27 August 2018
Generally, I’m not a fan of sports-related fiction. I find it’s either too hyper-masculine, too nostalgic, or both. But when I heard that Ron Raisin, author of God’s Own Country, which was made into an achingly beautiful and sensitive film in 2017, had turned his considerable narrative talent to the world of professional English football, I was immediately intrigued and couldn’t wait to give it a read.
I am fairly confident in saying that A Natural is unlike any other sports novel you’re likely to read any time soon. Without giving too much away, this is the story of Tom Pearman, an ex- Premier League academy footballer who now finds himself playing for a lower professional league in a town he’s never heard of. On the surface, Tom looks like your stereotypical young English footballer. But you sense early on that there’s something different about him, something you can’t quite put your finger on. He’s a solitary figure, reclusive and perhaps more sensitive than his rather laddish teammates, but you’re not quite sure. Little is given away at first.
Then Tom meets Liam, his club’s head groundsman. Liam is a former goalkeeper whose professional career never took off. He is also the son of the team’s chairman and a friend of Leah, a lonely young mother and the wife of Chris Easter, the team’s brooding and morose captain, whose career has seen better days and who seems to exist on a knife’s edge, ready to blow at any minute.
A Natural is a story of love and sexual repression set against a backdrop of toxic masculinity and rampant homophobia. As a longtime fan of the English Premier League I am well-aware of the locker room antics and homophobia within the league, but what is most startling and moving about this novel is that it exposes this bigotry in a way that is all the more powerful for the subtlety of author Ron Raisin’s approach.
The ending is inevitable and yet it still manages to surprise. The author’s message is clear yet nothing about A Natural is preachy. Its matter-of-factness startles, moves, and makes you look at the world of professional and semi-professional football/soccer in a sobering light. How many footballers out there are like Tom Pearman? More than we imagine, I daresay.