While it would be surprising – statistically, if nothing else – for all four thousand male professional footballers in England to be straight, it’s not hard to see why any gay players might choose to keep their sexuality private, not least because the chairman of the English FA recently declared he would hesitate to encourage them to do otherwise for fear of the abuse they might receive. In 1999, nine months after the suicide of Justin Fashanu, still the only professional player in England to have come out as gay, the Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler theatrically offered his backside to an opponent, Graeme Le Saux, who had long been a target of homophobic chants (he isn’t gay but was known to read The Guardian and take an interest in art).
This is the terrain of Ross Raisin’s new novel, A Natural, which follows Tom, a skilful young winger released by the Premier League club he joined as a boy in his northern hometown. He signs for a struggling fourth-tier side – always referred to as Town, even when we’re shown the league table – playing ‘big-man hoofball’ under an old-school manager, Clarke, who scolds his captain for being ‘as quiet as a rapist’. Morale is low after one especially heavy midweek drubbing:
They stopped for takeaways on the way back, and the air of the coach became thick with the rich cheesy stink of two-for-one pizzas. Tom ate his slices slowly, looking out of the window at the hurtling dark while Clarke proceeded up the aisle, stopping at each seat to say, softly, ‘Cunt’ to every player along the way.
By Christmas the team has won only once and Tom’s passing game is under pressure in more ways than one. Part of the novel’s early tension comes from watching how someone who gives the impression he’d rather stay in with the cactus plants that he arranges carefully on the windowsill of his digs manages to hold his own in an atmosphere of hazing and lurid nights out – ‘girls, Jägers’, as Town’s burly centre back puts it, arranging a do that culminates in the team’s youngest players being cheered on as they get blowjobs on a nightclub podium, the camera phone footage to be reviewed at leisure on the team bus.
When Tom nudges a teammate, saying ‘You seen this? It’s fucking class’, we know the words sound odd in his mouth, but no one seems to notice, as we’re able to, that he’s disguising (and possibly hiding from) himself. It’s a state of affairs spotlit in an early passage in which he notices his father noticing him in turn as he eyes Town’s young groundsman, Liam, a former youth team goalkeeper with a secret of his own.
Although A Natural isn’t only for football fans, even if they may be the constituency most in need of its message, one of its many virtues is the way it dramatises how poisonous and ruthless the sport can be while never losing sight of its potential for beauty and excitement. Coupled with Tom’s inner conflict over his attraction to Liam is the surging drama of Town’s bid to avoid relegation, unfolding against a merry-go-round of individual triumphs and setbacks. We’re fully involved in the lives of the entire squad as well as their families, friends and professional hangers-on, including a local pressman ‘in a shirt so threadbare that his cold pink skin shone through it, waiting to secure a quote for the next day’s paper’. The buried frustrations of a pair of secondary characters ignite a combustible plot of betrayal and shame: a club captain is re-signed after a calamitous spell three divisions up and hundreds of miles away in Middlesbrough, where his wife, Leah, tailed him with their small son; now he’s surly with a broken leg and she wants out.
Raisin’s writing is clean and quiet, always seeking to move forward rather than stop the show, with a keen sense of how to create momentum by leaving things out between paragraphs. It’s the kind of voice, perhaps, that young English male writers sought until Martin Amis blazed a flashier trail, though Raisin isn’t short of descriptive flair. Witness the opening lines, where Tom, on the team bus, observes the bare buttocks of his fellow players ‘pressed to the glass like a row of supermarket chicken breasts’ as they put on a show for passing drivers; but what’s most admirable about this scene is how slyly it lays down a central irony about the kinds of physicality that are socially acceptable between men. Even before this first page, the highly calculated title – ostensibly a quotation from something said about Tom’s ability on the pitch – is already working subliminally, sliding unstoppably into ‘unnatural’, evoking Tom’s recurring fear about his desires.
The trend for autofiction, as well as anxieties about cultural appropriation, makes Raisin appear something of a throwback in his endeavour to evoke sympathy for the vulnerable and disadvantaged protagonists of his novels. God’s Own Country (2008) follows a mentally ill farmer’s son; Waterline (2011) tells the story of a homeless ex-shipbuilder. Raisin risks not solipsism but sentimentality; Waterline, in particular, could leave you unsure if he is seeking to induce pity more than understanding. A Natural is a vast advancement on Raisin’s already considerable achievement in these earlier novels – broader in focus, eschewing the interiority of his previous novels without sacrificing intimacy.
It’s a sign of Raisin’s nose for complexity as well as his nous in providing opportune doses of light and shade that he gives plenty of airtime to Tom’s turmoil without downplaying his honest-to-goodness lust, never skated over and allowed to come fully into focus during an off-season holiday abroad that provides a change of scene from furtive encounters in Liam’s toolshed. The taste of freedom nonetheless requires the precaution of separate flights, and A Natural gains inbuilt tension from football’s insistence that a gay player is an oxymoron. The more you read, the more you need to know how things turn out for Tom; yet even in the tingling finale, when he’s the star of a cup tie against a team from the Premier League for which he was meant to be not good enough, you’re reminded that this story isn’t all about him. So deft is Raisin’s dissection of the peculiarly stubborn taboo at A Natural’s heart that you’re left hoping, paradoxically, that this exceptional novel will one day fade into a period piece that leaves readers wondering what on earth all the fuss was about.