The Adventures of Darren Huckerby Finn

Maybe you don’t know about me, unless you read Feed the Goat: The Shaun Goater Story, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr David Clayton, and he told the truth, mainly, but there’s much more to tell. I was quick and I could run with the ball and I did well at Coventry City with Dion Dublin. When Leeds United paid £6million for me, I was rich.

But when you got into the squad you couldn’t go right to playing. First you had to wait for the manager to shake his head at Mark Viduka’s weight, Michael Bridges’ injuries and Alan Smith’s temper. It was deadly dull and I got fidgety. As I sat on the bench, Mr O’Leary would say, ‘Don’t hunch up like that Huckerby’. O’Leary kept pecking at me for not scoring enough goals and it got tiresome. All I wanted was to go somewheres and I warn’t particular about where.

Hucks - Leeds

When I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out for Manchester City. Alf-Inge Haaland, he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of winners, and I might join if I could follow the rules. We had to swear an oath and write our names in blood. It swore everyone to play for the team, and never dribble blindly towards the corner flag; and if anyone was in space, whoever had the ball must pass it to them. Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath, but it had me worried. Then Stuart Pearce says:

‘Here’s Huckerby, he don’t know the offside rule – what you going to do ‘bout him?’

‘Well, hain’t he a striker?’ says Alf-Inge.

‘Yes, he’s a striker, but you can’t never find him onside,’ says Psycho.

They talked it over, and they was going to drop me, because every player must know the offside rule, particularly a striker. Nobody could think of anything to do and I was most ready to cry. So I offered to learn the offside rule and stay onside from time to time.

Everybody said: ‘That’ll do. Huck can come in.’

I made my mark on the paper and collected my things. I went tip-toeing along to the Leeds Central railway station, and sure enough there was Shaun Goater waiting for me.

Now the way that Mr Clayton’s book winds up is this: I fed The Goat and he scored, and so did I, and Man City were champions of the First Division. Old Mr Keegan said I was coming along slow but sure, and doing very satisfactory. I was pretty-well-satisfied with myself too.

Hucks - Man City

But then in the Premier League the old thing commenced again. We had Nicolas Anelka, Robbie Fowler and Jon Macken and I was back on the bench. It was kind of lazy and jolly for a bit, laying off comfortable all day, and no football to play. But how slow the time did drag along after a month. When I came on I couldn’t score a damn thing and I was offside most of the time. We had a mean young midfielder called Joey Barton and he liked to give me a good going-over.

‘Shucks, it ain’t no use to talk to you, Huckerby. You don’t seem to know anything – you’re a perfect sap-head.’

I was six years older and I had an England B cap but that didn’t mean a thing to him. Joey warn’t never in a good humor; that was just his natural self, especially when the liquor took him. I warn’t scared of him worth bothering about but he was always cussing me.

‘You know one season you was caught offside 98 times. You think you’re better’n the First Division, don’t you? I’ll take it out of you.’

I was dog-tired of everyone pecking at the same old problems – my hunchback run, the way I couldn’t never stay on my feet. No-one tried to understand what it was like to be in my shoes. It was dreadful lonesome warming the bench with Kevin Horlock and Carlo Nash.

Mr Keegan sent me on loan to Nottingham Forest and I did ok back in my home town. I felt kind of sore about everything at Man City but I knew it was time to move on for good. Mr Worthington at Norwich City wanted me and that was good enough for me. I just needed to find a way to leave before Joey knew I was gone.

One night, I took my two First Division winners medal and my England B cap and I put them in a suitcase; then I done the same with my signed Shaun Goater shirt, one of Jason Wilcox’s judo black belts and a prototype ‘Dube’ that Dion gave me. It was about dark, now; so I walked down to Manchester Piccadilly, and waited for the first train to Norwich to come.

I was pretty tired when I got to my seat. The first thing I knowed, I was asleep. When the ticket collector woke me up I didn’t know where I was. I set up and looked around, a little scared. Then I remembered. I was free from Joey and free from the Premier League with all its mean linesmen and decent defenders. I knowed I was all right now. I felt powerful lazy and comfortable, like when Mr Keegan left me on the bench for a few games.

