Nailing colours to the mast here – I come from a family of West Ham supporters. However, I tend to get distracted from the actual football by everything else in life and don’t really keep up with teams, matches or much else. (Also, this season, I’ve been looking the other way because we’ve not had a very good year…). I’ll always root for Bradford City – who can forget that Cup run in 2015 – but West Ham is the team closest to my heart. For some people, however, football is an all-consuming passion – they know the players, the stats, the names of all the support staff, who supplies the best pies, where the reserve team train: everything. And this isn’t just for the big name clubs in the Premiership, Serie A, the Bundesliga or La Liga – small, local teams can inspire just as great an obsession. Possibly more since you are more likely to have either been to school with the goalie or bump into the Chairman at the local chippie. I, personally, love this kind of local support – it takes it back to the days when your team was about your town, not about who can buy the best players regardless of where they are from…Anyway, this is a bit of a digression but it is, at least tangentially, relevant to Ross Raisin’s latest book.
Raisin seems to specialise in writing about the male psyche – and especially about men in difficult emotional situations. We read about women going through hard times a lot – and in some excellent books – but men’s emotional issues are often overlooked. Raisin’s first book was about a troubled youth in rural Yorkshire and his second about a middle-aged Glaswegian dealing with grief and homelessness – now this one looks at professional footballers. Of course, most of what we hear about this group – the inflated salaries, lavish lifestyles and drunken antics – means that we don’t expect to sympathise with the characters but the realities of the day-to-day life of young men in the lower reaches of the English leagues seem much harder. We follow two players through the novel – Tom, released by the Premiership side he played for as a schoolboy, and Easter, the team captain who is losing his form – but are shown the experiences of many men. Youths earning £1000 a week, perhaps, with no-one to stop them developing expensive gambling habits, entire teams at the mercy of bullying managers and the weaknesses of their own bodies: when to be injured is to risk losing your place in the team but not giving your all physically runs the same risk. And, above all, the impossibility of showing any emotion in an environment where the fear of appearing to be anything less than a ‘manly’ man is paramount. And, of course, all in an environment where men are regularly in physical contact and frequently naked – the only thing feared more than being thought to be gay is actually being gay. In this atmosphere we explore the emotional repression and self-hatred of men at the peak of physical health but suffering mentally. Not such a cushy life, after all.