The opening chapter of Fan, the new novel from Grantham born author Danny Rhodes, made me feel like this might be a book for Nottingham Forest fans of a certain age. I followed my team to Wembley to see them lift the League Cup, I was at the City Ground when we bade farewell to Brian Clough, Highbury when Brian Rice became a legend and I was at Hillsborough when a beautiful Spring day turned into a nightmare and as a teenager I came face to face with death on an awful scale. Later I even sat behind Clough at Eton Park as we both supported his son Nigel in his first steps into management. The fictional John Finch walked many of the same roads that I trod myself in real life.
It isn’t just about a personal history of following Forest, however, there is a wider social history in these pages that will resonate with a much broader audience. All football fans in the 1980’s, before Italia ’90, the Premier League and prawn sandwich hospitality, were impacted by the emphasis on control rather than safety of football crowds and the chapter on the Bradford fire will cause all fans to bristle with anger. And whilst football is a major backdrop these events also coincided with the Thatcher government, the Miners’ Strike and huge social change in Britain.
There is also a fierce human energy that drives the book forwards through a series of short, snappy chapters that keep the pages turning and emphasise the desperate emotion of a man overflowing with demons. The football is a backdrop but John Finch is really facing two points of crisis and transition, ones that we all recognise. In 1989 the safe and familiar environment of his youth is falling away and he is wondering what lies ahead of him, old friendships coming to an end and Hillsborough bringing the reality of death crashing into the experience of previously indestructible youth. Whilst in 2004 he is faced with another major change, a partner who wants to settle down and start a family, but he cannot provide a solid future for a potential wife and kids when his past is still unresolved.
Finch heads back to his home town of Grantham to face his demons, but it’s messy. He has to see the world through other people’s eyes as well as his own, has to learn to accept who he was and who he is now and has to acknowledge that life isn’t straightforward, answers are not perfect, the world does not revolve around him and everyone is just trying to make the best of it in whatever way they can. The narrative glides between these two periods of time as Finch tries to bring proper closure to his first departure so that he can leave again more able to move on into the responsibility of adulthood. It is an emotional human story that will appeal to anyone who has mourned lost youth and feared the responsibility of family life.
As a football fan it is the story of a game that has also had to face great change and has done so imperfectly. The warnings upon warnings that built up to death on a horrific scale at Hillsborough are devastating. Why did it take so long for anything to change? Why did the football authorities, the clubs, the government and the media seek to criminalise and dehumanise football fans, determined to control rather than protect? Why did the fans themselves not refuse the cages of death they were forced into each week and also refuse the violence within their own ranks?
In the end it took the loss of 96 innocent lives in Sheffield to make change happen and much of it has been good – the ability to watch football safely should never be under-valued, the past never forgotten – but in amongst it something significant has been lost. The changes have been used to increase prices, to sanitise atmosphere, to commercialise football and to replace the passion of labour with the wealth of capital. Football has been cleansed and as a result sterilised.
In his closing acknowledgements Rhodes calls for the game to be given back to the fans. It is an appealing statement but also a broad one that has all sorts of interpretations and implications. It is difficult to pin down, it’s messy, just like John Finch’s journey through his past and his tentative steps forward into an uncertain future. It is good that the game has moved away from its violent past, but it also needs to take some time to reflect on what it has become and where its future lies. Football is about the fans, but fans are a diverse group with different needs and all need to be considered.
The best writing stays with you, makes you think well beyond closing the back cover. Fan does that on two levels; life and football. What else is there?