What are the best novels written about football? If you’ve got a contender in mind, odds are that it’s either a little-known book from a little-known author, a novel which doesn’t centre on football but only features it, or The Damned United.
Understandably a fair amount of what’s out there is football fiction books for boys – which makes sense given that it can be an all-consuming interest at that age. I read and enjoyed a few of Michael Hardcastle’s novels when I was growing up, lightweight novels centring around junior boys’ teams that I remember enjoying reading, but which left no lasting impact on me.
There also seems to be a market for football hooligan books, but realistically that’s centring around a subculture tangentially related to football rather than the game itself.
The football fiction that break into wider awareness tends to receive more ridicule than praise. For example the football manager Steve Bruce self-published a series of novel starring a football manager (Steve Barnes) who keeps getting dragged into murder investigations. The ridicule they’ve received is is a little unfair. Not because the books are good, which doesn’t seem to be the case, but because they seem to have been written for the fun of writing them, completing a trilogy during 1999.
Bruce isn’t alone as a footballer dipping his toe into the world of fiction. Theo Walcott, Jimmy Greaves and Terry Venables have also written novels about football – the latter being the fantastically titled They Used to Play on Grass.
Given the centrality of football to British culture (and many others) it’s surprising that so little high-quality writing has successfully appealed to this niche. I’d only heard of three of the ten novels picked out by the Guardian as representing the best of football fiction. An article by The Independent on writing about football describes the fiction category as “an extremely thin field”.
Football provides a huge amount of the kind of drama a half-decent writer could exploit. A football club’s dressing room is a workplace or community with a common purpose, the kind of pressure which causes conflict between characters and reveals character flaws. The television writer Kay Mellor’s TV drama Playing The Field has been described as having “a wide mix of characters that would, under other circumstances, be unlikely to meet”, and I’m sure I can recall an interview in which Mellor said she had little interest in football but saw it as a way to bring the characters together. (Mellor has also written dramas set in a weight loss club and lottery syndicate, but no other fiction set inside a football club.)
As well as drama, football offers a chance to discuss artistry and communal psychology. For example the hugely popular Norwegian autobiographical writer Karl Ove Knausgaard co-wrote a series of football discussions ahead of the 2014 World Cup.
In Home and Away Knausgaard genially champions the attritional side of the game while Ekelund makes the case for the romance of Brazil. “It’s a Protestant thing, you know? You are not supposed to have a beautiful surface,” he tells me as the starters arrive. “I think that’s in my bones, that way of looking at things.” Even so, the pragmatism does break down at times. He finds it hard to support Germany, surely the ultimate footballing Protestants; and his favourite player is Andrea Pirlo, that most cultured of midfield liberos. “It’s kind of a constructed opposition,” Knausgaard admits. “It is great to write about football because there are no obligations, there’s no meaning basically in it. It’s just this square and what’s happening right then.”
Does football have a meaning? On one level no, it’s just a silly game. On another level, jobs and financial independence can be dependent on the success or failure of a team, and the game can go a long way to cheering people up and providing a social structure for the community. Albert Camus enigmatically spoke of learning his morality from playing as a junior-level goalkeeper. And that’s really only scratching the surface of what a football novel can explore.
When advising those who want to follow in his footsteps, the children’s football novelist Mal Peet’s first tip is “Don’t. It’s too hard. Write about wizards or zombies or bad-ass girls or something easy like that.”
I’d partially agree with Peet in that other genres are better defined – the tropes are so well-established in the public imagination that it’s easier to follow or deliberately subvert them. But the flip-side of this is that it must be easier for a football novelist to stand out, to make original observations about how football culture works, its strengths and flaws. And there’s been plenty of non-fiction writing about football culture to draw on.
The Conversation have argued that football deserves more fiction, fiction that “reflects the changing culture around the game, the fans and the media, and offers a creative and imaginative space to understand and explore the sport’s place in culture at a deeper level”. It seems achievable. Fever Pitch, A Life Too Short and Best and Edwards are all football non-fiction written in a style and quality which would have worked as narrative fiction, works of character and drama. Although football non-fiction has a tendency to examine teams and trends from a distance, I’m sure there’s plenty of other works in that mould which I’m not familiar with.
So why isn’t there more football fiction?
Possibly a snobbishness prevents middle-class writers from understanding a culturally working-class sport? That doesn’t explain why working class writers like Irvine Welsh haven’t done so. (There is an argument that football has played an important part in his fiction, but nothing so overt and central as his film about darts.)
Possibly the result of artistic types and sporting types being divergent personalities who have little understanding of each other? This is unlikely – famous creatives like Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas and Rod Stewart are prominent football fans, and there are overlaps between the two groups, such as Eric Cantona and the footballer turned artist Jody Craddock.
Possibly because the average reader knows so much about the football industry from the omnipresent sports media that it’s harder to write fiction that appears to be accurate? This appears a better theory than most, but surely can’t totally explain such a notable cultural absence.
One of the leading contenders to fill this void would be Nick Hornby. But he admits he tried to avoid writing about fiction after the success of Fever Pitch out of fear of being pigeonholed, and has even argued that there’s enough excitement in the real thing to mean there’s no need for fiction. But by that logic, the amount of television detective drama means there’s no need for detective novels.
Whatever the cause, it’s interesting to have such a large cultural void.