Book Review: A Natural
by Ross Raisin
Published by Jonathan Cape
One hundred and fifty years or so into the history of this game we know and love, there are still numerous examples of how football has yet to properly emerge from the dark ages.
The attitude of football towards homosexuality is one of the most glaring cases in point. At grassroots level, there have been great strides with Stonewall FC going from strength to strength and Football v Homophobia endorsed by the Football Association. But it’s in the ranks of the professional game that the examples of players having the confidence to come out can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Justin Fashanu and Thomas Hitzlsperger both revealed their sexuality after their careers were over and Robbie Rogers did so as he had chalked up just four appearances for Leeds United. That there are gay footballers who are yet to assert their identity is unquestionable and yet why do they not feel that they can come forward?
Ross Raisin provides some of the background is his enjoyably breezy novel, A Natural. Without wishing to give too much away, it’s about a young player of 20 years old or so, struggling to break into the first team at a fictional team newly promoted to the Football League and who developed a relationship with the club’s groundsman.
The narrative centres upon two individuals in the main – the player in question, Tom Pearman – and one of his more neanderthal team mate’s wives, a struggling wannabe fashion designer called Leah who has fallen very much out of love and who happens to be friends with the aforementioned groundsman.
For all the shocking but familiar examples of homophobia (I last played for any sort of football team in the 1990s but much of the abuse and attitudes brought back memories), it’s a novel of subtlety. Leah is shown as being in possession of the kind of low level homophobia that is likely more common these days than outright hatred while the book is strong psychologically – Pearman’s struggles to come to terms with how he is are expertly drawn.
Another team mate reacts sympathetically to being confided in and yet a later date, is drawn in to a prolonged bout of ‘banter’ – subsequently explaining to Pearman that the players ‘don’t really know what they are saying’. It’s that herd mentality that is centred upon by Raisin and the tendency of certain players to rule the roost because they are loud and are ‘characters’ – whether they are prejudiced or not and often nothing to do with how good they are at football.
Raisin, author of a superb first novel on a different theme a few years ago, God’s Own Country has also carried off his narrative of a small Football League club with aplomb and one of the advisors was friend of this blog, Jason McKeown of Bradford City site The Width of a Post. A season and a half of footballing struggle is covered in a way that relies on traditional accounts of success and failure to a degree but that always puts an interesting spin on events.
Like any football geek, one is left trying to decipher who the team Pearman plays for might be – ‘Town’ are a twenty fifth competitor in League 2 and remain elusive to identify even though they oppose real life clubs. A southern club from close to the coast, I was thinking that perhaps a Dover Athletic might be the answer but in truth, the team is portrayed anonymously.
Back to the central theme, the book continues apace and one wonders when the secrets will be spilled and how – but the denouement is satisfactorily messy and realistic with individual characters’ central motivations often in a state of flux.