Sunday, June 14, 2009

Changes are afoot...

I have mentioned in passing that things might be changing around the simplest game offices... and then, of course, there were a few erratic posts and it looked like I just couldn't shake it. But things, new things really are afoot

In the next few weeks the changes will become permanent and the new blog will be rolling like a solid pass down the touchline.
The simplest game blog will be housed under the simplest game banner, but things will be changing a bit. The content will still contain the tom foolery and the football fiction shenanigans, but it will now be run alongside a blog under my own name.Yes, thesimplestgame has been stripped of its anonymity, among other things.

It's still very much in development but the new site is running. Have a look anyway...the (new) simplest game.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

bitterness and reticence and biographic nonsense

The leg’s better, much better, thanks. The bullet wound is healing painfully slowly, as is the way with someone in the early autumnal stages of life, so the wife (still laughing) assures me. Still no football though. Or running. It’s a bit rubbish.

And the football season’s finished.

Thesimplestgame would like to reticently and bitterly offer a heartless congratulations to the debt-ridden conglomerations who triumphed. Well-done’s must go to both Chelsea and Man (and boy) United.

Though on reflection, there is no need for bitterness or reticence. These clubs actually need our help. Yes, our help. Both squads will need large and exceptionally absorbent towels to dry their eyes after their respective puerile remonstrations and humiliating demonstrations of footballing impoverishment in the Champions League. Winning the Premiership or the vainglorious FA Cup cannot remove the images of forever-tarnished, fat and teary, petted-lips from our collective minds. It only makes their plight, a plight no football fan can afford or ignore.

So here’s thesimplestgame’s end of season charity plea: If anybody out there has a spare £750 million, could you help either of these dispassionate and unemboldened clubs, who, despite having the most expensive and roundly celebrated footballers on the planet, were unable to carry themselves with even a modicum of the decorum expected of professionals in other walks of life.

Maybe I’m bitter because I’d just got myself fit enough to play for the first time in years – a series of bulldozer throwing injuries had kept me from playing the beautiful game in my characteristically horrible and uncouth fashion for almost six years - and I find myself sidelined again. Maybe I’m bitter because the teams I follow lack the strength to carry the weight of these 'giant' clubs' debt-accumulating prowess. Maybe I’m just sick of watching pampered, excessively-paid, over-rated adult footballers kick-off like kindy kids. Maybe I'm just bitter.

Man (and boy) United Striker, Wayne Rooney, at 20 years old, agreed a 12-year contract with HarperCollins to write, that’s right, write a minimum of five books for an advance of £5m plus royalties.(He really is holding a Harry Potter book in his right hand.) If you were ever wondering where the boundaries of football fiction and non-fiction blurred together, thesimplestgame suspects that there would be a good place to start looking.

Monday, May 18, 2009

too old for football?

Thesimplestgame is couch bound. Ripped a hole in the middle of a calf. Its no bovine injury, the back of the lower left leg feels like it has a bullet wound.

“Too old for football,” the wife laughed. Apparently there’s a cut off. When do we get too old for football? Isn’t it what keeps us young? The ranting at the telly, the boyhood obsession. The love of football was there before the wife was thought of. Yes, churlishness is a possibility.

She laughed even harder. She knows football is important, I'd go as far as to say she knows its really important, but there’s only a little recognition of a deeper understanding. It’s only a game, she used to say.

I know, that’s what I thought. She knows better now. She’s happy with a win and regrettably sympathetic if there’s not. That, my friends, is all a football fan need ask for in a non-footballing partner. Just ask Nick Hornby.

I’m taking part in the QWC AWonline writer’s race tonight. It’s the reason I’m blogging here now. A warm up. A wee stretch before the exertions. And yes, both were done preceding the sustained the footballing injury (I was the only one who did!).

Here’s the link - AWonline. It’ll be a laugh. AWonline has some brilliant resources attached. Well worth having a look at.

Changes in these blogging patterns are still afoot, or there are issues in squad development, something like that. thesimplestgame promises, if nothing else, to keep ye posted.

