Saturday, November 15, 2008

For Whom The Ball Rolls

Following on beautifully from last week’s less than stable football supporter, I give you Alf Wangerman.
An ostensible fan of Welfare club football, he happens to be one of my favourite characters in football fiction. A solid, hob-nail booted, cigarette-rolling, donkey jacket-wearing abuser of referees.

The mission he chose to accept in Ian Plenderleith’s short story, Furlington Welfare’s Last Great Orator is to keep out of order Ref’s in order. The ordinary ones too when it comes to it. That’s all he does. He’s no interest in the football, the people around him or the result. His scorn, a singular, unrepeated, often unrepeatable, unrepentant stream of vitriolic verbosity, is plentifully poured all over the men in black. He attends games just to carry out these incessant attacks and gains some minor celebrity until… well, you can read it for yourself.

Scottish football refs have been joined by Irish Rugby Union refs in their acceptance of a Specsavers sponsorship. It’s a mark of their sense of humour and how they’ve taken the stick from the terraces in good grace. Under Alf’s avalanche they all crumble. Like some great Lincolnshire Viking, he sets the boat on fire before he pushes it out. It’s calamitous. Messy even. And brilliantly funny. But there’s a touch of sadness in it too. Sadness for the loss of what going to the game was like before corporatised, channel-hopping mercernary conglomerate football overwhelmed us. It reminded me of Pointless Jeff Connor’s spectacular non-fiction season with the completely unspectacular East Stirlingshire, the worst team in Scotland.

Another quality story in Plenderleith’s collection is The Man in the Mascot. A washed up alcy actor spends his Saturday afternoons inside the bird suit mascot of his local team and his Saturday nights willing his doomed relationship to change or fall apart. The girl, a slick marketing exec looking for a bit of rough or at least handing out a sympathy shag, seems just as ambivalent. A study of the morose, the bleak and the darkly (like night time in the middle of a Norwegian winter) funny, it’s another standout.

I’m also not the first to use Plenderleth’s work in the academic arena. A German Masters student used it in her thesis and translated the chapter about this story - have a look.

In For Whom the Ball Rolls there are many other stories which catch the eye. We almost tenderly take in the wife of an ex-player who cannot move past his miss in the cup final. Save of the Day (in a Small Scottish Village in 1974) feels like a tale from Plenderleith’s childhood. Importantly, it could so easily have been from my own. The Right Result and The Day FIFA came to Lincolnshire have a don’t-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down ebullience which makes them hard to forget. They’re classic boy’s own (and just a bit more grown up) football stories. Like many of the stories in the collection, they woo the pants off the ghost of football past.

Unlike Greg Furt-Trevis, the ex-player in the story the book takes its title from, we are not doomed to watch the same thing over and over. Nick Hornby’s wrong when he says all the drama we need is contained in the actual game. These stories, the ones we read in novels and collections as opposed to the ones we read in autobiographies and newspapers are worthy of our attention. For Whom the Ball Rolls proves it. It could be argued that the inclusion of non-football short stories shows these works can stand alongside their more generic counterparts.

It’s a great collection, it might be a few years old now, but it’s still relevant, it’s still fresh and most important, it’s very entertaining. Are you looking for anything else in your football fiction?

You can buy the book on Plenderleith's site.

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