A Natural

A Natural

By Ross Raisin

Jonathan Cape, 2017

A Natural

It seems that ‘football novels’ behave a little like buses. After David Peace’s success with The Damned United back in 2007, very little followed for the best part of a decade. But now, two have arrived in quick succession: first Anthony Cartwright’s Iron Towns and now Ross Raisin’s A Natural. Two new novels from acclaimed British authors – is it too soon to call this a golden age for football fiction?

A Natural is populated with football folk, whether they be players, players’ loved ones, coaches, supporters or even ground staff. There are recognisable football types throughout, from the angry cave man manager to the fat chairman to the goalkeeper ‘who had retired as a player only a couple of seasons ago…but whose face and body were already so swollen that none of the squad recognised him until he was introduced’.

The narrative hinges on the fortunes of two footballers playing for ‘Town’: Tom Pearman, an England youth international who has been released by a Premier league team, and Chris Easter, a fallen hero looking to resurrect his career back at his first club. The action of the novel takes place on football pitches and fan forums, at Christmas parties and sponsors’ functions. There are league tables and match reports. But does that really make this a ‘football novel’?

At its core, A Natural is a human drama. Raisin uses sport as a backdrop for exploring identity and homosexuality in a heavily masculine, suppressive environment. The novel charts Tom’s fight against the pull of the pack mentality, where ‘each joke, each wind-up, bound them, protected them.’ Football is depicted as a world of isolation, routines, ‘unspokenness’ and performance – ‘He was becoming more adept at acting like himself. Splitting himself into two people: one that could be normal, a footballer, the other kept apart.’

In the battle between ‘the unit’ and the self, Tom’s upkeep of ‘normal’ becomes more and more frantic. The pressure mounts, from teammates, family, friends, media and that most powerful of characters, ‘the Internet’. Raisin brilliantly captures the vulnerability of living with secrets in the public eye; ‘But then he thought about the crowd. Alone and exposed amid the eyes and the noise.’ Tom is a squad player for a small, lower-league club. The reader is left to ponder just how difficult all this would be for a top-flight player in the full glare of the spotlight.

Anyone hoping for a Roy of the Rovers ending will be left disappointed. Raisin starts out on a path of grim realism and never wavers. Conformity wears courage down, as it so often does. Well-researched and well-crafted, A Natural is a sensitive and timely novel, whether you want to stick ‘football’ on the front or not.

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Spring 2017 – The Best Football Paperbacks

MARCH

Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game (Pro Edition) by David Sumpter

Maths doesn’t have to be boring and pointless. Instead, it can teach us fun and fascinating things, even about football. Especially about football, according to applied mathematician David Sumpter. Whether you’re a player, a coach or a fan (or all of the above), you’ll never look at statistics, tactics and analytics in the same way again. The Pro Edition paperback has updated content and a great new cover.

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APRIL

Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches by Carlo Ancelotti (with Chris Brady and Mike Forde)

As Bayern Munich’s recent demolition of Arsenal showed, Ancelotti is still a manager at the very top of his game. Quiet Leadership combines Carlo’s own stories with the reflections of many of the biggest names in football including Cristiano Ronaldo, Paolo Maldini and Sir Alex Ferguson. Like Sir Alex’s Leading, this is a book with a massive dual market: sports fans and business people.

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Mister: The Men Who Taught The World How To Beat England At Their Own Game by Rory Smith

The British invented football in the 19th century and messengers spread the word to other nations around the world, who quickly became better at the sport than us. It’s a familiar story but no-one has written about those first football pioneers with as much style, craft and detail as New York Times Chief Soccer Correspondent Rory Smith. A new cover for the paperback would have been nice but Mister is a highly-recommended read.

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Ring of Fire: Liverpool into the 21st Century: The Players’ Stories by Simon Hughes

First Red Machine looked at the 80s, then Men in White Suits looked at the 90s and now Ring of Fire looks at Liverpool in the 2000s. Simon Hughes’ journalism is exceptional, bringing together insightful stories from Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Gérard Houllier and many more. You don’t have to be a Liverpool fan to enjoy this book but it certainly helps.

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MAY

Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius by Oliver Kay

This was my favourite football book of 2016 and one of the William Hill Sports Books of the Year. Forever Young is a surprising, enthralling and emotional tale about talent, ambition, disappointment and personality. Trust me – Manchester United’s Adrian Doherty will soon be your new favourite player. In a world of agent-controlled Twitter accounts and bland player interviews, this is a real breath of fresh air.

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And The Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain by Adrian Tempany

This hugely significant book explores the sporting and political environment that led up to the Hillsborough Disaster in April 1989, as well as the aftermath and the ground-breaking rise of Premier League football. Above all, it’s a book about the fans and how gentrification and commercialisation has affected their experience of football. The new paperback cover is fantastic and should help to bring And The Sun Shines Now to an even bigger audience.

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