Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Hand of God and the 2008 Euros.

I’ve been feasting on the European Championships. If football was food I’d look like Maradona does now… but I’ll get back to him.

There’s nothing for it, Austria and Switzerland have played host to an awesome display of the beautiful game. Has to be one of the best international tournaments in my life time. I can’t remember watching better.

Not a single team had a solid defence. Poor for the players, excellent for spectators. Goals everywhere. Analogies with sieve’s and other things with holes in have been rife. People thought there was no way Russia would lose that many goals to the Spaniards a second time not after the way they done the Dutch. The ball is round right enough.

Thanks must go to the nations of Europe who, in leaving their defensive tactics at home, made a valuable contribution to a rare football extravaganza, one that really has lived up to the hype.

Only a couple of games have been a bit lumpy, most notably Italy vs Spain (wince!), but the plot, being completely unpredictable, thickened all the way to the finale where the Spanish Armada finally grabbed the gold. I'm pleased for them and for football too.

With so many twists, turns and goals the entire football show had all the makings of a good drama. It made me wonder if the novella I’m knocking together for my PhD, which is tied to the 2010 World Cup, will maintain the same level of excitement. I also wondered if there’s any other football fiction set at or during a specific international tournament.

I did think of three which come close…

The third, and arguably best written, of John King’s ‘hoolie-lit’ trilogy England Away sees his Chelsea head hunters make some violent appearances in Holland and Germany on their way to watch their national team clash in an international fixture. I don’t think it would count as a tournament based football fiction.

The same would be said for me old mate, Dougie Brimson’s (see the interview) The Crew. It's about a team of football fans, three crews actually, who plan and execute a hoolie-handed Italian Job while England play the Azzuri in Italy. The old bill try to stop them scoring, but their defence is a bit like the Germans.

The Hand of God Squad are a couple of opportunistic Scotland fans who’ve named themselves after that famous moment in Argentina’s defeat of England in the World Cup (22 June 1986). Gordon Legge penned a wee cracker for the The Hope That Kills Us about the lads and how girls and love get in the away of their international game attendance record. Again its not tournament based, but it has the most games in it.

I will take a closer look at the football fiction of Legge and King in future posts.

I can’t think of any other examples. Maybe you know some, maybe you’re writing one. I’d really appreciate it if someone could point me towards any good, bad or indifferent offerings. They'd be worth their weight in eh...burgers?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Scarves and Sombreros

When he was in trouble, his Mammy called him Edson Arantes do Nascimento, but the rest of the world calls him Pele. He needs no introduction. I mention it because he’s after writing one. He’s written the foreword to Scarves and Sombreros, the follow-up to the best selling Megs and The Vootball Kids. I don’t know if it’s possible to get a more famous endorsement for a football book, but I’d stick my neck out and say that the book is worthy of it. Pele says, “The Megs series…is a great example of how football speaks the same language to people all over the world, regardless of their background, colour or religion.” Of course, he’s absolutely right, but these books are also engaging, fun and this one in particular looks at real life issues.

Co-written with Aussie and Middlesborough keeper Mark Schwarzer, Neil Montagnana-Wallace has knocked together two of what is set to be a five volume series. Schwarzer’s involved because he thinks “It’s a great way to encourage children to read. It’d be difficult to disagree with the sentiment.

Scarves and Sombreros continues the story of mad for football, Edward “Megs” Morrison. Freshly immigrated to Australia, he’s still struggling to adapt to his new environment. The newly formed school football team and coach (see Book 1 Review) are helping him settle, especially when a trip to the UK - a chance to return home for Megs - is offered to the league winners. The team must pull together in the face some stiff competition, some tough choices, get around some underhanded antics and still try and win the league.

The first book was good. I like the second one better. It’s snappier. It deals with deeper issues - the scarf of the title arises from the controversy over whether a female Muslim team mate should be allowed to play while wearing her hijab or not. There’s also a heap of life lesson stuff about ‘growing pains’, parental problems and tolerance. And there’s plenty of football.

This time round the story is incisively and insightfully put together, we still get the anticipated happy ending, but, rather than use contrite ways to find solutions to the questions the book raises, Wallace is more than happy for the reader to decide the answers for themselves. While some resolution is required for the story, there’s no preaching and as a cynical adult reader, I for one, appreciate that.

