by Dominic Holland

After setting his debut novel in the glamorous world of the Hollywood movie mogul, Dominic Holland has chosen a more down-to-earth environment for his follow-up effort: a struggling football club languishing in the lowest recesses of the league.

The proud but declining fans of Middleton Edwardians start a valiant, but seemingly doomed, campaign to save their historic club after carpet-bagging developers buy its valuable ground, ready for the inevitable luxury flats once the dismal team finally loses its weakening grip on the Third Division.

But a bizarre chain of events, triggered in true chaos theory style by a disgruntled bakery worker who one day decided not to fill his doughnuts with jam, escalates this small-town tale until it encompasses high-flying politicians, multi-millionaire star players and the unseen hands of the PR industry.

Although the theme is football, it's far from a fans-only read. In fact, Holland goes to such efforts to explain the smallest workings of the modern game that it could be the first football book for people who don't really like football.

He has a breathlessly entertaining style; there's always something going on and precious little effort is wasted getting from one scene to the next. Perhaps his eye's on getting a lucrative film deal, as the book reads something like a film novelisation ­ heavy on set pieces and dialogue, if scant on characterisation. And everyone knows how Hollywood (and Ealing) loves tales of the little guy standing up to powerful forces.

Yet while plenty of the figures that populate this novel are little short of caricatures, especially bad guys like the Greedy fat-cat capitalists, the petulant-if-fading star player and the oleaginous agent, it doesn't seem to matter. The twisting story's so compelling you always want to know what happens next. Anyway, I'm guessing football's ridden with real ogres far worse than any caricatures an author could imagine.

Holland's also masterful at keeping all the threads moving along simultaneously, occasionally intertwining in the most unexpected way to provide a rich narrative texture. That pretty much the whole novel is a consequence of such a trivial act of defiance in the doughnut factory is testament to that.

It's a shame, then, that this cracking tale only reaches its conclusion via a jarring deus ex machina ­ a flukish contrivance that sits uncomfortably with the rest of the story's logic. After 330 pages of fine, plot-driven adventure, it's a shame that the last 20 rely on such an incongruous device to tie up all the loose ends.

Aside from this, though, it's a real page-turner. Not perhaps laugh-out-loud funny ­ but then so few books are ­ more of a brisk, jolly yarn. That it takes in all the issues blighting football in modern times will give it a resonance with any devoted or downcast fan outside the Premiership that it's a damn good tale will be more than enough for everyone else.

Steve Bennett
February 17, 2004

Published: 22 Sep 2006

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