When I got to Carrow Road I warn’t feeling very brash. I’d never been to Norfolk and didn’t know nobody there. I catched a glimpse of a man going into the changing room. I went for it, cautious and slow. It was Marc Edworthy!

‘Hello, Marc!’ I says and skipped out.

He ran up and stared at me wild. I was ever so glad to see my old Coventry teammate. I warn’t lonesome now.

Hucks - Norwich 1

It was a mighty nice squad, and a mighty nice stadium, too. I practiced hard every day to get the hang of things, and by-and-by I could do pretty well up front with Paul McVeigh, Leon McKenzie, Matthias Svensson and Iwan Roberts. Mr Worthington said I must quit running offside all the time. I took notice, and done better. We won four games in a row and I even scored a goal. I wanted to win the First Division again but Marc didn’t believe we could go that far. I said come on, we’re better than the Tractor Boys, and West Ham and West Brom. So on we prowled.

‘I wish Dion was here,’ I says to Marc in January. ‘He’d call this an adventure and he’d score goals all day long. And wouldn’t he throw style on it?’

Marc manned the defence and I struck the goals. I judged Mr Keegan would have been proud of me as we went a-booming towards my third First Division title. The Norwich fans loved me and that was a special feeling I must say. They were taken with my style – the big shirts, the beach blonde mullet, the dives in the penalty area.

Hucks - Norwich 4

Marc had an uncommon level head. He judged that 40 points would fetch us to mid-table in the Premier League and then we’d be out of relegation trouble. Well, after 13 games we didn’t have one win to our name. We were in an awful peck of trouble. The league table made me so sick and scared I couldn’t budge from Ceefax. If you think it ain’t dismal and lonesome down at the bottom, you try it once – you’ll see.

I almost just give up, then. I scored more goals but even signing Dean Ashton warn’t gonna save us. Late one night Marc called me and he started talking wild about how we were relegated already.

‘You been a drinking?’ I says. ‘You’re a tangle-headed old fool, Marc. You did dream it, because there didn’t any of it happen.’

‘We’re still in the Premier League?’

‘Of course we are!’

If we worked hard enough, I told him, we would get out of the zone and be free. We beat Manchester United, Newcastle, Charlton and Birmingham but it warn’t no use in the end. We went down but the Norwich fans said I warn’t to blame. They said I could have a home there as long as I wanted it. I won the Norwich player of the season award and they voted me into their Hall of Fame, too. That was a beautiful night.

Marc was awful disappointed. I said never mind, we’d be back, I reckoned. But Marc went to Mr Worthington’s office and bullyragged him about the relegation. The numskull said things he never should have said, and so he had to quit for Derby County. I was real sorry to see him go.

‘Head up, Huckerby!’ Mr Worthington shouts at me in training.

I didn’t understand. I warn’t so miserable; the First Division was my home, after all.

‘Huckerby, git your head up when you run! That way you might pass to a teammate one time.’

They was tough times for all of us. Then in the middle of the season, Robbie Earnshaw arrived from West Brom. Earnie was tiny, gentle and sweet, like a dove, but they said he was a grown man. Together we scored a nice number of goals but Reading and Sheffield United was miles away at the top. Earnie warn’t at all happy with ninth place but I never said nothing about his days in the Third Division. If I never learn nothing else out of Joey, I learnt that the best way to get along with people is to keep peace.

The new season was started when a voice not twenty-five yards from me, says ‘Is that you, Huckerby? I’d know that hunchback anywheres.’

Hucks - Norwich 2

It was Dion’s voice – nothing ever sounded so good before. He grabbed me and hugged me, we was so glad to see one another. One thing was dead sure; me, Earnie and Dion would form a merry gang. Against QPR we all scored but the problem was the fools in our defence. Something was a-brewing, for sure. Then they sacked poor old Mr Worthington. We was in relegation trouble for a bit but we escaped thanks to our goals. I won the player of the season award again, and Dion was second. I done found a home where they loved me even if I couldn’t hit double figures no more.

