Things have been more than a bit hectic in recent weeks, with events in Dundee, Inverness, Manchester, and I keep meaning to do a full update of the reviews coming in for Bring Me the Head… (The Observer, Guardian, Mail etc) but there have been so many I can’t keep up. For now though, given these aren’t available online yet, here are the reviews from The Scotsman and The Herald newspapers, both published today. Delighted the reviews have all been so positive so far, and especially pleased at the backing from my adopted nation. Where’s the backlash eh? Sure it’s coming…
It is, perhaps, best to paint Ryan Giggs by numbers. In his 39th year, he sprints towards his 1000th appearance for what is routinely called the biggest club in the world. He has won 33 major medals and, if Manchester United claim the Premiership this season, he will have secured more titles that Chelsea, Newcastle and Leeds United have claimed altogether in their histories.
Giggs, then, is the embodiment of the football hero, down to his sponsored boots and super injuctions. He is more than a bit of a lad, more than a passing fad and thus ideal as a subject of devotion. He flits through Rodge Glass’s novel, haunting the hero with his success and sheer Giggsyism. His spectral presence perversely adds substance to a novel of compulsion and obsession. If Giggs paces the side-lines, occasionally venturing on as a significant substitute, Glass has created a credible central character and lots centre forward in Mike Wilson. The second name is a nod to the original surname of Giggs, who changed his name after his mother divorced Danny Wilson. Glass’s Wilson has a similarly fraught relationship with an absent father, plays in the same youth team as Giggs and debuts for the first team alongside the Welsh internationalist.
It then begins to go wrong for Wilson, as it starts to go brilliantly for Giggs. An injury ends Wilson’s career and starts a descent into alcoholism and gambling addiction. Manchester United is his refuge, if only as a spectator. Giggs is his savior as idol and tormentor, a reminder of what could have been. As Wilson’s life breaks down, Giggs’s career takes wings, a compelling dynamic. But Glass offers more.
He is convincing on the football-mad dad living his life through his son, the intricacies of life as a future professional and the detachment of the superstar. The story is authentic, pacy. But it speaks of darker things as Glass tunes in and out of the first-person account of an increasingly bereft Wilson, knocking on the door of insanity as Giggs marches on triumphantly.
The novel maintains a calm authority amid the bedlam of a football match, a malfunctioning relationship or the disintegration of a personality. Is there anything more chilling than an alcoholic noting a year spent ‘mostly sober’?
Glass skillfully constructs a tale of how a moment can change a life, how the road less travelled can end with a stumble into the gutter. There is nothing dramatically new in the theme, but its execution is strong and there is a powerful pull at the centre of the story. Wilson, used and abused, uses and abuses. He is made vulnerable by personal circumstances and individual failings. His life changed when Giggs misplaced a pass and Wilson was forced into a desperate challenge that ended his career.
Wilson is desperately real. Giggs remains under the cloak of celebrity. Yet their lives started along a distinct path. Their talents and experiences were similar if not identical. But their final collision testifies how violently their paths diverged through fate and a cruciate ligament. Wilson has suffered the fate of all sportsmen – they must die twice, once as a performer and then as a human being – and inhabits the half-life in between. His life seems golden, though his private turmoil of an affair with his brother’s wife is unspoken. Its notoriety, despite the gagging orders, inhabits a novel that talks convincingly of football but whispers persuasively of much else.
As the Old Trafford faithful have had cause to point out every season since 1991, there’s only one Ryan Joseph Giggs OBE. Or, as he was when he first entered the world, Ryan Joseph Wilson. The player took his mother’s maiden name when his parents divorced.
He shares a lot more than a surname with Mikey Wilson, protagonist of what is easily Rodge Glass’s most commercial novel. Both Wilsons grew up in Salford, and were talented teenagers signed up by Manchester United. The difference is that when Mikey Wilson – or ‘Little Giggs’ as he’s briefly known – steps onto the turf for his first game for the first team, his world falls apart within seconds.
Trying to get the ball back after a poor pass from Giggs, he scythes down an opposing player, tackling him from behind and breaking own leg and the other player’s in the process before the inevitable red card. Game over.
Which is worse? To have once been a footballer, released from the ‘rezzies’ (the reserves) without playing a game for Manchester United, as is the fate of so many? Or to have once been a player who tasted oh-so-briefly what it is like to perform at the Theatre of Dreams before being carted from the pitch; to be remembered, if at all, in mocking fanzine and website articles? One piece, indeed, installs Wilson as the substitute – the substitute – in Alex Ferguson’s all-time worst XI.
While the pain of that leg break is intense, and vividly described by Glass, it is not as debilitating as the bitterness that ends up truly crippling Mikey Wilson. He was the boy set to follow in Ryan Giggs’ slipstream on the wing at Manchester United. It eats him up that he didn’t. It eats him up that Giggs, of all people, is the one whose pass is misjudged, setting him on a course to destruction.
Wilson’s fall comes via those routine footballer pitfalls of drinking and gambling and women, although there is a suggestion that he is wrestling with his sexuality. This could further explain what becomes an ever more dark obsession with Giggs.
It eats him up also that Giggs, meanwhile, goes on to become British football’s most decorated player. The action here ends in 2008, at the penalty shoot-out between Manchester United and Chelsea in Moscow. We know how that ends, of course. In this work of ‘faction’, Glass is able to insert his own shocking end-game.
Where did it all go wrong? The question is poignant down Sir Matt Busby Way, as it was once famously directed at George Best. Fergie himself turns up at the family home to sign Wilson. He is fast-tracked into the first team, Wilson’s father has just flown the nest, so that weighs on his mind. It is, however, the less obvious things that flash into your head as you fret about making your debut for Manchester United: ‘If I piss myself in these shorts, will it be obvious on Match of the Day?’ ponders Wilson as he prepares to come on against Oldham Athletic.
The red card produced from the referee’s pocket is certainly obvious. It should live on in infamy. Only on a few occasions does Glass fail to convince. Fans Wilson meets many years later, even the one nicknamed Computer, can’t remember him. Any Manchester United supporter worth his salt would recall a hapless player sent off 133 seconds into his debut, even if it was nearly 20 years earlier. But this is nit-picking. The attention to detail is one of the strengths of this moving, snappily-written book. Wilson’s career continues on loan at Plymouth Argyle, where Peter Shilton, the former England goalkeeper, is manager (and the dates tie up, I checked).
It’s a realistic scenario, even if the manner of his exit from Plymouth is entertainingly over the top. When it dawns on Wilson that he is again spending 90 minutes on the substitutes’ bench, he flings his tracksuit to the ground and walks out of the stadium while a match is in progress, and keeps on walking. His career is pretty much over from that point but cruel fate hands him another leg break, just to make sure.
Glass is clearly inhabiting the same territory David Peace so artfully trod with The Damned United as he seeks to interweave a fictional story with actual events. It’s a tough assignment. Sometimes the reader can feel like a defender trying manfully to keep up with Giggs’ trickery. It can be mesmerizing and exhilarating, but also sometimes plain confusing. The narrative dashes between decades and flits between the first, second (and even third) person. And yet there is much to admire. There is never a sense that Glass is dipping his foot into a subject alien to him.
There is no let up in the pace. Neither is there much relief for Wilson. Perhaps he might have found some had the novel’s timeframe been extended to include the bombshell news that even Giggs is fallible, after the quite remarkable sexual tangle that saw him become front page news last summer.
Wilson, though, would have noted that the winger has returned, as strong as ever, for his 22nd consecutive season. Giggs will tear you apart, as the terrace song goes.