Ian Plenderleith is the author of the major new football novel, The Chairman’s Daughter. And how often is it possible to give that kind of build-up to any fictional treatment of football, which is traditionally about as taut, inviting and relevant as a deflated £2.99 unofficial Manchester United funball in a bargain bin outside Sports Direct.
A Lincoln City fan now residing in Washington DC, Ian has long been a When Saturday Comes regular and is the author of the acclaimed short story collection, For Whom the Ball Rolls. GNG caught up with Ian on his recent transatlantic visit, and asked him some questions about his antidote to football fiction’s long malaise.
We’ll follow up this week with an exclusive extract from the novel, available now as an ebook via Amazon. For now, best just mention that it’s journey inside the head of a professional footballer once tipped as England’s saviour, and now reduced to playing at the eleventh level for the fourth best team in Lincoln.
Think of of Brian Glanville’s The Rise of Gerry Logan and Robin Jenkins’ The Thistle and the Grail. Update 50 years. Add spice, filth, cash, double-dealing, rudeness, racism and arsey humour…
GNG: Football fiction might best be described as a troubled genre. Whether in books or films, football and fiction tend not to mix well.
IP: That’s broadly true, as anyone who’s watched Sean Bean in ‘When Saturday Comes’ will know. There’s a perception that made-up stories about football shouldn’t progress beyond the pre-teen market and Boy’s Own storylines. But there’s a whole other side to football fiction that’s undiscovered. Just as we’ve seen that biographies by lower-league journeymen footballers are much more compelling and honest than ghost-written hack jobs by the likes of Rooney and Ashley Cole. The genre suffers from a bad reputation because of too many cheap attempts to cash in on football rather than back something creative and original.
GNG: Can you give us some examples of compelling football fiction?
IP: When I was kid my favourite book was Brian Glanville’s ‘Goalkeepers Are Different’. I read it seven times and wore out two copies. It was aimed at boys, but it felt like a really authentic book narrated by a real professional. Some of Glanville’s football short stories are equally superb, as are his ‘adult’ sports novels ‘The Rise of Gerry Logan’, about a Scottish pro making it in the English game, and The Olympian’, about a middle-distance runner.
GNG: So up until you, it’s Glanville or nothing?
IP: Ha ha, not exactly. JL Carr’s ‘How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup’ is very charming and English. More recently, Anthony Cartwright’s ‘Heartland’ – a superb book about racial tension set in Birmingham during the 2002 World Cup – was sadly overlooked. And my other favourite football novel is ‘The Thistle and The Grail’ by Robin Jenkins, set in Scottish junior football during the 1950s. The book is as much about post-war smalltown Scotland as it is about football, but football is the book’s thematic glue.
GNG: Your new novel ‘The Chairman’s Daughter’ is also set in non-league football. And way down the pyramid at “Lincoln’s fourth-best team”.
IP: I think the further down the grid you go, the more fascinating the game is. You look at the size of some clubs, and wonder how they survive, yet they all have their own structure, their own characters, and their own place in football. There are thousands of untold stories here, and it’s fertile ground for fiction once you set up the necessary contradictions that are just as present in fiction as they are in real life. And so you have the small but ambitious club who take on a perennially injured pro who can no longer find a place at the top of the game. And the club’s owner is a black entrepreneur in a city that’s historically not very diverse. And you have the chairman’s daughter who’s contractually off limits, but who is immediately intriguing to the conflicted narrator, who’s never managed to get what he really wants (an England cap), but who at 30 might be ready to start fulfilling other ambitions.
GNG: Without wanting to give anything away, the ending suggests that the story might not be over.
IP: The story is definitely not over. The story is never over.
GNG: It’s over ten years since your football short story collection ‘For Whom The Ball Rolls’. Has anything changed in the market to suggest the world is ready for another attempt to sell a football novel?
IP: Not yet. The probem is that it’s a vicious cycle. ‘The Chairman’s Daughter’ seemed to impress several editors, who liked everything about it bar the fact that it was about football. So the problem is not that there is no good football fiction, the problem is that no one has a clue how to market good football fiction, because publishers are used to following trends, and don’t have the imagination to break new ground unless it’s accidentally broken for them.
GNG: And how do you plan to break that new ground?
IP (laughing): Relentless self-publicity until quality asserts itself in a moribund market. I should probably have called it ’50 Shades of Andy Gray’.
Have a look inside here. The ebook’s only three quid on Amazon.