BY ANDREW MOODY
In the Irvine Welsh dominated past twenty years of football fiction (Welsh was the mentor of FOOTBALL FACTORY and ENGLAND AWAY scribe John King) violence, socialism and hard drugs have gone hand in hand with the beautiful game which is why Gareth R Roberts’ 2013 fictionalised memoir of West Ham legend Billy Parks was such a touching and refreshing read – Whatever Happened to Billy Parks?
“October 17th 1973: The Greatest Disaster in the history of English football. All England had to do was beat Poland to qualify for the world cup. They didn’t. They drew. Sitting on the bench that night was a forgotten genius, West Ham’s Billy Parks. Beautiful, gifted, and totally flawed.”
The book opens at a one man show run by Billy Parks:
“There are two bar stools on the small makeshift stage. One for me, and one for my whisky tumbler. The crowd like that. A little visual joke, just to break the ice.”
Narrated by Parks, by now an alcoholic living off vodka and past glories of the audience, the story breaks down a time when football was played by brilliant working men, a goal for your side could keep a factory or a mineshaft happy for a week. A time when heroes were the real deal, when a teenage Parks marked a spot in his garden and hit it 200 times with each foot and began again should he miss even one.
The primary structure of the story surrounds the surreal Council of Football Immortals: Sir Alf Ramsay, Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankley, Don Revie and Brian Clough.
They are offering Billy a chance to go back in time and score the sitter Kevin Hector missed against Poland in 1973. Well, they haven’t decided between Parks and Kevin Keegan. If Billy Parks can quit the booze and make peace with his estranged daughter, he may have a shot at England glory. Roberts has researched both his subject and his narrator expertly, and this supernatural edge to the tale fits in perfectly, football sometimes taking on ecstatic levels of emotion within the winning crowd.
The Irvine Welsh & John Kings have always equated football with working class rage, in this lovingly told tale it is about working-class pride. Parks is a charming and vulnerable man, dealing with the suicide of his war-scarred father and absent mother, and now, in older age, dealing with alcoholism and his own mistakes as a husband, father and grandfather.
I was pleased with the total lack of violence. THE FOOTBALL FACTORY is primarily known for the Danny Dyer – it remains the favourite film of most 15 year old cokeheads with a switchblade and no G.C.S.Es.
It’s a short book, around 260 pages, but beautifully and subtly written, with none of the Welsh pretension or King showboating. Not only that, but there is a patchwork of legendary footballers from the 60’ and 70’s, and it intricately weaves the history of the game from the era in a manner that appears clean and effortless.
It also describes the luck that Parks had by having talent in a post-war era, the rest of his schoolmates were doomed to the factory or the pit.
The first person narrative never skips a beat, celebrating the glory of being a world class footballer in the age of the miniskirt and the round of lager.
“Outside on the school pitch, we were put into two teams…I knew what was about to happen. The gods of football had meant for this….Eventually there was only one player left between me and the penalty area, Larry McNeil. His face contorted with pathetic rage as he rushed towards me; silly arse, never play the man, always play the ball…I put the ball in the back of the net.”
Parks is an innocent, by no means a fighting man, and I send my gratitude to the author for bringing the true spirit of the great game back to the 1960s. There is no mention of the Krays or the Richardsons or the crime Empires of East End London. This is a purer book than that.
In the era of the France 2019 Women’s World Cup, perhaps this book sheds a final tear for when football was the last bastion of masculinity.
Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction