By Ross Raisin
Jonathan Cape, 2017
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.