Liam Corwen holds the record for the shortest ever international football career for England. On for just a few seconds as a substitute, his single touch was a headed flick on to the striker that resulted in very little. Since then, his career has nosedived. He now finds himself playing in the lower divisions for a team known as Irontown FC. Their season, and possibly his last, is going from bad to worse. They’re fighting relegation, reeling from corruption, losing key staff members left, right, and centre, and generally having a bit of a shitty time of it all. To add to this, the Iron Towns which are the home of the team have fallen on hard times. The pubs are empty, employment is low, alcoholism and homelessness are high, and violence is becoming an increasing presence in this depressing little province.
With such a difficult present, it is hardly surprising that Liam spends much of the novel rehashing the past. As well as thinking back over his relationships and his up-and-down career, Liam loves to reminisce about the history of football. So much so, in fact, that his entire body is covered in tattoos of Eusebio, Van Basten, Pele, and the like. And the novel often switches to surprising vignettes from famous football matches of old, bringing to life the Panenka penalty or the time that Eusebio and Di Stefano shared a pitch. And to be fair to the author, these sections of the novel to come to life in an exciting and original way. Rarely has fiction about football been written so well.
The same can be said, largely, about the sections that focus on the main protagonist. Liam is an interesting character and his story dramatises a much feared prospect for footballers, particularly those whose lights shine far too briefly. The money and the fame is seen by many as a godsend, but what happens to a man who has his renown chopped down in just a matter of days? Iron Towns uses Liam to explore this, at the same time as asking many questions about how any man can escape his past.
Where the novel doesn’t fare so well, though, is in the many interwoven stories that weave their way around the one of Liam Corwen. In fact, there are far too many of them. The multitude of similar characters are hard to differentiate and the reasons for the increasingly violent crescendo remain a little unclear all the way to the end. And while it is clear that the struggles of the football club are meant to reflect those of the town, it is difficult to determine which is the symptom and which is the cause.
Any Cop?: To fall back on a massively overused footballing cliché, this really is a book of two halves. When focusing on football history and the life of a struggling footballer we are treated to a work of fiction which shows a huge amount of promise. But it seems as though the author didn’t think that was a strong enough premise on its own. That’s a shame. Because most of what surrounds it is unnecessary distraction.