groups, sporty or academic. From then on, it seems, never the twain shall meet. It has certainly proved very difficult for these two apparent polar opposites to be subsequently reconciled in literary fiction. To be sure, football fiction in this country has a fairly dreadful reputation; even at the best of times publishers are extremely wary of the whole genre – if indeed an established genre can seriously be considered to exist at all – and these are by no means halcyon days for the publishing industry.
On novels about football Mark Jensen, co-owner of the largest sports bookshop in the world, The Back Page in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is quoted as saying, “The only one people come in and ask for is The Damned United. I’m not sure whether football novels don’t sell well because not many are published or whether not many are published because they don’t sell well.” The suggestion of an answer to that dilemma can be found in the recent demise of at least one specialist publisher.
In 2010, Know the Score Books, an established outlet, went out of business after becoming entangled in multiple legal cases against several of its own authors, whom they claimed owed them money. However, slow sales of sports books in an era of recession was the primary cause of their collapse. When I approached Simon Lowe, the company’s MD, about my novel Paradise Road, he refused even to accept any sample chapters from the book. Football fiction doesn’t sell, he told me, bookshops don’t know which shelf to place it on. Is it fiction, is it sport? What about The Damned United? I countered. That was the exception which proved the rule, I was informed, and it could be explained in one word: Clough. Football fiction, it seemed, was dead on its feet.
Yet stories about football have been around as long as the game itself. In King Lear, Shakespeare has the Earl of Kent kicking Oswald and calling him a “base football player”, but nevertheless, 400 years later, the number of serious titles that could be filed under the heading ‘football fiction’ would struggle to make up a bookshelf. This is of course in marked contrast to the plethora of non-fiction football books which are put out annually by a variety of publishers, the best of which readers of The Blizzard will be fairly familiar with. Many of these non-fiction titles would meet the scrutiny of the highest academic and journalistic standards, and given this, no matter how cerebral the concept of a literary novel about football might appear, the lack of fiction pertaining to the game would appear something of an anomaly.
Nick Hornby, who did much to make football writing acceptable to the literary elite with his memoir Fever Pitch (1992) has argued that there is enough excitement in the real game already and therefore no need or appetite to produce fiction in this context. Larger-than-life characters and dramatic twists and turns are part of football’s existing narrative, whereas any fictional scenario constructed around the kind of events which occur in sport on an almost weekly basis would no doubt stretch the bounds of credibility. It’s certainly an interesting point; sport is unscripted drama – this is an important part of its enduring attraction – so in attempting to construct a plot around a game of football an author might be seen as undermining the sport’s appeal and its essential nature. How often has a television commentator or analyst been heard uttering the cliché “you couldn’t have scripted it” to describe a particularly dramatic conclusion to a game? As so often with clichés, they’re only clichés because they are true.
In the sixties, the sports journalist Brian Glanville, author of such noted football titles as Goalkeepers Are Different and The Rise of Gerry Logan, noted that football was a working-class game and therefore unsuitable as a subject for treatment in a literary context. Whether or not the remark was true at the time, football since the sixties has changed almost beyond recognition, and society itself has changed perhaps to an even greater degree to the extent that although the observation seems crass 50 years after it was made, nevertheless it might not be too politically incorrect to concede that maybe Glanville had a point – or at least to acknowledge that it was perceived as being unsuitable for literary consideration. Up to that time if a young working-class lad wanted to read stories about football he would have little choice but to do so in the dubious literary forums of comic books and club almanacs.
I have to admit that, even as a young boy (who loved football, playing it, watching it, reading about it), I found the football comics of limited interest; to me they were puerile and jejune and in no way reflected my fascination with the game itself. Roy of the Rovers was first published in 1954 and it had the virtue of espousing what were seen at the time as the traditional British values of fair play, never-say-die spirit and strong moral character.