It’s a rare thing for a sequel to equal its predecessor, its rarer still for it not so much surpass as outstrip it. The action on the pitch is lengthier and more exciting and Wallace having garnered greater command of his art has interwoven much stronger story elements.

While his use of modern technology like emails and references to iPods and Archie Thompson work well to push the story forward and place it in a self-aware contemporary setting, there is a danger that they may date the book. Though having said that, if you want the kids to read it, the kids have to be able to relate, right?

Scarves and Sombreros is an excellent example of good football fiction, better still it’s an excellent example of any kind of adolescent fiction. The third in the series, Megs & The Crazy Legs, will follow soon and promises a great deal. Messrs Montagnana-Wallace, Schwarzer and Arantes do Nascimento have done a good thing here. Let’s hope they can keep it up.

Which maybe makes it a keepie-uppie contest?

You can buy the books in most bookshops, or on the website, It’s worth having a look at anyway.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Nelson Mandela?... Paul McGrath's Da?

Genius is a word that’s been thrown around so much it looks like a waterlogged ball that no one wants to kick - I think that’s a Tim Rogers line, I can’t take the credit.

But Roddy Doyle is, he’s a very clever man. He’s won the Booker Prize already (for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha). Humble and gifted though, gloriously gifted – if you need proof, he’s written a big shelf full of brilliant books to have a look at. They’re mostly about the Irish or people in Ireland, well that’s where he’s from, and all of them, for want of a better expression, are a gas crack. Stunningly funny and searingly emotive. Laughing and crying and thinking. That’s what Roddy Doyle books are good for, looking at his people to help you think about your own. It’s, well, it’s genius.

Now football fiction? You’d be fair to ask. He’s written a piece, well actually it’s part of a piece, I mean he’s written books about lots of things. He’s even written a couple of plays and a couple of kids books – one of the reasons why I’ll be looking at his work in my PhD. His latest collection The Deportees is excellent and garnered some fame as it contains a little sequelette to his first book The Commitments. The resourceful Jimmy Rabbitte Jnr strikes again you might say. And it’s brilliant as well.

He’s also written a piece of football non-fiction called Republic is a Beautiful Word for Nick Hornby’s collection My Favourite Year. It’s fantastic, it’s about Ireland’s qualification and subsequent run in the 1990 World Cup in Italy with Paul McGrath and manager, Jack Charlton – I met him once in a train station in Edinburgh. Smashin’ bloke, became something of a cult figure in Ireland after his run of success.

Well coincidentally, The Van (Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991), Mr Doyle's football fiction, is about that self same World Cup ‘triumph’. When Jimmy Rabbitte Snr goes in with his mate Bimbo in his chip van and they look like their goin’ down the shitter before the winning of World Cup games has them selling burgers and chips to fellas ‘on the lash’ outside the pub. They watch the important games in the pub themselves, of course. There are many moments of incredible humour, the battered nappy, the Eamon Dunphy – he’s the eedjit TV pundit they name the battered sausage after; the book incorporates a great deal more of Dublin’s experience of the World Cup success and the events of Jimmy Snr’s life, it’s a heart breaker and a heart warmer rolled into one. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book.

To appreciate it fully though, you’d have to go back to the beginning of The Barrytown Trilogy and start with The Commitments and follow it with The Snapper.

Republic... is a report of the World Cup campaign, It provides evidence of where he got his inspiration. (Ireland got to the Quarter Finals!) Doyle had been to the Hungary Qualifier (McGrath scored) before he’d gone to the pub to watch the highlights. “I clutched my pint into my shoulder – where babies fit when they’re being winded or walked – and watched” (pg1). It’s where his football story starts, that and the Khomeini dying on the same day, but that’s a different thing altogether.