Incidentally, the painting is called Middle-Aged Men Playing Football by David Fawcett. You can look at and even purchase his very nice paintings here, if you're interested.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Thesimplestgame is currently working on some rather dramatic (for us anyway) changes in format. I know. Sounds really exciting. It's not really.

We can only apologies for the somewhat prolonged, or, you could say, slightly frozen, service of late and assure you that issues of intermittency will be resolved as soon as poss. The new changes will be rolled out when they're done. It might take some time though, so please bear with us. We might even do something about the pishy patter.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Have ye got a pair of boots?

The first paid football players were Scottish. They emerged out of the mists on the rain soaked border to show the English how it was done. I like that. I like it a lot. It might reinforce myths concerning the Scot’s financial shrewdness, maybe not those working for the Bank of Scotland right enough, but I like to think it was because they were so skilled or at least skilled enough to warrant payment. I’m not ruling out the combination option, but the point stands – at least once in the history of the beautiful game, the Scots were considered to be very good, maybe even the best.

Since then, before you say it… things have changed a little. A helluva lot, actually. Yes, sadly it seems we’ve been getting progressively worse since those glorious halcyon days. The lowest point, worse than Ally McLeod’s late 70s combover and nationwide humiliation, came under the stewardship of a horrible wee German - no the other one - Berti Vogts. He steered us into some serious trouble. Enough to arouse suspicions about his real motives.

Even before that though, things had taken a turn for the worst. The stalwarts all retired, Goram gave up gambling and didn’t need the cash, Wee Baz wouldn’t play with Lambie and cheeky chappy Coisty got too heavy to lace his own boots. We’d also unhappily started on the Jackie Charlton management plan. Surprisingly, handing a pair of badly polished Umbro boots to any player who’d been near a plate o’ haggis, tatties ’n neeps, an empty Irn Bru bottle or had been seen waiting outside their local chip shop for a battered mars bar supper, is still proving to be as stable a proposition as making an investment in a US bank.

Recruitment aside, our world ranking unceremoniously dropped to 254th. One place above Burkina Faso. It prompted a Scottish national daily newspaper to pose the following question…
What’s the difference between Scotland and Burkina Faso? One’s a football backwater the other is a small country in Africa.
Now obviously thesimplestgame don’t want to be knocking an entire African nation or their footballing prowess. Professional players in Burkina get paid less than 30 pound a week apparently - less than it would cost to rap one of Wayne Rooney’s ears in brown paper. Burkina Faso is not a culturally impoverished country. It hosts one of the world’s most celebrated film festivals and, importantly, football is the favourite national pastime of the "men of integrity". Their poorly financed professional game is in 'development'. It’s not even 50 years old yet. It’s a different story for Scotland. To go from the very origins of professional football to not even being in the top 250 rankings was a blow even the most tartan spectacled fans couldn’t help making light of. Today, things are on the up, we were even in the world's top ten for a couple of weeks, yet we've failed to qualify for a major tournament in over a decade.

Now this is a site dedicated to football fiction, so it is with a mixture of pride and dismay that we discovered of the earliest examples of football fiction, including Tom Brown’s Days at Oxford in 1861 and PG Wodehouse’s Psmith and Mike in 1910, only Arnold Bennett’s The Card in 1911 features professional footballers, not much of a stretch considering the advent of the sport's professionalism only occurred a couple of years earlier. From an academic point of view this is what makes us happy. The dismay comes in that so few of the players in his work were Scottish (none - I think I need to check). Is it a legimate criticism to hold against the Yorkshireman? Some would say it is. Still we feel there’s a definitely place for his work on the football shelf before any of his pioneering peers.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

staff boundaries

I was in a large bookshop yesterday. For the sake of the story, we’ll call it Boundaries. Hey, before you throw down in disgust. Try it. It makes you feel much better about shopping in your favourite independent bookshop. Boundaries has lots of books. A lot. A really good selection. But then, they should have. It’s a feckin BIG shop and maybe that’s why it’s kind of expensive, but maybe it's not. I'm talking expensive compared to independent bookshop prices. Take Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends. $32.95 in yer local independent. $57 in Boundaries. I mean Really? Is there any need for that shit. I thought the idea of the corporate homogeneity is larger volume, cheaper prices. The Indies can be more expensive than chain-store equivalents sometimes, but at least you get the benefit of informed, interested staff who generally know what they’re talking about. In chain-world this is the exception rather than the rule, but we get it and we even accept it. The indies want you to come back because they like it so, so much they want you to do the same.