Earnie headed for Derby County and in October we was bottom of the First Division. It made me shiver and so I kneeled down to pray. I knew I was full of goals, full as I could be, but why did they just trickle out from time to time? Why, it was astonishing, I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. I would go to work and steal Norwich out of the relegation zone again.

We warn’t all right and safe until the last game of the season. That day we got too satisfied and we lost 4-1 to Sheffield Wednesday. Deon Burton scored two we played so bad. I scored our goal and the fans they was so proud and joyful. Norwich was free for another season and I had loved the adventure of it. As me and Dion waved goodbye, I was happy and satisfied, like a jug goggling out butter-milk. If I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more. I’ve got to light out for the United States now, because Mr Roeder will have me warming the bench next season and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

THE END. YOURS TRULY, DARREN HUCKERBY FINN

Hucks - Norwich 3.jpg

Dougie Brimson Interview

Photo Alexey Shlyk

Photo Alexey Shlyk

In 1996, Dougie and Eddy Brimson wrote a groundbreaking, insider’s account of British football violence. 20 years on, Everywhere We Go remains an era-defining, bestselling book. Dougie has since written another 14 titles, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as 4 films including the huge hit Green Street, starring Elijah Wood. With another hectic year ahead of him, Dougie was kind enough to pause and answer our questions on his amazing career so far.

1. How did your first book Everywhere We Go come about? Did a publisher approach you to write it or did you write it and then look for a publisher?

The short version is that during the build up to Euro 96, my brother and I realised that there was a gap in the market for a book which countered some of the rubbish that was being spouted in the media about the culture of hooliganism. But we also realised that if we were going to be the ones to fill that gap, we would have to write something which would capture the interest of both sides of the debate.

So we began to jot down some thoughts and when we had about 10,000 words we simply picked a publisher at random and sent them a sample to see what they thought of the idea. That publisher was Headline, they loved it and Everywhere We Go was published in early ’96. It really was that simple.

Everywhere We Go

2. Your first books were landmark, non-fiction accounts of British football violence. What was the hardest part about writing about the world you knew? And how much danger did these books put you in?

Well that’s very nice of you to say! The truth is that we actually found them quite easy to put together because they are, in essence, our opinions on various issues surrounding the culture of fandom peppered with anecdotes obtained from people we knew or who contacted us. The reason they worked so well is that not only were our opinions pretty much on the same wavelength as many of the people involved in the so-called Saturday scene, but because they were written in a style that was very easy to read.

However, we always knew that we were going to upset people along the way and that proved to be the case. There was certainly a price on our heads at one point but if you’re going to put anything in print, you have to be prepared to back it up and we were.

3. In 2001 you published The Crew, your first of many novels. Football violence was still at the heart but how did you find the switch from non-fiction to fiction?

Well it helped that I had the incentive of developing a basic plot outline for the writer Lynda La Plante who wanted to use football hooligans in one of her TV series. However, once I was up and running, I actually found it extremely easy.

Of course by this time, I had a good handle on my readership and so had a fairly reasonable idea of what they wanted to read and just as importantly, how they wanted to read it. After all, unless they’re on holiday the average bloke generally reads in bed, on trains or in the loo. So I always write in 15 minute chunks which ironically, made things easier with fiction than non-fiction. The hard bit was persuading my publisher to take it on although they were pretty good in the end.

Top Dog

4. Wings of a Sparrow was more football fiction but this time you replaced grit and violence with comedy and dreams. Was it fun writing something a little lighter?

Oh absolutely. One of the main reasons we go to football is because essentially, it’s a lot of fun and after years of writing about the darker side of it, I wanted to write something which made not only me, but the readers laugh about the daftness of local rivalries.

I’d actually written some comedy stuff before, first with The Geezers Guide to Football and then Billy’s Log but Wings is targeted much more directly at the sport and the reasons why we love it. After all, it’s essentially based on one of those questions which fans around the world have bandied about since the birth of the game. Wings really was a joy to write and I hope that comes across on the page.

