Book review / Saturday night's all right for fighting

The Football Factory by John King Cape, pounds 9.99

Presumably the author is not the John King who used to manage Tranmere Rovers. That King's prose concerned itself with taking each game as it came, the significance of the forthcoming outing ("a massive fixture for us") and, when the match came around, his reaction to defeat ("the lads are gutted"). This John King's writing is more medically inclined, relishing the forensic details of what happens when a nose comes into close contact with the porcelain tiling of a pub Gents': "There's a heavy thud of bone and concrete. I feel the shudder through my arm. His knees go and he's sliding into the piss below, blood splattered across the wall."

It is this kind of writing, you assume, that provoked the endorsement on the cover from Irvine Welsh - "Only a phenomenally talented and empathetic writer working from withinhis own culture can achieve the power andauthenticity this book pulses with." Because there's not a lot else.

It might seem unfair to criticise a novel for the manner in which it is sold. But the claims made for this book ("beg, borrow or steal a copy now," yells Welsh from the cover) are so hyperbolic, you can't help it. Whatever the publishers might hope by the association, Football Factory is not fit to share the same pitch with Trainspotting. It has none of the other book's ear for language, none of its voyeuristic pleasure, none of its imagination. It is rather pulp writing, sex and shopping for lads (shag and scrapping, perhaps), its spiritual antecedent Richard (Skinhead) Allen. Fun enough in its own way, but hardly sufficient for it to find employment, as Welsh suggests, in weeding out potential conversational partners ("In a short time," he claims, "anyone who hasn't read it won't be worth talking to").

The book centres on Tom Johnson, a Chelsea follower well partial to barney and biriani, the type of fan who hasn't allowed softie Nineties football nonsense like all-seater stadiums, family stands and David Mellor to come between him and his Saturday recreation. King has obviously studied how a football firm works, and his descriptions are plausible, sparse, and in the case of the Wednesday night fixture in Millwall, vivid.

But there is no more to it than that. Like the hoolie himself, this book is only fired up when it's fighting. When it's not, it's a sphinx without a puzzle, a Frank Bruno of a novel. There is, for instance, none of the humour promised on the cover, unless this is it: "There's a brief punch- up, a lot of front and kicks, and Derby do a runner as though it's synchronised. Should be on a fucking ice rink." There isn't even a plot. Johnson and his oppos have a bundle against Tottenham in one chapter, then he's seen at work in the next (boring job, see, have to get your kicks somewhere, dontcha?), then there's a bit of bonking, then an unrelated, uninteresting, unresolved character is introduced through an unrelated, uninteresting, unresolved vignette. Thus we meet a spunky OAP, or a reformed hoolie who's seen the world and reckons there's more to life than bricking Derby fans down Fulham Broadway, who are both - perhaps it is a metaphor - going nowhere. Oh, and then it all goes off again, against West Ham.

From the episodes involving King's hero, however, we learn something odd about Tom Johnson: he is pretty PC for a psycho. He'd never thump a fan who wasn't looking for it ("Where's your self-respect?"), admires Indians (particularly their food), likes blacks (especially Black John, a Chelsea hood with a vicious streak), believes a man should be faithful to his wife ("I know he's into Mandy in a big way, but truth be told he shouldn't be shafting birds behind her back"), and reckons hitting a woman is a no-no ("I just went mental, and kicked the shit out of him. I hate that kind of thing. I mean the girl was suffering").

Of course he loathes the police, politicians and the middle classes, but that's OK in the PC world, like it's all right to have Hollywood bad guys with English accents. The manner in which this cocktail of right-on social responsibility is married to the urge to bury a lump of concrete in a Spurs' fan's face is just implausible. "The most authentic book yet on the so-called English disease", then? Do us a favour - just admit the book's only interested in trouble and then the rest of us could learn how to avoid it.

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