Boundaries isn’t always more expensive, mind. There are exceptions. The ugly spine of ‘fast book nation’ mentalities coupled with economies of scale allow for the notorious 3-for-the-price-2-deal. A bargain? It would be except there’s only ever really one book you want. There’s maybe one other, but it’s a half-interest; a might read if you ever get done reading the things you want to read. The rest you’ve either read already or never will. It’s the ‘more you spend the more you save’ sham. Still it must work for some people and charities like Lifeline definitely benefit.

Before I go on I should declare my part-time employment in a particularly good indie in Brisbane. This is hardly an objective piece, BUT were I otherwise employed, I’m confident I’d make the same observations.

While I was in Boundaries, I asked a staff member at the counter if there was a sports fiction section? He looked at me like I’d asked him if I could poo in his shoe. “You what, mate?” he says.
I said, “Sports fiction – fiction with sport in it. D’you have any books or even a section of sports fiction?” He looked at me the way people look in empty plastic bags, when they know there’s nothing in them. They’re done with them. Only good for drowning seagulls now.
So I said, “You know books that are fictional and have sport in them?”
He actually scratched his head.

Now the first time, it could well have been my lilting Scottish brogue that confused him. The second time maybe too. But the third time I said it like I was patronising a non-English speaker. Hand signals and everything. “You know? Books…that…Ah rrre …phic shon al …annnDD… have… sssspoarrrt… iiinnn… tthem?” I said it the way Lee Majors ran after he’d had the $6million dollar operation, a bit of creaking and a lot of slow motion.
A solid wall of blankness.
It was disconcerting.
Another scratch and a flicker of light intruded into the empty space in his eyes. He said, “There’s some sports books upstairs mate.”
He was right. But they were all non-fiction. I said, “Yeah thanks.”

What chance do I have of establishing football fiction as a genre if the staff at one of the city’s largest bookshops cannot imagine that a thing like sports fiction exists?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A floating green zone of fantasy

The title of this post is taken from The Global Game. I think it's relevant to all football fiction, but it works well for this week football fiction subject. Comics. How good were, no, are they?

My first experience of the wonder, romance and let's be honest no small amount of nonsense of football fiction was in comic book stories like those in Tiger (1954-1985) and Eagle (1950-1994), where star quality football stories like Billy’s Boots, filled with Dead-shot Dean’s football magic, won him all the games and scored all the goals he really needed to score. What I would have done for a pair of those incredible boots. The closest I got to a pair was the wobbly boots on a saturday night.

Hotshot Hamish has been reprised in one of Scotland's most popular weekly Scottish national newspapers - The Sunday Mail (I said popular I never said worthy). Still it warms the cockles knowing a whole new generation will be able to experience the power of Hamish's size 16. He could smash a canon ball shot straight through a steel plated A-team built vehicle without so much as a pity the fool - and he's Scottish. His team mate highlanders, including the insanely goofy Mighty Mouse, benefitted from the big man's big toes more than once.

Roy of the Rovers, possibly the most famous of all the football comic strip characters, is also still being produced in a number of fanzines as far as I'm aware. More gifted than Best, Pele, Ronaldhino and Michael Flatley combined Roy could do anthing with a ball. The comic ran through Roy's incredible career, management jobs included and then even soapily involved his son's adventures. As far as I'm aware, they followed the great tradition of famous footballer's sons the world over, in that he failed to capture his father's acclaimed success or any of his ability. Still he managed a career - which is more than can be said for my own game.