Nelson Mandela happened to be in Dublin the same day the Irish National team did an open top bus tour of the City to celebrate their unprecedented success, as Doyle reports it, this was the reason the half million strong crowded streets burst into chants of Ooh Ah Paul McGrath’s Da, Ooh Ah Paul McGrath’s Da…” It’s funny but I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to mention Mandela and football fiction in the same place again…you never know, right enough.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Jasper Zammit Vs. Sheilas, wogs & poofters

The late and undoubtedly great Johnny Warren was a force in playing football and in football media in Australia. A veritable ambassador for the game, he had a tendency to shine whenever football did and sometimes times even when it didn’t. On SBS Him ’n Les Murray were an awesome team-up as far as pundits go.

His autobiography Sheilas, wogs & poofters is a sometimes dry but no less interesting and often amusing unofficial history of Football in Australia.There’s the story of the 1974 World Cup campaign, doomed because the players ripped off a Witch Doctor in Rhodesia during qualification and the story of $13.74 cheque they got for playing something like 11 international games (and people call the Scot’s tight!). In 2004 John Saffran went to Zimbabwe, tracked down and straightened out the Witch Doctor with a tenner and, lo and behold, Australia qualified for the 2006 World Cup - first time since '74.

The controversially titled book -its what Warren was often told of the game in his playing days- is a must read for any discerning football fan in this country.

Less can be said about Jasper Zammit: Soccer Legend the young adult football fiction he hoiked his name to. That’s not to say that it’s badly written, the idea that the all-conquering goodness of football will always win out/save the day/ teach us a lesson is now as well worn as Johnny’s oldest pair of boots.

We could live with the story if the writing dazzled, but it’s a bit too vanilla and certainly not in the same league in terms of spark as the Megs Morrison series (see Here’s one for the kids blog 2 March 2008).

With the exception of Jasper, the cast of cardboard characters move through a paper thin story, while messages, the tips at the beginning of each chapter - ‘Rule #12 Stay relaxed and focused under pressure’ - hammer home Johnny’s sportsmanlike positively-minded, footballing philosophy.

It's all right for me, I've knocked it over in an hour, but if I was a kid I’d be bored of the lessons by the end.
There are a couple of requisite sequels. I haven’t read them, but I’m going to.

It’s still football fiction innit?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Fan fiction

Does it matter what team the protagonists in our football fiction support? Does it make a difference? Does it add to or take away from our reading experience? What about as a writer, should a writer have to consider their audience or fanbase? Is it possible to get a message to as many people as possible if you write about one team - more specifically the team you follow?

They say write about what you know. They also say a good writer can write about anything. Book shelves are filled with examples which prove both these theories.

Arsenal man, Nick Hornby bared his soul in Fever PItch, while Chelsea man Peter Gilmour bared his arse in Sexy Football. These two, I know for sure, have identified themselves as supporters of a particular club. Many others, who may or may not have some degree of club loyalty, have written football fiction.

Alan Bissett’s Boyracers are Rangers supporters and Irvine Welsh, famous for his love of the Edinburgh club, has Hibs fans all over his work. Dougie Brimson has written fiction about West Ham supporters in The Crew and Top Dog and a Watford supporter in Billy’s Log. John King’s first three novels are about a group of Chelsea supporters, does that mean he is as well?

I don’t know if Jonathon Tulloch is a Toon Army man, or if Laura Hird, like most of the main characters in her story This is My Story, This is My Song, is a Hearts supporter. Does it really matter? I don't think it's had an impact on the popularity of their work.

In Peter Gilmour's case, the exception in the list above, I would suggest the comparative lack of popularity of his book is probably due to the quality of the writing as opposed to people taking issue with the club he loves.

As a football fan it doesn’t concern me which team is involved. It's not like the writers are endorsing the club in the same way say Oasis would in sponsoring Manchester City, the club they follow. Wet Wet Wet's sponsorship of Clydebank is a bit different, lead singer Marti Pellow is a Rangers fan, but I'm getting away from my point here.

I don’t imagine David Peace would need to have been a Leeds United fan, or even a Brian Clough fan, to write such an astonishingly good book as The Damned United.

Should we concern ourselves with this stuff? What if you start to empathise with the characters and then they play against your favourite team? Talk about a conflict of interest. If we narrowed our reading to books about our own club we'd all be wearing eye patches, wouldn't we?

It is obviously entirely possible to get away with it though, most of the people I’ve listed here have, but it made me wonder if it's possible for a writer with no interest in football to write about it or that you could be interested in football without following a team?