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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Fantastic Mr Ruel Fox

On a slope above Newcastle city centre there was a stadium called St James’ Park.

In the stadium there was a football pitch. On the football pitch lived ‘The Magpies’ and their tricky winger Mr Ruel Fox, ‘the best player in his position in the country’ according to his manager, Mr Kevin Keegan.

Every Saturday before kick-off, Mr Fox would say to Mr Keegan, ‘Well, my darling, what shall it be this time? A mazy dribble down the wing past the full-back? A cross to Mr Rob Lee? A pull-back to Mr Peter Beardsley? Or a thunder blaster of my own?’ And when Mr Keegan had told him what he wanted, Mr Fox would creep out onto the pitch at St James’ Park and help himself.

The defenders knew very well what was going on, and it made them wild with rage. When he played for Norwich City, even Bayern Munich couldn’t stop Mr Fox.

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So what could decidedly average Premier League defenders do about him? Kenny Cunningham, Des Lyttle and John Wark were not men who liked to give anything away.

But Mr Fox was too clever for them. When Wimbledon came to town, the harsh North-Eastern winds carried the smell of Cunningham to Mr Fox’s nose as he twisted and turned towards goal. He quickly changed direction and slammed a pile-driver into the top corner. Goal!

‘Dang and blast him!’ cried Cunningham.

‘I’d like to rip his guts out!’ said Wark. ‘How on earth can we stop the blighter?’

Lyttle picked his nose delicately with a long finger. ‘I have a plan,’ he said.

11th February 1995, Newcastle United vs Nottingham Forest

‘Well, my darling,’ said Mr Fox. ‘What shall it be tonight?’

‘I’d like another goal please,’ said Mr Keegan. ‘Now do be careful – you know they’ll be waiting for you.’

‘I can smell those goons a mile away,’ said Mr Fox. ‘Don’t you worry about me.’

But in the first half, Mr Fox barely got a sniff of the ball. Mr Andy Cole had moved away to Manchester United and so The Magpies needed goals, goals, goals. New signing Mr Keith Gillespie wasn’t going to get many; Mr Keegan was relying on Mr Fox, even if he did wear the Number 5 shirt. But whenever he cut inside, Lyttle was there to stop him and he had help from his midfield. His plan was working.

In the second half, Mr Fox inched forward a little more. He passed the ball from the left wing to the right wing and made a clever run into the box for the cross. He wasn’t the tallest but Lyttle wasn’t prepared for his leap. Mr Fox’s header crept past the goalkeeper. Goal!

‘Dang and blast!’ said Lyttle, putting his hands on his head. ‘I should have just fouled him the moment he came out on to the pitch.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that Mr Fox won’t be causing trouble again in a hurry,’ Wark said.

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28th February 1995, Ipswich Town vs Newcastle United

‘I’ll tell you what we don’t do,’ Wark told his teammates as they walked out to face The Magpies. ‘We don’t let him go!’

‘Never never never!’ cried Frank Yallop.

‘Did you hear that, Mr Fox!’ yelled David Linighan. ‘It’s not over yet, Mr Fox!’

The Ipswich defenders were about as nasty and mean as any moustachioed men you could meet. On the touchline, Mr Keegan began to cry. He gathered his substitutes close to him and held them tight.

Suddenly there was an especially loud crunch as Wark sent Mr Peter Beardsley flying through the air. The sight of this awful thing seemed to have an electric effect upon Mr Fox. ‘I’ve got it!’ he shouted. ‘Nobody in the world is as deadly from long range as a Fox!’

Mr Fox pretended to take the free-kick but it was Mr John Beresford who swung the ball into the box. Yallop cleared but it fell straight to Mr Fox. In a flash, he sent another thirty-yard screamer flying towards the top corner. Goal!

After the match, The Magpies sat down, panting for breath. Mr Keegan said to them, ‘If it wasn’t for Ruel, we might have lost that game. Ruel is a fantastic Fox.’

Meanwhile, outside St James’ Park, the defenders were all very tired and cross.