Striker, The Sun newspaper's long standing football player comic leaned toward the adult end of the market, ye know more tragic footballer's wives than wizened old boots with any magic in them. Particularly when it changed to 3D in an effort to keep up with the times. If nothing else it was a series which was remarkable for its unremarkableness.

There are many others. Football comics first appeared with regularity in the early 1920's, but that's a blog for another day.

It was long before I moved to books, novels mostly, only to be haunted by the lack of football. It seemed there were no football novels. Things may have changed a little, but it's a little and I'd like to go some way to putting those ghosts to rest in the creative practice parts of my PhD.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

football n fiction, ...they started walking out together.

Now I've talked about defining it. I've talked about the books. I've talked about the history of this lovely wee genre. I've even talked about how it works. Now it's about time I start putting it all together. It's going to take weeks. The progression will be fractured and distracted with all the usual nonsense - journal entries, updates on my PhD, spurious argument and obviously football books as I find them. [It's been beyond mental in thesimplestgame back office. It's nice to be back]

The first question I need to address is... Is football fiction really a genre?

Football fiction may have started with Shakespeare. In act one, scene four of King Lear (1606), the Earl of Kent kicks and taunts Oswald with the line, “Nor tripped neither, you base football player.” I have read too that there are references in The Comedy of Errors (1592). So, it's possible that football fiction has been around for longer than the modern version of the game, which developed some 260 years later. I doubt it though.

In Ray of the Rovers: the working class heroine in popular football fiction 1915-1925 Alethea Melling puts football fiction's roots in working-class “factory or dialect fiction”. But there are examples of football fictions existing before that. In The Encyclopedia of British Football, Cox and company do a good job of contextualising the history of 'football literature', but in following Alethea's lead, they spurn the chance to create a definition themselves.

The only other uses of the term football fiction I have encountered are for classification purposes on the East Sussex (England) public library website and on a gay erotic fan fiction site. I hope the two never get mixed up, the East Sussex WI's knickers' would be so twisted for so long, there would be tears in every brown eye.

In an attempt to broaden the field to include other forms of football writing (a practice I want to steer things away from), including non-fiction, plays, revues, photography collections and poetry, DJ Taylor, in Rally Round You Havens! and John Turnbull, Thom Satterlee and Alon Raab, in The Global Game have assigned the collective works of football writing the distinction of being soccer or football literature.

This was the definition I developed (in an earlier blog). It raised a couple of eyebrows during the auld confirmation process.

Any work of fiction with a significant reliance on football as a central or substantive element of the narrative.

It's still a little spongy. It'll need some reworking, particularly around what qualifies as significant or substantive, but what it does is offer a centre spot, somewhere to play from until the field firms up. Otherwise where would you start?

Do you include Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave (1969) for example? As John Turnbull pointed out on this site, it’s about a boy and his bird, but there is also a single, narratively ‘significant’, 20 page game (in a book of 159 pages). Do you include John King’s The Football Factory (1996) even though the reader rarely sees any actual football?

Albert Camus and the boy Nabakov have both written about football - particularly their own experiences as players, (see the Global Game site, its full of great stuff like this), should I consider their work? The Plague (1970) is full of football references, well not full, but it is mentioned a number of times.

I would say no to Shakespeare on the grounds of historical perspective. King’s trilogy The Football Factory , Head Hunters (1997) and England Away (1998), works of stunning violence and football hooliganism, are saturated in the parlance of football culture and are assuredly first eleven. Barry Hines makes the subs bench as Billy Casper, the wee boy in A Kestrel for a Knave, is colourfully and clearly developing as a character in the scene that, more importantly, is a sustained description of a football game. As for Camus and Nabakov, I’m not so sure.

This all seems well and good, except people have been making stuff up about football since football began; in skewed match reports, transfer speculation filled newspapers, websites and ‘pub-storytellers’ recounting great events. If you counted everyone who’d allegedly attended Scotland’s defeat of England, then reigning World Champions, in 1967 in Glasgow, the stadium would have been filled at least three times over.

