by Philip Kerr
Head of Zeus, £7.99
Reviewed by Huw Richards
From WSC 348 February 2016
Fiction with a sporting setting is notoriously variable in quality. Binary win-lose outcomes reduce the scope for ambiguity and authors may either be poor writers or under-informed. Philip Kerr sidesteps all of these traps with ease. His fictional club, London City, provides the context for crime rather than a narrative end in itself.
by Arild Stavrum
Freight Books, £14.99
Reviewed by Mark Sanderson
From WSC 343 September 2015
Perhaps the biggest criticism of ex-footballers working in the media today is that they don’t provide nearly enough insight into what life as a professional footballer is really like. If former Norway and Aberdeen striker Arild Stavrum’s football crime novel is anything to go by then that’s just as well.
Having played for eight clubs in several different countries, as well as working as a manager over a five-year period, Stavrum can offer a telling insight into the various goings on when a player moves clubs. In the book’s case those details tend to involve vast amounts of corruption.
Stavrum’s writing career began while still a player in his early 20s when the local paper asked him to write a column. This, his second novel, but his first to be printed in English, is based upon the murder of the most powerful man in Norwegian football: agent Arild Golden – a man whose ruthless pragmatism compels him to use any means to justify his desired ends. Golden has no moral objection to exploiting teenage African footballers and manipulating his way to earning hugely disproportionate margins on the player sales he negotiates.
Although he spent a few seasons at Pittodrie at the turn of the century, Stavrum’s critique is very clearly aimed at his home country, although the themes of ambition, greed, corruption and jealousy are universal. The murder has already happened as the book begins. Golden’s corrupt ways are revealed in a series of flashbacks, well demonstrated in his dealings with (a clearly fictitious) Everton chairman James Stirling, who he refers to privately as “Mr Gastric Bypass”. The agent’s hand in a particular transfer is strengthened considerably by incriminating photographs he has of Stirling with several Ukrainian women who turn out to be under-age. Golden blackmails Stirling to buy a certain player, as well as paying the full fee to a private bank account in Guernsey.
The plot brings together a young TV sports reporter and a recently retired former Ajax player, Steinar Brunsvik, who try to solve the case. The reason for Brunsvik’s retirement is the source of his motivation to uncover the killer. In the hands of a lesser writer this may have sounded as far-fetched as Brunsvik’s new career as a lawyer, but the characters are so well sketched out, and the dialogue so convincing, you put the book down trying to remember where you saw him play.
Stavrum excels in creating an environment highlighting the leading characters’ growing paranoia, but he doesn’t hang about: the book moves in rapid-fire chapters that manage to address homophobia, racially divided changing rooms, doping, the culture of celebrity, and what it is to be a single parent, in an insightful way. The book is brought to a satisfying conclusion; the only negative aspect is that it might trigger a trend for publishers to go looking for ex-footballers to become novelists. Stavrum has earned the right to be described as the latter and the book deserves a wide readership.
by Philip Kerr
Head of Zeus, £14.99
Reviewed by Robbie Meredith
From WSC 340 June 2015
Despite the relatively recent success of David Peace’s The Damned United, football, given its prominent position in many people’s lives, has always been under-represented in fiction. Partly this is due to most of the extensive media coverage of the game being a form of story-telling itself, but it’s also the fact that the collision of the two worlds often feels so unsatisfactory on the page. Peace, successfully if somewhat controversially, wrote a fictional interpretation of actual people and events, but Philip Kerr decides to insert his central character and an imagined team – London City – within the existing reality of away games in Newcastle and tactical battles against Sam Allardyce.
