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.
You may have noticed that the greatest sporting competition in the World is on your tv,internet,radio,newspapers etc
Passions will run high. National honour is at stake.
But the sport promotes fairness, sporting excellence and equality.
Trouble and controversy in Brazil but I'm sure we will have a great tournament
Will be our year.
Red Or Dead is a long, complex and powerful novel.
In his previous works, David Peace has addressed themes of the British class system, office management, corruption and politics. His novels have tended to focus on Yorkshire, albeit with two set in post-war Japan. In Red Or Dead, David Peace departs from his usual hunting ground to narrate the career of a Scotsman managing Liverpool Football Club.
Peace has a distinctive style. He focuses on repetition and lists. Indeed, the first three words of Red Or Dead are: “repetition, repetition, repetition”. This is used to build narrative up into a kind of chant, a kind of mantra. In this novel, following 15 seasons of football matches (that’s 630 matches in the league, plus cup games, every single one mentioned), the repetition illustrates the sheer monotony of football. Match after match after match, season after season after season. Every game the same as the one before, every season the same as the one before. Yet, still the game fascinates Bill Shankly, still it fascinates the fans. And despite knowing the outcomes in advance, it fascinates the reader. This hypnotic repetition of venues, attendances, team line ups, goal scorers, position in the league table. It draws the reader in whilst, at the same time, conveying the grinding chore of it all. And sometimes there will be a happy ending at the end of the season. But, as often as not, there is disappointment and the need to start all over again next year.
David Peace does not use “he” and “she”. Characters are named, every time. Whether at Anfield Stadium or at his home on West Derby Road, we find Bill doing this and Bill doing that, obsessively, over and over again. The language is simple to the point of being monosyllabic. And with the repetition and obsessive setting out of detail, it feels almost Biblical. There is a sense that something momentous is happening. That those who see Liverpool Football Club are the chosen people, and those who meet the Messianic Bill are somehow blessed. It is obviously heavily stylized. There is no pretence that this is an accurate reflection of Bill Shankly, his speech or his mannerisms. Parts of it may be right, parts may be imagined – but ultimately it doesn’t matter. It’s the story that counts.
So to the story. Anyone of David Peace’s vintage is likely to know the Liverpool FC of the 1980s – a team that believed it had a right to win everything and was seldom disappointed. They were hard to love – unless you were one of the young people wearing Liverpool shirts to school despite never having set foot on Merseyside. Their manager, Bob Paisley, was the most successful football manager in history, yet people spoke of this mythical figure of Bob Shankly, without whom none of this would have been possible. David Peace uncovers the myth, starting with an ambitious man taking over a mediocre second division team in 1960, the watching him build and rebuild a successful team. We see a man who is independent in mind, decisive, but has emotional intelligence. Unlike Brian Clough in The Damned United, he has respect for, and is respected by his Board, his staff, his counterparts in other clubs, and the public. As a manager, he came across as level headed, grounded by an almost silent but devoted wife and his invisible daughters. He was not driven by money and shunned the symbols of status.
The reader is drawn into this culture. Even those who would support 91 clubs ahead of Liverpool (yes, including Gillingham) will find ourselves rooting for Liverpool, hoping they will lift a trophy, hoping that the history books might be wrong and that the likes of Everton, Leeds and Manchester City might be denied. Peace’s achievement in doing this is breathtaking.
As well as feeling for the club, the reader feels for the man. The endless trudging up and down the land. Travelling out, alone, on a wet and windy night to watch a player at Scunthorpe. And then doing it again. And then calling that player for a meeting in Liverpool. The distances are considerable, and football managers and their players were simply expected to be where they were needed. There is a mention at one point of sending back a bus with no heating, but that’s pretty much the only sop to creature comforts in this long novel. Mostly it is spartan.
Then, the second half of the novel (half the chapters, rather fewer than half the pages) sees Bill in his sudden, perhaps premature retirement. This is a point at which the reader’s sympathy runs out. Despite seeing his counterparts hang around their former clubs, despite his determination not to do the same, Shankly just can’t take the hint. It is painful to watch him trying to hang on, hang around, still believing he has a role even years later. In one scene, he writes a boy a note to exchange at the stadium for a behind the scenes tour. One can only wonder what the club would have made of that. Shankly betrays envy of his successor; he betrays hurt pride at being kept apart from the players. He claims perfect memory of the past, yet starts to become confused by his own stories. In two excruciating scenes, he conducts broadcast conversations with Sir Harold Wilson, whom we now know to have been diagnosed with dementia. The reader is left wondering whether Shankly is similarly afflicted.
The time of Shankly’s story – his time as a manager and his time in retirement – saw significant change in social attitudes. Shankly is portrayed as a fair man who expects his supported to applaud their victorious opponents. He eschews contracts, being a man of his word and his handshake. He expects players to earn their money and receive the same pay, regardless of status. But as time progresses, more of the players are motivated by money; the fans start rioting; the tackling becomes harder. Shankly appears to stand there, not noticing the change. And when he does see it, he simply wrings his hands helplessly. Not, of course, that Shankly was quite as pure as he made out – advising his team to get their retaliation in first and producing false evidence at an FA disciplinary hearing in an effort to exonerate his player. But perhaps that was more honest cheating.
There are also wider social issues at play. Shankly was of the age when loyalty to an employer was more common, and there was an expectation in return that the employer would be loyal to the employee. That culture still, perhaps, clings on in Japan, where David Peace now lives. In part, Red Or Dead explores this theme. But at the same time, this was a loyalty denied to his players. As Ian St John found out after being dropped into the reserves, he was not allowed to touch the big, juicy turkeys at the Christmas party – they were for the first team. Shankly told him: "it comes to all of us”. Yet, the only one who never quite got it, it seemed, was Shankly himself.
Football is an interesting backdrop for social and organisational change. It is a world where one individual can change a lot; a flat structure with only one boss. The results of change can become visible quite quickly and the feedback is immediate. Red Or Dead is a football book. It would be difficult to appreciate it if you didn’t like football. But it is so much more. It is a novel, based on fact but nevertheless fiction, exploring the soul of a man and the soul of his football club. It leaves an impression.