Wings of a Sparrow

5. Football fiction isn’t a genre with a particularly strong literary reputation. Why do you think that is and do you think it’s unjustified? How would you describe your audience?

That’s a great question and in all honesty, it’s a genuine mystery to me. Maybe you should ask some publishers!

Personally, I think that there is no single answer, just a lot of different factors. It’s certainly true that mainstream publishers are afraid to take any risks these days and it’s also safe to say that football as a subject matter is a huge turn off for those commissioning editors who handle fiction and there seems to be two reasons for that. First, despite its success in non-fiction, the game is still regarded very much as ‘down market’ by the fictional side of the publishing fence and secondly, football books are generally targeted at a male readership and since ‘Lad-Lit’ as a genre doesn’t really exist, even if a writer came up with a marketable storyline, where would it sit?

Ironically, the market is certainly there and it’s gagging for stuff. Fever Pitch still sells strongly decades after its initial publication whilst my first novel, The Crew, has sat at number one on the Amazon football download chart for over four years! Even the sequel Top Dog still sells well and I’m always being asked for more.

That said, I think I’m fairly odd in that I write very much for my market as opposed to the market if that makes sense. I always keep in mind that the most important person in the publishing game is the reader and so have always tried to give my lot what they want as opposed to what I think they might like. Thus far, thank goodness, it seems to be working!

6. You’re perhaps best known for writing Green Street, the big football hooliganism film starring Elijah Wood. How was that to work on? What differences did you find between screenwriting and book writing?

Screenwriting is a very different writing discipline and it’s one which has its good and bad points. For a start, it’s very much a collaboration which is great if you’re working with good people, not so great if you’re working with idiots. Equally, with books a writer is in control of pretty much everything whereas in film, it’s out of your hands pretty much from the moment you hand over the first draft of a script.

Green Street

7. What’s your favourite football book (fiction or non-fiction) and why?

I’m a big fan of Left Foot Forward by Garry Nelson because I think it captures the life of an average footballer pretty much perfectly and it’s also brilliantly written. The Tales from the Vicarage series by Lionel Bernie are also pretty awesome reads but that’s because I’m a Watford fan!

8. And finally, what does 2016 have in store for your busy self?

I’m currently writing In The Know which is the third novel in the The Crew, Top Dog trilogy and I’m also working on two films. One about the war in Afghanistan and the other, a screen adaptation of Wings of a Sparrow which is proving to be great fun. Aside from that, Watford are keeping me pretty occupied at the moment. Long may that continue!

For more info on past and present projects, visit http://www.dougiebrimson.com/

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’.

The Footballing Trials of Bobby F. Grant

Chapter One

June 2004

‘And finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for,’ Pete, the team manager shouted from the stage. I watched sweat drip down from his forehead to his long nose and then on to the floor by his feet. The poor man was stood in a sauna with all of his clothes on. The audience was getting loud and my dad was the loudest. But this was definitely the moment he’d been waiting for. ‘The Ripley Rovers Player of the Year is…’

My dad and his mates played a drum roll on the table. Pete paused and looked down at the piece of paper in his hand. But everyone knew who it would be. It was always the same kid.

‘…Paddy Grant!’

Howooooh! How-how-howooooh! My dad did the awful wolf howl that he always did and I moved a little further into the darkness. My mum laughed a little next to him but I could tell she was embarrassed too. Even my brother looked a little awkward as he made his way up to collect his award. His teammates patted him on the back and cheered his name as he passed. I was proud of him too, don’t get me wrong. Paddy is a brilliant footballer, but it’s hard to be a brilliant footballer’s younger brother.

I hated going to these presentation nights but I’m not the kind of kid who makes trouble. If I’d asked my parents to get a babysitter, it would have looked a lot like jealousy. Which it was, I suppose. I never won anything at my presentation nights for Fortvale FC. ‘Ripley Rejects’ was what most people called us and I was probably the worst of them.