‘Whose rotten idea was that?’ asked Cunningham as they watched the highlights on Match of the Day.

‘Wark’s idea,’ replied Lyttle, looking glum.

‘It was a good idea but we weren’t good enough,’ said Wark. ‘There’s only one thing to do – starve him of the ball.’

They quickly passed the message on to other defenders – Southampton’s Jason Dodd, Leeds United’s Gary Kelly, Manchester City’s Terry Phelan. They marked Mr Fox very closely and refused to let him escape.

‘Ruel, couldn’t you try just one little dribble or shot?’ asked Mr Beardsley in the St James’ Park dressing room.

‘No, that’s just what they want him to do,’ said Mr Keegan.

‘But we’re so hungry for goals!’ Mr Paul Kitson cried. ‘How long will it be till we get a decent cross?’

Mr Keegan had no answer to give.

‘How long can a Fox go without touching the ball?’ Wark asked the other defenders.

‘Not much longer now,’ Cunningham told him. ‘Keegan took him off at half-time against Tottenham. I hear he’s thinking about bringing in some foreign flair for next season.’

14th May 1995, Newcastle United vs Crystal Palace

At St James’ Park, The Magpies were slowly but surely dropping down the Premier League table.

Mr Fox had not spoken for a long time. Mr Keegan knew that he was trying to think of a way out of their slide. Suddenly, as they prepared for the final game of the season, there was a little spark of excitement dancing in Mr Fox’s eyes.

Mr Darren Peacock dribbled forward from defence, with his luscious locks flowing in the North-Eastern wind. Then he passed to Mr Fox, who was just inside the Crystal Palace half.

The defenders had told Gareth Southgate how to stop Mr Fox but when he was at his mazy, jinky best, it was impossible to stop him. As Mr Fox cut inside, a Palace player flew in for the tackle but he was too late. Mr Fox shot for goal and it cannoned off a Palace player and looped over the goalkeeper’s head. Goal!

He let out a shriek of excitement and punched the air. ‘I’ve done it!’ he yelled.

Twenty minutes later, Mr Fox put a perfect cross on to Mr Lee’s head.

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‘Oh, what a fantastic Fox you are!’ Mr Keegan told him at full-time.

But soon lovely Mr David Ginola arrived at St James’ Park and Mr Fox had to move away to ‘The Spurs’ in London.

‘We’re starving for goals too!’ said Mr Teddy Sheringham when he arrived at White Hart Lane. ‘Darren Anderton is always injured. We’re done for.’

‘There’ll be plenty of goals to go round, I can assure you,’ said Mr Fox.

‘You mean it?’ cried Teddy. ‘You really mean it?’

Mr Fox nodded confidently.

When Nottingham Forest came to White Hart Lane, Little was waiting for Mr Fox. He refused to let him escape and The Spurs lost 1-0.

When The Spurs travelled to Wimbledon, Cunningham was waiting for Mr Fox. For 85 minutes, Cunningham starved him of the ball but right at the end, Mr Fox crept in to steal the win for The Spurs.

At the post-match meal, Teddy stood up. ‘A toast! To our dear friend who has saved us this day – Mr Fox!’

‘To Mr Fox!’ The Spurs all shouted, standing up and raising their glasses. ‘Long may he live!’

Then Mr Gerry Francis, their manager, got to his feet. ‘I just want to say one thing, and it is this: RUEL IS A FANTASTIC FOX.’

After a few great years, Mr Fox moved on to West Brom and then to the Montserrat national team. He is now retired and runs Ipswich Bootcamps.

Cunningham, Little and Wark joined Masters Football, waiting for Mr Fox to return. And as far as I know, they are still waiting.

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Danny Vincent and the 4-1 Formation – Part One

Danny Vincent ‘didn’t really follow sports’ and most importantly ‘wasn’t a football fan’. That’s what he told us during the coffee break on his first day. I’d waited a few hours to ask him, giving him time to settle in. There was an audible sigh, and then a weary resignation in his voice. He looked down at his feet like the boy who knows he’s done wrong. Maybe this was why he was starting his third job in two years.