Kerr is best known for a long, and very good, series of thrillers set in Nazi Germany, but he has a specific set of problems to tackle in using modern football as a backdrop. His flawed hero is Scott Manson, a rising coach at City, who are themselves a franchise team, a high-flying Premier League version of MK Dons. When manager Joao Zarco – a charismatic, aggressive, lyrical Portuguese – is found dead in City’s east London stadium, Manson is invited by the club’s hard-nosed Ukrainian owner both to take over the team and to investigate Zarco’s killing. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is mentioned twice in the novel, and there’s more than a hint of a Gunners fan’s – which Kerr is – fantasy in imagining such turmoil at a fictional parallel of the Chelsea of José Mourinho and Roman Abramovich.
There are some obvious tensions in the narrative. Manson is a black, former top player with Arsenal and Southampton, whose playing career ended prematurely after he was wrongly convicted of rape. He is occasionally misogynistic, but is also educated to degree level, has a detailed knowledge of modern art, is fond of quoting Aristotle after sex and, in his fledgling coaching career, has already worked at Barcelona and under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. If anything, he’s too rounded a character.
This is presumably because Kerr has decided that his audience are either going to be devotees of his previous work who know little of football and view it with distaste, or fans drawn to a rare novel about their passion. As a result, there are regular, and sometimes grating, narrative digressions, especially in the first half of the book, so that Kerr can explain some facet of the game to a reader who knows little of football or its history.
Despite this, January Window just about carries it off, mainly because Kerr is such an adept plotter and because he’s on surer ground as the quest to find Zarco’s killer comes to dominate the narrative. It’s an effective thriller, with numerous potential suspects, red herrings and a seemingly insignificant detail which leads to the case being solved, while revealing little about football that a literate supporter will not already know.
by Steven Kay
1889 Books, £8.99
Reviewed by Paul Brown
From WSC 327 May 2014
Rabbi Howell was the first footballer of Romany origin to play for England. A slight but skilful half-back, he was a star of the excellent Sheffield United team of the 1890s, alongside the better-remembered likes of William "Fatty" Foulke and Ernest "Nudger" Needham. "A Gipsy by birth, [Howell] perhaps owes some of his inexhaustible vitality to his lucky parentage," wrote Needham of his team-mate. That "inexhaustible vitality" won Howell the nickname the "Evergreen". But in 1898, despite his talents, and with United on the verge of securing their first League championship, Howell was hurriedly sold to Liverpool for reasons that remain unclear.
The "Wikipedia version" of Rabbi (or Rab) Howell's story, sourced from club history books, suggests that he was booted out of United after being accused of deliberately throwing a game against championship rivals Sunderland by scoring two own goals. Author Steven Kay has never believed this version of events, and has been unable to find any evidence of match-fixing. He has, however, uncovered suggestions of a very different kind of scandal. Kay's research forms the basis for a novel, The Evergreen In Red And White, a fictional account of Howell's pivotal 1897-98 season.
This is football fiction based on fact, much like David Peace's recent Red Or Dead, albeit with fewer and further-removed sources. Nevertheless, The Evergreen feels suitably authentic, set in an evocatively realised Victorian Sheffield during football's thriving early years. Kay's Howell has a quirky sense of humour, extrapolated from contemporary interviews, and a voice coloured with the use of Romany and Sheffield dialects. He rubs embrocation on swollen knees and worries about his waning football career, but it's his personal life that proves to be his downfall.
The facts, as Kay has found them, are that when Howell moved from Sheffield to Liverpool he left behind a wife and four children – one of them a new-born baby – for another woman. In the novel, Howell meets the "other woman", Ada, in Sheffield as the city prepares for the Diamond Jubilee visit of Queen Victoria. Torn between Ada and his pregnant wife, his football performances suffer and his season becomes derailed, culminating with the climactic match at Sunderland's hostile Newcastle Road ground, where a tormented Howell scores those two fateful own goals. "If tha don't keep things steady in life, it affects thi game," Needham tells Howell, who is dropped from the team and effectively exiled from his home city.