It'll do though. More next week.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Detached from the world…still chasing the ball

thesimplestgame must apologise to regular readers for the less than regular service here over the last couple of weeks. My life has been given a fairly hefty doing by the PhD confirmation process. I’ve now completed and submitted the document. I can honestly say that the 140 page academic ‘tour de force’ was one of the most difficult tasks I have ever undertaken and I still have the presentation and the gruelling 5 person panel interview/review to do.

Such an intense period of thought, research and study has left my battered, bruised and bloodied brain feeling like it’s been sitting on a hot plate for the last six weeks, or in a bain-marie. Either way it’s kind of soft, hot and sweaty. A less than nutritious goo has been beading my ears since last thursday.

Every time I’ve sat down to knock over the latest spraff on football fiction the front heated window of my mind steams over and I can’t get started. It’s the reason for the delay in posting this week. It’s not a block of writerliness as such. It’s simply a matter of unravelment. Like an auld woolly jumper on a washing line in the rain, my brain feels like it's come apart in fairly substantial sections. The re-enravelment process is not happening as quickly as I had hoped. As you can see from this here word deposit, it’s still too difficult to concentrate for long enough to throw a couple of lines together.

My thesis is about football fiction. Specifically the differences between young adult and adult works. To do this I’ve graphed and historicised the sociology of fictional football writing. It’s been really interesting. I’ve blended work from people we’ve seen on this site, such as DJ Taylor and John Turbull with work by cultured theorists like Steve Redhead, Alethea Melling and the writers of the Encyclopedia of British football. I’ve also come up with some of my own ideas on the genre – which is the way of things I suppose.

I’ve broken the genre down – because I can say with some authority that it is a genre – into streams and movements, which I will discuss when I’m feeling a little more attached to the world.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

its criminal.

Crime-related football fiction is a world unto itself. I nearly said underworld. It started a way back in the day, we're talking the 1920s and 30s here. Sydney Horler's Tiger Standish series probably aren't strictly crime but they are crime-related and more importantly, we here at the simplest game think they're great.

Tiger was a secret service agent who banged the goals away on the weekend and banged the bad guys away during the week. Barring hiccups, replays and midweek European ties obviously. Mind you, you'd have to presume the Euro ties would've been great cover for catching up with the international bad guys.

Plenty of thrills, the review in the Evening News said at the time. His real name was the Honourable Timothy Overbury Standish. He's the son of the Earl of Quorn, Master of the Quorn Hunt (that'd have to be some kind of vegetarian picnic), a better than bond style secret service agent and the finest centre forward in the land. What a Guy! He was so inspirational, Benny, his butler, followed him through four years of war in Flanders and then played on the left wing for his team - it's absolutely champion stuff.
Here's a wee sample I found elsewhere...
A pipe, a dog and a golf club : if you want to win the heart of a man, give him one of these. And when I say a man, I mean a MAN - not one of these emasculated cigarette smokers.

My other favourites of the day are Leonard Gribble's The Arsenal Stadium Mysteries (1939 and 1950). There were two of them - he pushed the boat out coming up with a name for the sequel. It was called The Replay. They were serialised in the papers. Gribble was allowed unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the Arsenal stadium and team. He cut a deal with the Chairman of the club and included actual players and their names in the mysteries - like they were playing themselves in a movie. Imagine getting a deal like that now. He also wrote They Kidnapped Stanley Mathews which was about, you guessed it, the kidnap of a famous player. Loads of fun.

There's also Gerald Verner's Football Pools Murder (1939). I've not been able to learn anything about it so far - apart from what the title tells you. John Creasey's Inspector West Kicks Off (1949), is a murder mystery which leads Inspector West on a trail from the body discovered at a football match, through the echelons of big club football and into the world of organised crime. The other book I'd love to learn more about is Cup Final Murder by Brendan Newman (1950).