By the time of the Sky era, however, these values seemed absurdly quaint and Roy, after being transferred around a variety of different outlets, finally hung up his boots in 2001. Over the 40-plus years of publication the eponymous hero Roy Race went from teenage prodigy to player-manager (and ultimately owner, after the strip moved to Match of the Day magazine for a brief period in the late 90s), winning every conceivable trophy on the way – usually against the odds or after a highly improbable comeback – and even surviving a terrorist bomb in the Middle East, which killed half his teammates. Rovers has its devotees as well as its rivals and imitators, such as Hotshot Hamish and Mighty Mouse, both of which moved to the Roy of the Rovers comic in 1985. This form of football comic was mercilessly lampooned in Viz’s Billy the Fish, an absurd strip about a goalkeeping fish with a human head, complete with mullet, who kept nets for Fulchester United (Roy, lest we forget, played for Melchester Rovers) and who floated in the air above his goal-line, while offering semi-useful advice to his teammates. The saying goes that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I’m not sure if the same can be said of the spoof. Sadly or otherwise, the era of the football comic has come to an end.
Serious writing taking football as its main subject goes back to the Victorian era and its emergence can be traced back almost as far as the game itself. Before the First World War, journals and magazines such as The Boy’s Own Paper, Chums, The Boy’s Friend and The Boys’ Realm told short-form tales, aimed at the public-school boys who had grown into those who had founded and codified the game in the relatively recent past and who were the game’s early pioneers. The stories in these journals were fairly basic, with predictable and hackneyed plots; the hero is kidnapped before a big game, is rescued by his girlfriend and turns up just in time to score the winning goal. In 1910 Arnold Bennett decided to incorporate real-life professional players into his novel The Card, but his use of football in the novel is as a humorous aside, and not central to the plot. It would take the advent of the 1920s and the subsequent transformation and growth of the game in this period for football fiction to undergo its first serious development.
Football’s popularity soared at this time as the game finally went mainstream and its transformation from upper-class pastime to the working man’s ad hoc expression of local and cultural identity was complete. The old attitudes faded into the past, resistance to professionalism was finally ended and to accommodate the increased levels of attendance new stadiums were constructed, including Wembley, most of which were in use practically unaltered until the Hillsborough disaster, when the Taylor report finally rendered them obsolete. Between 1920 and the mid-fifties, paperback series such as the Aldine Football Novel (88 volumes) and Amalgamated Press’ Football and Sports Library (564 volumes) fulfilled supporters’ needs to read football stories. The transition to serious literary fiction proved difficult however.
As John Harding writes in this issue, the pulp novelist Sydney Horler wrote 20 football novels in the same period, but serious literature concerning football was rare. The English 20th-century novel has occasionally concerned itself with the plight of the agitated working class. In the 1950s this type of writing found its apex in the so-called ‘angry young men’ movement, led by the playwright John Osborne, whose Look Back in Anger became a seminal work in what later became known as the ‘kitchen-sink drama’, and the novelist Kingsley Amis, who achieved overnight success with his 1954 debut Lucky Jim.
These works represented a considerable advance, in a literary sense, from Horler and his contemporaries, and there were some attempts to incorporate football fiction into this era of post-War working-class self-expression. Alan Sillitoe is another name often associated with the literature of this period and his 1959 short story ‘The Match’, from the celebrated anthology The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is typical of the genre. Set in the Midlands, it offers a bleak critique of the socio-political conditions of the time, while the author tantalises the reader with some fine prose descriptions of a live football match: “Suddenly the man with the ball spurted forward, was seen to be clear of everyone as if, in a second of time that hadn’t existed to any other spectator or another player, he’d been catapulted into a hallowed untouchable area before the goal posts…” The story also made the link between football and domestic violence, the scar of many a derby match and a particular blight on the Old Firm game in Glasgow, as police statistics have shown. ‘The Match’ also hinted prophetically at a more general hooligan tendency, which was to become more prevalent in the game. Though short it stands as a high-water mark in football-related writing from this time.
