Occasionally, it's a good idea to pick up a book for which you have no frame of reference. It can serve as an education, a corrective to bad assumptions, or just a nice diversion from your usual reading. I know very little about European football (soccer) and have virtually no knowledge of the English leagues, which was why David Peace's novel was not only an introduction but also as something much deeper. It also serves as the basis for a movie starring Michael Sheen.
Peace, more well known perhaps for his crime noir Red Riding quartet and his reputation as a British James Ellroy, takes as the novel's subject the short, turbulent career of football manager Brian Clough heading his long-time nemesis, Leeds United. The story is told from Clough's point of view, in short, clipped, often vulgar stretches of self-flaggelation and rage. It isn't necessary to know the backstory to appreciate very early on the stakes.
Clough, a footballer whose career ended prematurely due to injury, becomes the manager of Derby County and quickly gains a reputation as a brilliant manager. His nemesis, though, is Don Revie's Leeds United, a championship club he holds in the utmost scorn for what he perceives as their dirty play. He is publicly critical of them and their manager while at the same time building his own legend in Derby. When he is forced out in Derby, he becomes Leeds' unlikely hire after Revie takes the England manager's job.
From there, Clough embarks on a whirlwind 44 days as manager, trying to change the character of the team while at the same time hating what he has inherited. It is Peace's achievement in this novel to tell both stories of Clough's rise and fall simultaneously, showing the seeds of his downfall in his rise. Constantly, Peace's Clough understands it's not his team, but Revie's. There is no changing them, and even as he tries to lead them, he still hates them. Even a reader with no interest in soccer can appreciate the humanity in the observation, "They love me for what I'm not. They hate me for what I am."
Clough does not believe in God, but he does believe in sport, which makes him believe in himself. It's easy to recognize the familiar egotism that runs through virtually every athlete. The idea that particular teams can be cursed, that the game can help one overcome life, that to beat an opponent is in some ways a moral exercise. "You believe in football; in the repetition of football; the repetition within each game, within each season, within the history of each club, the history of the game - "
But again and again, life intrudes to recalibrate what Clough feels about himself and the game, and the games outside the game. The turning point comes when Clough's mother dies. She isn't really a character in the novel (indeed, characters in the novel mostly serve as foils for the portrait of Clough that emerges) but it is her death which begins the descent that eventually carries him to Leeds, "The end of anything good. The beginning of everything bad..." Clough doesn't believe in an afterlife, no heaven, no hell, no God, nothing, but after her death, "for once in your life, just this once, you wish you were wrong."
Clough, in real life, went on to once again achieve success with Nottingham Forest, becoming the sort of sports figure for whom statues are erected. Peace's novel though reminds us that even the worlds we create within our world -entertainment, sports, business - all seek to operate outside life according to rules of effort, and fairplay. Rules we devise. And yet, even there, the ball seems to bounce against us, no matter what strategies we devise, what defenses we deploy, whatever trophies we think we may capture.