Book Review: Scotball
Scotball by Stephen O’Donnell
Published by Ringwood Publishing
Following on from his impressive debut Paradise Road, reviewed in these pages earlier this month, Stephen O’Donnell’s Scotball has been a much anticipated book, promising as it does to lift the lid on the thorny issues facing the sport north of the border.
Peter Fitzpatrick, a supporting cast member from the earlier volume, returns to his canal side home town after a few years in Prague, Czech wife in tow, and uncertain as to his future. His plans resolve themselves after a lucky break in a bar in Glasgow city centre — having developed a scheme to front an intelligent, no holds-barred Scottish football comment show initially rejected by the powers be, informal networks lubricated by a few pints allow him his foot in the door.
At this point, the novel takes on the shape of an independent blogger or podcaster’s wet dream — with no discernible experience to speak of, Fitzpatrick has blagged his way on to a prime time slot on the country’s national TV channel. In this, I was put in mind of Juliet Jacques’ call to arms from a few years ago via the pages of In Bed With Maradona, a project that never came off but was no less laudable for all that.
Of course it’s a preposterous scenario but immense fun. Fitzpatrick teams up with a couple of ageing lags, one from Rangers and one from Celtic to bring to the nation a quickly popular vehicle for soccer debate, with key topics such as the Scottish national team and women’s football among those ripe for discussion.
Two strands of thought dominate however — and in sectarianism and the financial meltdown of Glasgow Rangers Football Club, O’Donnell has plenty of material to feed his characters. It is the contention that the mainstream media in Scotland are prone to skirt around both issues and the book serves as a potted guide to both.
In this, the purpose is admirable but I was left wondering if book-length non-fiction treatment might have been a better idea. The show’s transcripts are produced in full and are always entertaining but by placing opinions in the mouths of the characters, the cloak of fiction is evoked — a factual account would require systematic referencing and proof of many of the assertions (see Bill Murray’s meticulous The Old Firm also reviewed by us recently).
There is little doubt that Rangers got off lightly for their irresponsible behaviour while the brand of sectarianism practised by fans from Parkhead is, to this observer at least, less venal than that one might encounter at Ibrox. Refereeing conspiracy theories, however, can only ever be tedious and in the week where Celtic gained so little sympathy for believing they are the first team to have a decision go against them in a Scottish FA Cup semi-final, the one-sidedness of the debate does get wearing at times.
For there has to be a third way and it’s hard to see Celtic as a put upon, anti-establishment club given the way the directors of the club found common purpose with those of their rivals to slice up the Scottish footballing cake in the early 1900s and can now so easily outspend all but one of their rivals. Yes, I find Glasgow Celtic to be an iconic and admirable club in so many ways but the book could have done with a little more balance. As a native of suburban Berkshire, I’m aware that I have as much right to pronounce on the history and nature of the Celtic-Rangers rivalry as Zsa Zsa Gabor but non-partisanship is the stated credo of this website and tribalism is always something I’ll call into question.
That said — and although it is a pity the Irvine Welsh style argot of Paradise Road finds less room given Fitzpatrick’s more middle class roots than the earlier novel’s protagonist Kevin McGarry brought to the drama — the book is well written with no little humour and O’Donnell brings to the narrative much wit and warmth. His devotion to football fiction is launching a career that is well worth watching — and a third book that might rely less on personal experience and adopt a more objective viewpoint would be a very welcome addition to Scotland’s literary scene. For now, he has produced two highly promising books.