James Marriott

Forbidden love and the beautiful game

Ross Raisin’s novel tackles the sport’s deep-seated homophobia — but his lovers’ joyless affair fails to reach fever pitch

Forbidden love and the beautiful game
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A Natural

Ross Raisin

Cape, pp. 342, £

Nowadays, most of us living in the liberal West agree that there can never be anything morally wrong with love between consenting adults. This is good for society but bad for novelists. The tale of the grand passion that runs foul of societal mores is a staple of literature. What is Madame Bovary if Emma can slam divorce papers on Charles’s desk after her first few sexts with Rodolphe? Writers who want to do the love versus society theme have to get creative.

Ross Raisin has hit on the sterling idea of heading for the world of professional football. Not a single one of Britain’s 5,000 full-time players is openly gay — though statistically about 500 of them must be. Tom, the hero of Raisin’s new novel, is one of them. Dropped from his Premiership youth programme, he’s signed to an unpromising club — ‘Town’ — that has just clawed its way out of the Conference but looks like it’s going to spend the next season tailspinning back to where it came from.

At Town, taciturn Tom conceives an obsessive passion for the club’s hunky groundsman, Liam. Both men are aware that if their love is ever discovered it will destroy their careers. Homophobia — subtle but insidious — is all around: scattered in the stands, on online message boards, and (most worryingly) in the mind of the team’s captain, troubled Chris Easter. Here, then, is a new twist on the old theme: can Tom combine public success and private fulfilment?

Raisin does excellent documentary work. His picture of claustrophobic small-club life is very convincing, and he has fun crushing any of his readers’ lingering Roy-of-the-Rovers fantasies. I yearned for ball after ball to thump into the opposing goal; for Tom to dye his knees grass-green from victory skids. What we get instead are defeats, sackings and the relegation zone.

For all the book’s realism, though, it lacks a crucial vivifying spark. Tom often seems so uninterested in the story he’s caught up in he might have sloped out of the pages of Camus. His passion for Liam is supposed to be fluorescently sexual, but the love scenes themselves feel abbreviated and joyless.

This is a brilliant portrait of a under-explored corner of English life, but weak on the human particularity at its centre.