Alastair Campbell is a man of many parts. Journalist, spin doctor extraordinaire, diarist and now novelist. For this, his third novel, he has teamed up with the former professional footballer Paul Fletcher to produce a very readable thriller. The division of labour seems to be that Campbell has done most of the writing while Fletcher has supplied behind-the-scenes colour. The late Martin McGuinness is among those credited with having advised.
It is set in February 1974, around the general election that brought Harold Wilson back to power and also the year when the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign reached its height. Most of the action revolves around the fate of a struggling First Division club, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Burnley, the love of Campbell’s life and the team for which Fletcher once played. As the election approaches, an IRA active service unit is awaiting the go-ahead to assassinate a leading British politician. Gradually the fates of the football team and the politician become entwined.
The tension builds slowly. This is to some extent a lads’ book. The first 200 or so pages are almost entirely concerned with the football team and their manager, a decent old alcoholic called Charlie Gordon, whose job is on the line. His last chance is to pull off an unlikely win against Chelsea in the FA cup. The picture painted of the team (whose members are all given nicknames such as Dippy, Clutcher, Taffy, Jinkie, Killer) sounds authentic, but not entirely flattering. Levels of abuse, intimidation and bullying are high. A player with two O-levels is said to be a rarity.
Halfway through, one starts to wonder whether this is just a story about footballers rather than the thriller it is supposed to be; but just as one begins to despair, it takes off. The characterisation of the players, particularly the little lad getting his first outing in the big league, has been so well done that one actually does care as they drift towards what seems to be their inevitable fate. The ending, when it comes, is a complete surprise.