When did you last stand for the national anthem at the cinema? Do you miss it? If you're a football fan, Colin Shindler thinks you should. Its demise, plus foreign players, pristine pitches, white balls and dietary improvements, all explain the national game's alleged decline. In the glorious Sixties, George Best played eight games in 16 days. Matt Busby's tactics? "Give it to a red shirt." Now, something called "rest" and fancy Frenchmen with their pasta and carbs disfigure a sensible English game.
This is the Victor Meldrew approach to football writing. Shindler must watch Match of the Day slapping palm against forehead, bellowing "I don't believe it!" No change is too small to escape a "why, oh why?" whinge. A novelist and TV dramatist might be expected to welcome the mobile contours of language. Not here: "Thirty-five years ago there was a concept known as a 'first team'. This perfectly adequate concept has recently been subdivided into today's current jargon of the 'first-team squad' and the 'starting eleven'." These distinctions make little difference, but they capture the grumpy, irritated tone throughout. They belong to the lazy fiftysomething school of things-ain't-what-they-once-were.
Yet the premise of George Best and 21 Others is a good one. In a sport devoted to winners, Shindler tells the stories of the losers: the boys who never made it to the top from the exceptional 1964 Manchester United and City youth teams. He has generous sympathy for the dropped and abandoned, and the physical carnage wrought by football's relentless industrial ethic.
The problem is that, taken together in quick succession, these genuinely moving stories end up sounding the same. These private histories of career-ending injuries, unexplained sackings, bullying and alcoholism inevitably become routine. They need more intimate, individual colour, or a richer, more public context. Too often, Shindler simply glosses an interview with a banal or sour swipe at the present day. Nor is the Best phenomenon illuminated: "As The Beatles were to music, so George Best was to football." Well, yes...
For Shindler, an unquestioned strength of City and United in the Sixties was that they emerged organically from their communities of mechanics and carpenters. The shirt was the motivation whereas (you've guessed it), "today's players are motivated by different forces".
Shindler manages to sound pompous and startlingly naive. After a two-footed lunge from Best finishes the career of the gifted City player Glyn Pardoe, we get this: "It seems there was intent to hurt, but it seems doubtful that, with the exception of Roy Keane, any player would deliberately set out to injure a fellow professional." Smell the coffee, Colin!
Conor O'Callaghan, an award-winning young Irish poet, clearly wants to show his seven-year-old son what he did during the Roy Keane "civil war". Red Mist is mostly a dialogue with a child, devoted to Ireland: an engaging memoir of Irish society during the 2002 World Cup, when Keane's outburst against his manager led to the Irish captain's departure in disgrace.
The poet in O'Callaghan is drawn to Keane's life of violence, exile and running, but the father must suppress his admiration for this myopic individualism: Keane's ability to reject all that defines his son's life. But if the poet stays loyal to Keane's genius, and commits to the ostracised hero over the nation, then the father betrays his son.
The tension is released through a summer-long series of spectacular rows with his barber, neighbours, newsagents, traffic cops, and his barber again. O'Callaghan never succumbs to the Irish-as-quaintly-eccentric stereotypes. He doesn't really need to. During that summer, the Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern had to flee a constituent's retirement party that descended into a fist-fight after a Keane TV interview.
Through tightly-clenched teeth, O'Callaghan tries to educate his bewildered son on heroism and loyalty, talent and obligation. The lessons could easily mix maths, geography and psychology. If it takes Roy Keane 10 minutes to undo four years of hard work, and 28 hours to fly back from Korea, allowing for the time difference between Ireland and other footballing nations, when will Keane a) land on planet earth, b) Ireland ever again qualify for the World Cup?
O'Callaghan writes from the blinkered, slightly rabid position of a committed fan. Only occasionally does the poet surface: Keane's autobiographical voice is "like being hectored through frosted glass". He lives passionately, blazingly through that chaotic summer without asking it all to cohere. As poet and father, he accepts that Keane is for now the acknowledged legislator of his son's dreams.
It's all good fun and, even if some is familiar, often witty and well told. The more the book strays from Keane, though, the less compelling it becomes. This may be part of the point. Keane's life is such a public event that it overshadows any other precincts it touches, including the private Keane.
This is why O'Callaghan resists the temptation to link his own life with that much-mediated creature "Roy Keane", and why he can't share Colin Shindler's disillusionment. Keane never promised a rose garden. He stood for the Irish national anthem but he never, ever sang. Keane long ago gave up on the organic community Shindler still lionises: "We didn't want to stand up for the national anthem... We got the football and the footballers we deserve."
The irony of George Best and 21 Others is that, while Keane personifies his nightmarish vision of the present, he also epitomises the committed, idealistic working-class youth the book records. Immersed in United folklore, Keane knows too well the percentage of bodies that end up discarded at Old Trafford. To make it at United, it's probably necessary to disappoint Shindler and O'Callaghan's son. It is probably necessary, as well, not to care too much for national anthems. In the end, what United and the scores of talented young men who never made it have taught Keane is the necessity to be loyal to himself.
O'Callaghan's tale finishes before Keane announced his return to the Irish national team. He does so despite Alex Ferguson's disapproval and huge public hostility in Ireland. Perhaps O'Callaghan's son will never again invest the same hopes in a hero, which in Ireland may be no bad thing. But it seems fitting that Keane should have the postscript on all that has been written about him, and be the author of his own destiny.
Ray Ryan's 'Writing in the Irish Republic: literature, culture, politics 1949-99' is published by PalgraveReuse content