Sadly, it doesn’t have too many rivals. Noted exceptions are Robin Jenkins’s The Thistle and the Grail (1954) and The Hollow Ball by Sam Hanna Bell (1961), both of which offer a profoundly philosophical critique of football’s place in culture and society. Mention should also be made of the young adult fiction of Michael Hardcastle, but still, very few serious titles set in the world of football emerge from this era. Again this would appear anomalous, particularly when one considers that the US literary giants Richard Ford and John Updike were incorporating baseball and other sports into their work. And even rugby league produced a noted text when in 1960 former Leeds player David Storey penned This Sporting Life, which Peace has acknowledged provided the literary inspiration for The Damned United. Perhaps this is the greatest disappointment in the fragmented history of football fiction: that a period so apparently suitable for including treatment of such stories, ripe as it was with the kind of intellectual disillusionment which invariably produces so much great literature in other contexts, failed to offer anything more than a tantalising glimpse of what the imagined ‘Great Football Novel’ might look like. We can perhaps see this lack of football fiction emanating from the fifties and early sixties as the wider context for Glanville’s assertion about the game being unsuitable for treatment in literary form.
And so we come down in the past three decades. King’s novels (he followed up The Football Factory with two sequels, Headhunters and England Away) can be seen in the tradition of The Match, and indeed due regard is paid to Sillitoe in King’s acknowledgements page. One of the main differences between the two writers is that there is little, if any, implied criticism of the protagonists’ behaviour in King’s work. The reader is compelled to accept his characters as they come and we can see this uncompromising approach as a reaction against the middle-class embracing of the game, which flourished post-Italia 90, post-Fever Pitch, and out of which the Sky era later grew. In a literary sense this is a very modern technique employed by King. The reader ultimately has to decide for himself about the characters’ lifestyle choices, there is a noted absence of preaching in any sense and this lack of truth or moral certainty is a characteristic of what might be described as postmodern art in its various forms.
Other works to have followed the King model in treating the concerns of the post-Thatcherite English urban male include Kevin Sampson’s Awaydays filmed in 2009, and Dougie Brimson’s The Crew (1999), which, along with his non-fiction work on hooligan culture, provided the inspiration for the movie Green Street (2005). Peace’s novels are, by contrast, set in the world of football itself, rather than around the periphery of fandom, and despite the apparent temptation to wax lyrical about what Shankly might have made of the modern game for example, they do not offer much social criticism or cultural observation. Thus we might establish, despite the obvious difficulty in genre labelling with so few titles to consider, that modern football fiction can be separated into two categories: the Peace/King divide.
Peace takes us into the world of football itself and employs an imagined literary voice in the head of real characters (Clough, Shankly) operating around the margin of real events, which are often meticulously described and come complete with a raft of statistics concerning dates, goal scorers, attendances etc. Because he deals with real characters in real settings while still writing what is undeniably recognisable as fiction, it is hard to think of a purer voice in the entire history of this genre, and if one is asked to consider the apex of what modern football fiction represents, then Peace will surely be considered its archetype.
What King has done, however, is what the best writers of any age have attempted since Homer: he has investigated his own culture and offered a literary representation, which is based partially on his own experiences and developed using the full force of his creative imagination. Despite the obvious differences – Scottish/English, left-wing/right-wing, Catholic/Protestant, Celtic/Chelsea – I was aiming for something similar in my novel Paradise Road. It is the story of a rejected ex-footballer trying to make a living as a joiner and the book examines the role of young working-class men in a post-industrial landscape, where the manufacturing and heavy industries which used to sustain their communities have been almost completely replaced by the ever-expanding retail and service sectors.
How have these and other changes affected the traditional relationship between a working man and his football club? All the issues are there – sectarianism, declining standards in Scottish football, the power and role of the media – so we can see that by asking questions which affect modern football we are now considering some of the most important issues that society has to deal with as a whole. Scotball, my second novel, is different in that it is narrated by an English-teaching university graduate, late of the financial services sector, and is set in the world of sports-related media. By changing the background of the narrators in this way, I hope to have covered a range of viewpoints in the two novels and portrayed a wider section of the community than would otherwise have been the case if the protagonists had both been from a similar upbringing.
Thus, hopefully, we have arrived at a situation where novels about football, regardless of what one thinks of their literary value, are undeniably at the cutting edge of literary fiction, because they portray and attempt to explain not just the narrow footballing context in which they are set but also the society in which modern football takes place and ultimately the world around us. They capture the zeitgeist and we see our cultural predicament reflected back at us through them. Perhaps this is what Irvine Welsh was alluding to, when he described The Football Factory in such gushing terms.