Drama, danger, rivalry, romance, class, cash, courage, cowardice, heroes, villains, legends, landmarks, and a thrilling amount of unpredictability – at first glance it would appear that football contains all of the right ingredients and more for the creation of first-rate fiction. So why are there so few football novels on bookstore shelves, and why are there even less that are worth reading?
Football non-fiction books regularly bother bestseller charts and literary prize shortlists. Yet the number of good football novels in existence can be counted on the toes of two left feet. With the beautiful game so enduringly popular this doesn’t seem to make sense.
Translating the thrilling unpredictability of any sport into fiction is undoubtedly quite a challenge, but there are scores of great novels about boxing, horse racing, even golf. American sports have been particularly well served by novelists, with Bernard Malamud’s baseball novel The Natural regarded as one of the best of the bunch. Of British sports, perhaps rugby league can claim to have inspired the best novel – the muddily realistic This Sporting Life by David Storey.
To clarify, when I talk about ‘football novels’ I mean novels where football and footballers are central to the plot. So I’m not counting the likes of John King’s Football Factory or Will Buckley’s The Man Who Hated Football, both of which feature the sport without really being about it.
I’m also going to neatly sidestep novels ‘co-authored’ by ex-footballers like Terry Venables (They Used To Play On Grass) and Pele (The World Cup Murder), and singly-authored by Steve Bruce (a trilogy – Striker!, Sweeper! and Defender! – starring Bruce’s cunningly-named murder-solving alter-ego ‘Steve Barnes’). So what’s left on the bookshelves?
The most obvious recent effort of note is David Peace’s excellent The Damned Utd, a fictionalised account of Brian Clough’s 44 days in charge of Leeds United. It’s a fine piece of work – probably my favourite novel from any genre of the last few years – although as a ‘dramatisation’ of real events I’m not sure it completely satisfies our need for made-up football action.
The Back Page, in Newcastle upon Tyne, is the now the largest sports bookshop in the world. In any given week it will sell hundreds of football books, but very few of them will be novels. ‘The only one people come in and ask for is The Damned Utd,’ says co-owner Mark Jensen. ‘I’m not sure whether football novels don’t sell well because not many are published, or whether not many are published because they don’t sell well.’
So there aren’t many good football novels about, but there are a few that every fan should have on their shelves. One is JL Carr’s 1975 effort, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup. Although technically more novella than novel at just 150 pages long, it’s a charming tale of non-leaguers triumphing against very long odds, told in matter-of-fact style in the form of a club history. Carr was a former amateur footballer, and his novel feels wonderfully authentic.
Hunter Davies’s Striker, from 1992, is another good read, presented as the warts-and-all autobiography of Joe Swift, a flawed footballing genius who finds – then loses – fame and fortune via Spurs, England, and Europe. There is more than a hint of irony in the fact that Davies later ghosted Paul Gascoigne’s autobiographies. In the novel, Bobby Robson calls Joe Swift ‘daft as a brush’. ‘Yes,’ clarifies Swift, ‘he said that about me long before he said it about Gazza.’ My paperback copy of Striker has a Spot the Ball competition on the back, which only adds to the book’s appeal.
But my favourite, and perhaps the very best football novel, is a book published by Puffin and aimed at younger readers. Esteemed sportswriter Brian Glanville’s Goalkeepers Are Different, published in 1972, is the thoroughly convincing tale of the rise of young keeper Ronnie Blake. Like Striker, Goalkeepers Are Different is presented as an autobiography. Blake plays for fictional first division side Borough, but comes up against real opposition teams and players. It feels like an authentic glimpse into the life of a footballer in the early 70s, a boy’s own adventure set in an evocative world of studs, mud and sideburns.
Goalkeepers Are Different is fantastic, but it was written 35 years ago and is now out of print. Surely, writers, publishers and agents, there is room on our bookshelves for another great football novel or two?