Next week I'll have a look at the comtemporary offerings in the crime-related football fiction movement. In the meantime if anyone could tell me more, or at least anything, about these books I'd sure appreciate it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

the Global Game meets the simplest game part 3

This is the final part of John Tunbull's interview for thesimplestgame, but I am absolutely positive that this will not be the last time his words will appear on this site. John Turnbull, editor of the glorious collection of football writing The Global Game, is the guru of football writing. I've just read one of his papers about football journalism and I've got to tell you, the guy really knows his gear. But I'll get to that in the next couple of weeks. The book is a remarkable piece of work. I'll be reviewing it soon too. These are the rest of John's answers...

thesimplestgame: What about football appeals to you as a writer and reader?
John Turnbull: Football contains the world. I cannot imagine an aspect of human experience – faith, fellowship, politics, language, law, love, resistance – that could not be addressed by considering the football ground. It is probably the most subtext-heavy sport on the planet. For a writer with interests in theology and international affairs and cross-cultural study and language, football offers all these ingredients.

My interest in football as a reader really began with Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow – a beautiful title, especially in the original Spanish, El fútbol a sol y sombra. After referring to the “astonishing void” in academic histories of the region, Galeano demonstrates how football bears much in Latin American society and culture. His is not a rhapsodic, nostalgic treatment. He is critical of the sport as spectacle that, in the modern day, is “organized not for play but rather to impede it.” That the best football writing might accommodate such perspectives of melancholy and loss – the game’s shadow side – is a strength.

tsg:There seems to be a general belief that men prefer reading non-fiction over fiction – it’s been put forward as one of the reasons for the dearth of football fiction. Another theory is that footballers are better at expressing themselves with a ball than a pen. Why do you think there is so little fiction about a sport that is so popular?

JT: The problem with the statement is the assumption that only men would be interested in football fiction. I suppose it is an explainable bias. Decisions about football books in English, to a large extent, come from publishing houses and agents in London. And as Steven Wells says, “From the British perspective, football is a measure of masculinity. It’s actually more important than possessing a penis.” Therefore, from commissioning editors lacking in imagination, with pounds sterling and the euro as the only frames of reference, we get fed a diet of hooligan memoirs (aka “hoolie porn”) and ghosted biography.

There might be some parallel in fiction to Galeano’s observation concerning the absence of sport from academic histories. Football exists in a nether region between intellect and emotion, aesthetic and kitsch. On the one hand, many writers and intellectuals see the game as too common to inspire higher sentiments; at the same time, our stereotypical image of sports fans is that they do not respond to appeals to the mind and reason. Yet clubs in the UK such as Tottenham, Barnsley and Brighton and Hove Albion have or have had poets in residence. Why not novelists in residence? Or philosophers in residence?

Jorge Valdano alone would disprove the thesis that footballers are incapable of narrating their own experience. I imagine that talented writers are no more or less common among footballers than in the rest of the population. It is open to question whether non-English-speaking footballers receive better educations or are more broad-minded than counterparts in the UK, USA, Australia and so on. From Australia, for example, the late Johnny Warren has written eloquently on football’s capacity to transcend cultural and ethnic divides.

But Alexei Smertin, a Russian player with experience at Chelsea, Portsmouth and Charlton, mentions to Marc Bennetts in Football Dynamo the challenges of learning English when “surrounded by guys whose vocabulary is limited to ‘fuck,’ and who make mistakes with grammatical tenses. ... I found it quite hard to communicate with English people in a non-football environment.” Bennetts has also quizzed Russian footballers on their favorite books. One popular selection is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Smertin also likes Nabokov and Balzac.

tsg: Do you think there is a defined market for football literature, particularly fiction?
JT: The answer depends on the market that one considers. Certainly one would have better success pitching a football novel in Barcelona than New York. Having said that, I am aware of several novels in the United States on the “soccer mom” theme – bodice rippers about women whose overcharged libidos stray far from the touchlines.

John Turnbull's interview has been something of an enlightenment. An education in football writing. thesimplestgame is very, very grateful. We would like to thank John for his help, his time, his generosity and his patience. Thanks John.