It was a crying shame because I’d been eyeing him up for weeks. Few men enter the world of publishing these days, and those that do tend not to be of the athletic build. Take Jake, for example, our other new recruit. In his spare time, you’ll find him sedentary, eyes glued to a split-screen, fingers tapping away at a bit of plastic, an empty pizza box at his feet. So when Helen told me that Danny was ‘quite tall, pretty skinny’, he became The Great Hope, the focal point of team sheets scribbled on the back of Tesco receipts.

It was asking too much, I know, but The Big Game was fast approaching. Editorial vs Sales. The rules were strict – no Finance, no Production, no Marketing, no interns. We billed it as Wenger’s Arsenal circa 2010 versus Mourinho’s Chelsea circa 2005. Visionary creators against efficient doers; flair against money. Much office pride was at stake, and wages blindly gambled away.

Sales were confident, as you’d expect those silver-tongued devils to be. They were also well-drilled, thanks to lunchtime runs and gym sessions. I heard rumours of a practice match in the build-up, although their captain Malcolm would never admit it (‘You wish!’ was his cryptic response). Sales did everything together, a real band of snake-hipped brothers. They had youth on their side, too.

To stand any kind of chance, we would have to play to our strength, which wasn’t, it quickly became apparent, footballing skill. We made Djourou and Eboue look like Iniesta and Messi. No, instead our strength was size, size at the expense of agility. Solidity. Our inspiration was Scotland circa 2010 – the 4-6-0 formation. In other words, we set about building The Wall.

‘We do need an outlet, though,’ our keeper Tim argued at one team meeting. Oddly enough, the man blocking our goal would probably have topped our lithe charts. He’d been a decent winger in his day but sadly keyhole surgery was now keeping him between the sticks, resplendent in a tie-dye shirt and old-school roller-blading kneepads. ‘We win the ball and then what?’

It was a simple enough question but we were stumped. In the absence of a Pirlo-esque regista, we hadn’t really thought about ball retention. ‘Possession is nine-tenths of a whore,’ big old Ted once wittily quipped. And yet on a six-a-side pitch, the ball came back at you faster than a boomerang. How could we hold off the siege?

‘Ok, ok, ok,’ I said, quieting everyone down. Colleagues were waiting outside, wanting to get on with work-related things. On the screen, I drew a forward arrow next to the player in the middle of the five-man wall. The 4-1 formation was born.

‘Wait a minute; I’m not playing up top!’ Niall shouted from his kitchen in Harrow. The conference call software made his protest sound even angrier. He was right, though; a 55 year-old ‘talker’ wasn’t really striker material. Gary Mabbutt had scored 27 goals in 477 games for Spurs. We only had one game and 0.06 goals wouldn’t get us very far. ‘I can’t conduct the orchestra from the programme stall.’ Niall loved an arts-based analogy.

‘Well, I’m not either!’

‘Nor me!’

We had a problem; The Wall had become so strong that no-one would budge. That was my positive spin on it, anyway. Perhaps Sales were getting in our heads. We experimented with Jake as our target man but we never did work out which was his stronger foot. Gary looked like a very tubby Peter Beardsley but had none of his movement. Me, you ask? No-one even suggested it. It would be like asking David Seaman to dance on ice.

We had exhausted all options. That was why Danny Vincent was meant to be the ‘1’.

Raheem Sterling! Gareth Bale! Wayne Rooney!

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Another football season is about to begin and the biggest superstars in the world have been preparing for months. In fact, they’ve been working hard all of their lives to make it to the very top. To succeed as a professional footballer, you need talent but you also need focus and courage. There will always be difficult times – growing pains and injuries, coaches thinking you’re not quite good or strong enough – but the best players in the world battle on to achieve greatness.

Raheem Sterling, Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney are three of the best and most expensive British footballers ever. This season they’ll be playing in front of thousands of fans, aiming to win league titles and perhaps the biggest prize of all, the Champions League. But how did they get to where they are now? What challenges did they face along the way? What were the key moments in their incredible journeys?