Despite the defeat at Sunderland, Sheffield United did win the Championship. Howell was a Liverpool player by then. He subsequently played for Preston North End, where his career was ended by a broken leg in 1903. He did apparently find stability in his personal life – he married Ada, and the couple had five children. We may never know the whole truth about Howell and his hurried departure from Sheffield United, but Steven Kay's novel is so diligently researched and affectionately written that it's easy to believe the author's claim in his introduction that it is "as close to the truth as is possible".
by Stephen O'Donnell
Reviewed by Mark Poole
From WSC 325 March 2014
Football fiction generally has a bad reputation, which makes Paradise Road a moderately pleasant surprise. It's competently written, with likeable characters and an enjoyable plot. It's told from a range of perspectives but the loose storyline concentrates on Kevin McGarry, a Celtic fan dealing with the premature end of his own playing career and consequently seeking fulfilment following his team, socialising with his friends and family and working as a joiner for the council. The story provides an experience of life in the thick of the Celtic v Rangers rivalry, takes an occasional detour from Scotland to Prague and includes enjoyable chapters where McGarry fantasises about the details of his football career that got away.
It's set in the late 1990s, when Celtic were fielding popular, relatively talented players, from John Collins to Jorge Cadete. The team were playing well but still, somehow, losing almost every major trophy to Rangers. It's fertile ground for Celtic nostalgia, safe in the retrospective knowledge that the good times would soon be back.
The story is told with sharp humour that can make a fan throwing his beer can at an obnoxious policeman's innocent horse seem funny while the interaction between the central character and his friends and family is engaging. As always with football fiction, there is a difficult balance to strike between telling a story and pontificating about issues affecting the game. Once or twice Paradise Road feels close to a lecture on subjects that will perhaps be too familiar to most of its readers. No matter how much you agree that Celtic and Rangers are not simply two sides of the same coin, or that Scotland's national anthem, Flower of Scotland, is as potentially offensive as any Celtic songs, it's still likely to be hard work to read about in anything but the most concise way. This is a shame because the book flows so well in other places that's it's clear the author is no boring obsessive.
Among the interesting topics it deals with is an honest appraisal of how thrashing Aberdeen, who had dominated Scottish football so recently, becomes much less satisfying in an era when contrasting incomes leave the clubs mismatched. And it provides a subtly impassioned reminder of how much more enjoyable the matchday experience was before the gentrification of football. It's an argument that's been heard frequently elsewhere, but fiction provides an excellent context for the value of one fan's perspective. The book will appeal to many Celtic fans, while some of the more universal topics may make it of interest to fans of other clubs, particularly outside Scotland.
by Robert Endeacott
Tonto Books, £7.99
Reviewed by Duncan Young
From WSC 277 March 2010
Dirty Leeds is an enjoyable read on some levels, but almost certainly not those envisaged by the author. With its provocative title and its projected first person narrative it seeks to inhabit the same niche as The Damned United by Robert Endeacott’s friend David Peace. However, whereas Peace’s Brian Clough offers a coruscating examination of the motivations of a well-known historical figure, Endeacott’s Jimmy O’Rourke simply reels off a history lesson through the eyes of a fictional would-be apprentice.
by Alex Gray
Reviewed by Graham McColl
From WSC 255 May 2008
England’s tilt at the 2006 World Cup is still a “live” memory for most football fans: the last hurrah of Sven, Beckham as prima donna, Theo Walcott as team mascot, Joe Cole’s goal against Sweden, Wags dancing on tables and, of course, of Nicko Faulkner, the midfield player, since found stabbed to death in his Glasgow home, and whose obituary in the Gazette states: “He will probably be best remembered for his performance for England in the 2006 World Cup that earned him an England cap.”
by Anthony Cartwright
Tindal Street Press, £9.99
Reviewed by Matthew Brown
From WSC 269 July 2009
Novels about football are notoriously difficult; good ones distinctly rare. It’s been a long time since Brian Glanville’s Goalkeepers Are Different and although that was basically a tale for teenage boys, it still stands out in the football fiction landscape. More recently David Peace’s The Damned United, yet that could be filed under the dubious “faction” label.