You can have a look at excerts from John, Thom and Alon's book or even buy it at The Global Game The site really is worth a look.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Global Game meets the simplest game part 2

John Turnbull is the editor of a colourful, often beautiful and equally riotous, truly international, collection of football writing called The Global Game. But I told you that last week. I’ve now read a whole lot more of the book. It's a remarkable piece of work. I'll tell you more when I review it. Right now I want to post some more of the answers John generously gave when we spoke to him about football fiction.

thesimplestgame: Ian Plenderleith said good writing about sport avoids action on the field of play as much as possible. Nick Hornby said there's enough drama in football as it is without people needing to make up stories about it. Would you agree with either of them?

John Turbull: It is true that little content in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer describes match action. Orhan Pamuk’s comment is suggestive: football is faster than words.

Matches tend best to be described in the recollection, when the action can be parsed and account made of the writer’s perspective as supporter or participant. Ian Plenderleith himself, in “Save of the Day,” describes his protagonist making a series of stops in goal, but the narrative keeps its distance. “My life at that time,” the narrator says, “was in fact a series of mental football games.” Other writers have made use of the unique existential position of the goalkeeper to help get around this conundrum – the need to describe action at a pace faster than that possible on a page. A notable example is Peter Handke in The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Albert Camus and Vladimir Nabokov have drawn on their time as young players – both goalkeepers – with Nabokov famously saying that, at Cambridge, he served less as the keeper of goal than “keeper of a secret.” The goalkeeper, to Nabokov, is “lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender.” He continues, writing in Conclusive Evidence:

I was crazy about goal keeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with an aura of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entranced small boys. He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His sweater, his peaked cap, his knee-guards, the gloves protruding from the hip-pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team.

One of the most sustained descriptions of match action I have encountered, in English, is that by Barry Hines in A Kestrel for a Knave (1968). Again the young hero, Billy Casper, is a goalkeeper – and not a very committed one. At one point he climbs onto the crossbar “to scratch his arm pits, kicking his legs and imitating chimp sounds.”

One criterion for composing credible match action might be that the matches do not replicate fixtures in the real world. Were one to insert 10 pages of Arsenal v. West Ham in a novel – unless something were happening in the stands (as in Yury Olesha’s Envy), or the account were written from a fractured, Joycean perspective (like the match description in Antonio Skármeta’s I Dreamt the Snow Was Burning) – it is hard to imagine how this would serve exposition. (Chris Cleave’s Incendiary is based on an attack at Emirates Stadium during Arsenal-Chelsea, but I have not read the book.) But given that the authors above have integrated their own memories and imaginings into a world they have created, with their own characters and narrative logic, the football matches they describe take on meaning. Consider that the football scene in Hines’s Kes consumes 20 pages (the match itself is roughly eight pages) of a fairly short novel – Hines must have felt that the football evoked important qualities in Casper’s character.

I should also mention that as I write about “match action” and descriptions of such, I think of a male-centered world. This is a bias that is hard to discard. It might be interesting to analyze how Nalinaksha Bhattacharya, in Hem and Football and Hem and Maxine, integrates football action within novels involving a principally female cast.

Regarding Nick Hornby’s comment, I would be interested to learn more about the context. I suppose, if you think about Zidane’s head-butt near the conclusion of the 2006 World Cup final, it would be hard to create a more dramatic football scenario on the page. Yet if one were to construct a story that integrates Zidane’s upbringing in stretched circumstances in Marseilles, his conflicted heritage as a Berber and Frenchman, his talismanic role on a timeless green zone of fantasy, liberated for 90-minute intervals from all inhibition ... the climax might appear still more thunderous.

Hornby himself has written a lovely fable, Small Country of a boy press-ganged into playing for the national XI of the mythical Champina. (He read the story, part of a McSweeney’s collection published in New York, on an American radio program in 2005.) So, it’s likely that Hornby would wish to nuance this statement, if he has not done so already.

Part 3 of this interview will follow next week. In the meantime I've set about tracking down some of the books he mentions. At least the ones I haven't got yet.

thesimplestgame are extremely grateful for John's time and generosity in providing us with so much material for the site and for the PhD. Thank you John.

You can have a look at excerts from John, Thom and Alon's book or even buy it at The Global Game