As Paddy sat back down, Dad put his arms around his shoulders in a clumsy hug. ‘Great work, son!’ he bellowed in his ear. Unless Paddy’s game was cancelled, Dad never came to watch me. I’m not saying that so that you pity me; that’s just how it was. Sometimes he didn’t even ask about the score in my match when we got home. He would sit in his chair by the TV and grunt a hello, as if I’d just gone out to the shop for a minute. It was Mum who took me to matches and cheered me on from the touchline. Poor Mum.

‘Hi, Bobby!’

It was Charlie, Paul’s younger brother. Paul was Ripley’s second best player but Charlie was smarter than me. He didn’t even try to play football; he did break-dancing instead and he was really good at it. He was a nice kid but I didn’t really feel like talking.

‘Hi Charlie, how’s it going?’

‘Not bad, thanks. These nights are rubbish, aren’t they?’

I nodded and hoped that might be it.

‘How’s your football going?’

‘Not great. How’s the break-dancing?’

‘Good – we’ve got the National Championships next month, so I’m practising hard.’

‘Cool, good luck with that.’

A talent makes everything alright, even your brother’s presentation nights. Charlie went over to his parents to ask for another Coke. I’d already had two and my stomach felt all fizzy. As Paddy had his picture taken with the guest of honour, local football hero Trevor Thorne, I went outside to get some fresh air. Unless Mum got her way, which she rarely did, I still had a few hours to wait before I could go home.

In the carpark, I sat on the wall and thought about things. I think this was my biggest problem – thinking too much. Paddy never seemed to think about anything, except scoring lots of goals. He never had doubts or worries like I did. What if I gave away a penalty? What if I just couldn’t tackle anyone? What if the whole of my team told me I was rubbish and asked me to leave? These were all sensible fears but they really didn’t help me.

It had been a really bad season with lots of heavy defeats. If I wrote a story about 2003-04, the picture on the cover would be me sat in the mud and rain, my head in my hands, as the other team celebrated another goal. Perhaps one of my teammates in the background would be shouting at me for making a mistake. The title would be in big, bold capital letters like a newspaper headline: ‘HOW MANY TIMES?’ And not even my family would buy it.

When I started playing football, I gave myself a rating for each game like they did in Match magazine. I wrote them down in a notebook but when the ratings dropped week after week, I just gave up. I would only allow whole numbers and I couldn’t face giving myself ‘0’. There was nowhere to go after that, except minus figures. But then perhaps that was correct; by playing, I was making the team worse.

After a little while, Mum came looking for me. She gave me her smile of sympathy and sat down next to me. I don’t think she was having a good time either. She deserved a daughter.

‘You ok, Bobby?’

I nodded and hoped that might be it.

Mum stroked my hair, even though I’d asked her to stop doing that years ago. Normally I’d stop her but I needed my number one fan. ‘Thank you. I know it’s hard for you but Paddy is very grateful and so are we. You’re a good boy.’

She said it like it was a really good thing but I wasn’t sure. Very few people were famous for just being really good people. You needed to be good at something. I didn’t want to become a saint or a monk.

‘Mum, I’m thinking about giving up on football.’

I waited for her to say ‘No, you’re great, keep going’ but she didn’t. She didn’t look surprised at all.

‘I love football but I’m rubbish at playing it. I want to find something that I’m really good at.’

Mum stayed quiet. It wasn’t the first time that I had talked about retiring.

Chapter Two

August 2002

‘Unlucky kiddo,’ Dad said, ruffling my hair without taking his eyes off the road. He hadn’t had much practice at this side of things with Paddy.

I’d just finished my trial for Ripley Rovers and it had been a disaster. A total disaster. ‘Paddy’s brother’ was like a weight around my neck, dragging me down. I couldn’t jump for headers and I couldn’t chase the fast wingers. I kept trying to shake my legs into life but it felt like that time we’d practised swimming with our clothes on. Halfway through, my Dad walked off to watch another match. He’d had enough and so had I.