There’s only one fun way to find out! Raheem Sterling: Young Lion, Gareth Bale: The Boy Who Became a Galáctico and Wayne Rooney: Captain of England are fictionalised stories for football-mad kids, aged 9 years and up. Come and share their highs and lows and learn what it takes to become a superstar. What are you waiting for?!

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What Ever Happened To Billy Parks?

What Ever Happened To Billy Parks?

By Gareth R Roberts

The Friday Project, 2014

whatever happened to billy parks[1]In the lofty world of fiction, few subjects are deemed as fatal as football. And I say that in 2014,nearly a decade after the success of David Peace’s The Damned United. The beautiful game, despite its inextricable ties to human nature and contemporary society, remains the source of exasperating literary pillory. But blessed be the few brave souls who fight the tide. This year, most notably Danny Rhodes took on memories of the Hillsborough disaster in Fan, and Gareth R Roberts inserted a fictional hero into the iconic world of 1960s West Ham United in What Ever Happened to Billy Parks? The former has been a much-heralded success; the latter won a prestigious Fiction Uncovered Award.

Billy Parks might be a footballer, but he is first and foremost an archetypal ‘nearly man’, pained by regret and pining for redemption. He was a highly talented winger in a golden generation, who, through a combination of tragedy, womanising and alcoholism, wasted his opportunities for true greatness. Parks spurned offers from Matt Busby’s Manchester United and Brian Clough’s Derby, and sat helpless on the bench as England failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. By the novel’s opening, he’s in his sixties and reduced to sharing stories at a Sportsman’s Lunch for £60, some drinks and, most importantly of all, an afternoon of adoration. Alternating between this often tragic present and his more auspicious past, Billy Parksis (to borrow the most tired of football clichés) a tale of two halves: fame and fortune, fading into reflection and remorse. As with Peace’s portrait of Brian Clough, Roberts’ novel is a moving human drama played out on the sporting stage.

For all his failings and misdemeanours, Billy Parks remains an endearing narrative voice. His aim is true, his personal battles are tough and vivid, and he favours self-knowledge over self-pity. He rues ‘the growing carbuncle that was my ego, drunk on alcohol and adulation’, but makes no excuses for himself. Even in the midst of his most depraved spells, there are small expressions of weakness; ‘just occasionally a black sadness before or during a game, as I grappled with the reality that failure would mean an endless abyss of nothing’. Later on, at death’s door, it’s Parks’ genuine desire to make amends with his daughter and grandson that keeps him sober and alive.

But to focus on the sadness in Billy Parks is to ignore the sense of joy and excitement. The novel is a thorough, loving tribute to a bygone era and most importantly, to the delights of youth. Roberts brilliantly captures the pure ecstasy of that first game (‘There were goals and movement and swear words and arguments and kicks and shoves and I loved it all’) and that first goal (‘I felt my body and mind surge with the glorious fresh air of life’). The inclusion of match stats throughout – date, venue, team line-ups, goalscorers, attendance – is the inspired touch of a writer in his element. The macho invincibility of footballing fame is also well-captured; ‘we drank and revelled in being young and carefree and oh-so-very-very male.’ Parks and his teammates are ‘knights of the round table, the untouchable dynamite dealers of Saturday afternoon’.

And then there’s Roberts’ wildcard, which turns out to be a winner, if perhaps not a trump card. Without saying too much, there’s a mysterious ‘Service’, a very eminent ‘Council of Football Immortals’ and the chance to rewrite history. Just when Billy Parks is cruising along towards traditional ‘memoir’ territory, it takes a left turn into Back To The Future. But worry not, sci-fi sceptics; it’s no giant leap and it’s all in the name of feel-good, football fun. Out of its oddly disparate elements – football, family, love, addiction, regret, nostalgia, comedy, tragedy, fantasy – Billy Parks emerges as both a heart-warming human tale and an engaging sporting narrative. Perhaps Roberts should consider adding manager to barrister and novelist.

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