Football Fiction with Gareth R Roberts, Danny Rhodes + Martin Greig
This weekend, I was in Manchester for their inaugural Football Writing Festival, a fantastic labour of love organised by Waterstones Deansgate in association with The National Football Museum. 9 days long (4th-12thSeptember), it comprises 10 amazing events featuring the leading lights and luminaries of football journalism including Jonathan Wilson, Matt Dickinson, Sid Lowe and Graham Hunter. After a fascinating insight into the world of sports biography and newspaper writing with Paddy Barclay, Mike Calvin and Ian Ridley on Friday night, I spent Saturday afternoon absorbed in the less-celebrated world of sports fiction. Gareth R Roberts (author of What Ever Happened To Billy Parks?) Danny Rhodes (author of Fan) and Martin Greig (co-author of The Road To Lisbon) shared the stage to talk football and its literary links to childhood, community and nostalgia.
After the event, I caught up with the charming Gareth R Roberts for the low-down on Billy Parks.
Q. Thanks so much for your time, Gareth. Let’s start with the inspiration for this book.
Without being too pseud-sounding, I wanted to write something that grappled with the notion of decay and the human condition as you get older and start to reflect on life. That was one aspect and another was the desire to bring some of my heroes back to life. Growing up in the 1970s, a lot of the football was in my head – what I imagined the lives were like, the characters were like. I’d see them in the old comics and Shoot magazine and in Panini books and they’d come to life in my own mind. So I suppose a big part of What Ever Happened To Billy Parks? is a loving reconstruction of how I thought things were when I was a kid. Whether I got that right, I don’t know!
Q. In terms of the character Billy Parks, there are certainly parallels with famous footballers like George Best and Gazza. Were they in your head as you wrote?
Yes, I suppose so, but there was never a single inspiration in my head. I haven’t based this story on any of those players, but I did read a lot of their biographies as research. It was more people I know myself, who I played rugby and football with, who now hark back to that time and they’re desperate to relive their glory days and it won’t ever happen.
Q. Placing a fictional character into a real world, did you have a lot of historical research to do?
Not really – it was always a labour of love. I don’t know what it is about football but you go through an age, from about 7 to 14, when you just accumulate facts about football. Bizarrely, I can name all of the footballers who played in all of the FA Cup finals between 1969 and 1981, and yet if you asked me about last year I couldn’t tell you. So the research was dead easy, and of course the internet helps. Mostly it was just recalling what I remembered and making sure I’d got it right.
Q. As a Liverpool fan, why choose to make Billy Parks a West Ham and Tottenham legend?
It was partly because I lived in the East End of London for six or seven years and actually know that area better than Liverpool. And also, it just fitted. In my mind, the voice of Billy Parks was Cockney, I don’t know why but it just was. Then I wanted him to play for a football team that I’m fond of, so it was West Ham. Everyone likes West Ham, especially the team from the 60s and 70s that played great football and spent the rest of the time, apparently, out on the piss!
Q. What are your thoughts on football fiction and do you think attitudes are changing?
The literary world is very strange, very closed, and I think there’s a small cabal of people who are all in each other’s pockets and are influenced by what is fashionable at the time. And football literature has never been particularly fashionable, mainly I think because most of the people in that literary elite are not football fans and they don’t get it. They don’t get that it’s a lot more than a quaint expression of working class values; that it’s a source of great passion for a lot of people.
Q. And finally, who would make your five-person Council of Football Immortals if you had to pick players, rather than managers?
That’s a great question! Bobby Moore, obviously, Stanley Matthews…do they have to be English? No? Ok, I’d have John Charles, the big Welsh centre forward…and then I’d have Garrincha because he’d be interesting, and finally Billy Bremner.
Whatever Happened To Billy Parks? is available here