I shook his hand away and shot him my best evils. I didn’t want his sympathy; I wanted his optimism. ‘Bobby, I’m not sure football’s for you but I think badminton might be your sport’, or ‘Billy, forget about football. You belong on the stage!’ Something like that. Even the suggestion that we went for ice cream would have helped. Instead, we drove home in silence. I wanted to cry but not in front of Dad.

Mum was a little better but her smile looked like hard work. It was like a warm-up stretch that you really didn’t want to do. I could tell that she didn’t know what to say.

‘Football isn’t everything, love,’ she started but then she stopped. I could tell she was thinking because her mouth twitched from left to right. ‘There are loads of other fun things that you can try, Bobby.’ Then she looked at me to see if I liked this idea. Right then, as I sat on my bed in my dirty, smelly football kit, I didn’t. The idea of ‘trying’ anything seemed stupid. I gave her my best scowl.

‘Ok, well let’s give it one more shot then, shall we?’ I didn’t answer but she carried on anyway. ‘I spoke to Sally and she says they’re forming a team for the kids that didn’t make it at Ripley. They’re having a training session next week – what do you think?’

I was seven. Grandad retired from his fabric shop at 70, Dad wanted to retire from the bank at 65, the Southampton right-back Dan Petrescu retired at the age of 34. I couldn’t retire at seven.

Petrescu

I recognised a few of the boys from the Ripley trials but most of them were new. The range of quality was incredible, like the clothes stall at the church fair. It was a real lucky dip. There were the no-hopers like me, the big kids who couldn’t move but could kick it a mile, the small players with lots of skill, and the quick players with no skill. We had it all. We would be playing in a league two divisions below Ripley Rovers but we would work our way up and beat them!

That’s what our new managers told us at the end of the first practice, as they passed around the registration forms. Steve and Chris were a strange pair; one small and square with a big face like Mr Potato Head from Toy Story, and the other tall with a big belly like Baloo from the Jungle Book. When they didn’t talk over each other, they were quite encouraging. At least they were at that stage, before we’d played any matches.

Thankfully, no-one was told not to come back – Fortvale FC was a rescue home that wouldn’t turn anyone away. It’s hard to say no to loyalty. It takes guts and it takes a real desire to make it to the top. Luckily, there was no chance of us making it to the top and so I became the first-choice right-back. They even made me captain for the final minutes of a 10-1 defeat. Mum had gone to sit in the car because the weather was bad, so she missed my proudest moment. I’m not sure she really believed me when I told her. That was fair enough.

‘Billy, make the tackle before he runs pa-’

And the left winger was gone, dribbling down the line to put in a cross.

‘Billy, step up, you’re playing everyone onside right no-’

And the centre forward was through on goal with just the keeper to beat.

No-one asked me to play – I was doing this to myself. I was choosing to do this for ‘fun’. When things got really bad, I’d look at Steve and Chris on the touchline as if to ask, ‘Why am I here? Why don’t you just take me off?’ For some reason, they never did. I think they were hoping one day I’d make the decision for them.

If I’d had friends on the team, it might have been different. We would have had fun in those short periods when we weren’t losing really badly. But sadly, I didn’t fit in at all. I liked books and drawing birds (we’ll come back to that later); they liked WWE and farting songs. Football was all that we had in common, and they didn’t even want to share that with me.

‘You look live you’ve lived a thousand years!’ Steve joked once after a really bad defeat, and so Chris nicknamed me ‘Turtle’. I think he meant tortoise but correcting him would have made things so much worse. The name stuck because it was true. I moved slowly and I never looked happy. ‘Turtle’. But you can’t do anything about your face. Mum says that when I was born, I looked like a really old man with all my wrinkles and they thought maybe I had been born backwards. Surprise, surprise, Paddy loves that story.

At the end of that first season, I was ready to quit. I didn’t want a transfer to the lower leagues, or a move abroad; I just wanted to retire. Over the summer, I tried playing cricket but I was even worse at that, if that’s possible. In rounders, I ran everyone out with the bases loaded, and I forgot to drop the bat. The pressure of team sports was too much; it gave me headaches. But I wasn’t ready to just be ‘the artistic child’. And so I signed up for another year of hell.

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.

Buy it here