A Natural is the story of a football dressing room. It's a lower league dressing room (specifically League 2, aka The Fourth Division). This is the bottom rung of professional football - below it is a land of semi-professionals, tradies by day and footballers at the weekend. The dressing room is populated by jaded old pros who have tried, and mostly failed, at higher league clubs; young kids torn between ambition and hope on the one hand and the trapdoor to non-league on the other; and just occasionally, the rare man who is comfortable being a hero in a small town. For all of them, there is the spectre of their contract end date and the question of whether it will be renewed.
Specifically, the story focuses on four characters: Tom Pearman, a young footballer who was released at the end of his scholarship with his home town club; Chris Easter, the club captain; Leah, Easter's wife; and Liam Davey, the groundsman. Each has their own demons; none terribly happy with their lives. Yet despite this, the public demand for a "club" in which everyone is matey, blokey and carefree pervades everything. There is horseplay, drinking, clubbing and banter.
We see the reality, though. A precarious career, depending so often on the last performance and the last mistake. Lives are controlled by coaches who dole out free time, permission to have a drink; set bedtimes; and humiliate those who don't fit in. Footballers spending their lives on the road; ploughing up motorways between their home town, club town, away games and just driving round to get headspace away from their teammates. They live in guesthouses, hotels, temporary rentals. They have no stable friendships, no time to put down roots. At he whim of the coach, they can be living in another city with barely a couple of days' notice, playing for a different team, being idolised by a different set of supporters.
So what happens if one of the players is gay? There has only ever been one openly gay professional footballer in England (Justin Fashanu) and he ended up taking his own life. Homophobia is rife in football and is tolerated when turned on both one's opponents and one's own team. Managers have gone on record to say that it could never be acceptable to have a gay player in the team; players have taunted one another when they don't fit the laddish stereotype. Everywhere in British society, we have had gay people breaking down the barriers and claiming their part in the world: ay rock stars; gay TV presenters; gay MPs, gay clergy; gay CEOs; gay police. But no gay footballers. And as A Natural demonstrates, football is a hermetically sealed world in which participants have been immersed since early teens. The managers and coaches have never been in the real world; the journalists have either come from the same world or are in awe of it. There is no place to challenge these preconceptions. Indeed, there were even still hints of racial prejudice on display in A Natural to an extend that would see such people drummed out of any other corporation in disgrace. A Natural was a sad indictment of the forced social compliance of the football world.
But sadly, the novel did not feel quite equal to the ideas. The split focus between the four main characters felt a bit choppy and uneven. Whilst Tom seemed well-drawn and fully realised, I never quite believed in Chris and Leah Easter, and especially not in Liam Davey. They did not seem to have sufficient depth or history; their actions sometimes seemed unpredictable and driven by unclear motive. They did not seem to be consistent in how they related to one another. And in Leah's case, she brought a confusing array of friends and acquaintances who were hard to tell apart and even harder to understand.
The pacing was slow. Especially towards Christmas in the first season, events seemed to drag out interminably. And then, having set the scene, things didn't really start to go anywhere until well into the second season. The ending came suddenly and didn't quite feel like an ending - if the reader could even fathom what was happening (and I'm not sure this reader quite managed it). The writing was quite downbeat which fitted well with the dreariness of the footballers' lives, but tended to add to the feeling that this was going on for a bit too long.
Oh, and as for "Town"... I never did quite believe in it. Clearly designed to be a neutral generic - on the south coast, playing in green and red (a colour combination unknown in England), recently promoted from the Conference. But nobody refers to a football club as Town. United, perhaps. City or Villa. But not Town. And did we really believe that someone who had only ever appeared a couple of times as a substitute for the local League 2 outfit would be recognised wherever he went?
A Natural is quite good - very good in parts - but it just doesn't quite deliver on the high promise of the opening pages.