Book review: Own Goals By Phil Andrews - Foul play in a time warp

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The Independent Online

If, like most, you are the type of person who enjoys picturing a book in your mind as you are reading along, switch to black and white before you even turn to page one of Phil Andrews' debut novel Own Goals (Flame, pounds 10).

Turn the picture to monochrome, turn the clock back 50 years, and imagine the lead character is narrating the entire book in a voice-over. In short, think Philip Marlowe and those moody detective series. Only for New York and the Roaring Forties, read Sheffield and the nondescript Nineties.

The novel charts the trials and tribulations of Steve Strong, a thirty- something man who yearns for a career as a private detective. Strong's marriage is breaking up, his career is going nowhere and his beloved football team - City, a Premiership club - are struggling. City's problems on the pitch are nothing compared to the scandals hitting them off it, though.

After their star foreign playmaker is accused of sexual harassment, their no-nonsense defender is charged with assault, and their mercurial French striker is remanded on a drugs charge, the club secretary - Tom Tomlinson - suspects foul play. Eager to get to the bottom of the allegations, he hires Strong, who just happens to be at the club when the alleged sexual indiscretion takes place, and also knows the victim from their schooldays together.

As signings go, Strong's is rather odd. With no investigative experience and a poor career record, our intrepid detective is going to have to play an absolute blinder if he is to succeed. Stephane Guivarc'h and Paulo Futre ring a bell?

Fear not, however, as Strong naturally ends up solving the case. It would be unfair to reveal exactly who did it and why, but suffice to say that the denouement makes the Sugar-Venables conflict over Tottenham Hotspur appear like a Teletubbies pillow fight.

The style which Andrews has chosen is quite bold. Writing an entire novel from a single perspective is no easy task. And you do actually get used to it after a few pages. But it is rather cliched. " `I'm a private eye,' I said. She hadn't asked, but I thought I'd tell her anyway." As opening lines go, few have better set the tone for what then follows.

Not only is the language predictable, so too are the characters and plot- lines. How could we have guessed that City's French player had a temper and plans to become an actor once he retired? And who could have doubted that our hero would be saved by the bell; or was it the Bill?

Andrews - whose far from black-and-white report on yesterday's Forest v Spurs game appears on page two - is no doubt being deliberately over the top. However, the problem with cramming the novel with sporting metaphors and caricatured characters is that the reader is not sure whether to take any of it seriously. In many respects, it's simply not ridiculous enough.

Too much of the book is believable. Like comparing Strong's beaten-up face with the "treatment room after we've played Wimbledon", or suggesting that smashing a half-drunk bottle of Bell's "was a shocking waste of good whisky".

Own Goals contains some witty insights but it is neither original nor brilliant, and setting it around a Manchester City-like club in Yorkshire was curious. It is, however, worth a look, if only because it will probably be made into a series on Sky One.