Football fiction is considered a mixed bag by most readers with few writers having the ability to capture the authenticity of the lives and stories of those who follow the beautiful game. ‘Paradise Road’ is a worthwhile addition to the genre and its greatest strength lies in the way the author manages to convey a real sense of what it was like to follow Celtic home and away through the dark days of the early nineties through to the glory of the Martin O’Neill years.
This is author Stephen O’Donnell’s first published work and he has relied heavily on his own experiences as a Celtic supporter throughout. Two images from the front cover give a strong hint of where the story of the main character, Kevin McGarry from Kirktintilloch, will unfold: the Charles Bridge in Prague and the re-developed Celtic Park in Glasgow. Yet the story isn’t solely focused on this one individual, a promising footballer as a youngster who fails to make the grade and spends the early years of his working life as a Council joiner. The novel takes in the lives of Garra’s friends and family and develops out, ultimately taking the reader away from Scotland to London and beyond, while tracking wider social and political changes along the way.
The details of the matches that Garra attends are deliberately vague but the quality of the writing and the background detail help take you back in time to god-forsaken places like Brockville and god-forsaken football clubs like Rangers. The focus is very much on the fans rather than the players and this is done with wit and style. The characters, songs and banter of supporters buses are brought to life on these pages as is the central part that alcohol played in making many away day trips so memorable.
Nothing is air-brushed as the bhoys from the Kirkintilloch Shamrock bus follow Celtic through miserable times on the pitch under a succession of managers. The time spent in the pub, on the bus and at the game allows the author to flesh out the characters, the bonds between them and how their lives are playing out in a Scottish landscape still dominated by a Tory Government.
There is a genuine ring of authenticity about the encounters on and off the bus, such as when their bus stops at a traffic light outside a Rangers pub on the way to Ibrox, thanks to an inexperienced driver:
There’s one or two of the blue uniform brigade parading about and, as well as the shouting and swearing you can tell by some of the gestures and ridiculous posturing that’s going on just how pleased they are to see us turning up on their doorstep. We don’t hang about, that’s for sure, we’re straight out our seats, leaning over to the windows, blessing them all, like the Pope does when he steps off the plane. Guaranteed to do the trick, that one. It’s all too easy really, one or two ay them are already wound up like fuckin cuckoo clocks. Millsy’s no shy, that’s for sure, he’s right up to the window, and he’s giein them some right abuse, so he is.
The scene that then unfolds when a window on the Celtic bus gets panned with a brick will take a good few readers back to similar experiences. This book though is about more than football although it is a key theme throughout. Garra’s love for the game starts to diminish as his disillusion with life generally increases, but his Celtic connection is never lost. We experience dream sequences of how his life could have played out if his footballing career had taken a different turn – although being part of a Scottish team beating England in a World Cup group match is a genuine flight of fancy! – and these visions contrast harshly with the reality of his life on-call and at the mercy of supervisors.
Garra’s yearning for something different coincides with Celtic’s renaissance under McCann and, while the good times return, he feels strangely out of place in the new, all-seater Celtic Park, harking back to the atmosphere and comradeship of the terracing. Celtic’s progress in Europe throws up the opportunity of a road trip for Garra and his pals to Prague – and also represents a real opportunity for him beyond the game and the beer.
At times the book almost reads like a collection of connected but not fully integrated short stores. On occasion the characters don’t feel well outlined and there is confusion as to who the narrator is in certain chapters. The dream scenes don’t work as well the rest of the book and the writing feels clunky in the writer’s attempts to convey social and political messages but overall ‘Paradise Road’ is a genuine achievement for a first novel. Its success lies primarily in the accurate depiction of day-to-day life in modern Scotland and how friends and family interact, usually with Celtic as the focal point in many of their lives. You end up with a genuine interest in the path Kevin decides to follow. No surprise given that his well-drafted life story will intersect with that of many of the readers.
The author has just completed his second novel and passed it to his publishers (who have also recently released Archie MacPherson’s first fictional work). Although not strictly a sequel, it is said to include some of the characters from ‘Paradise Road’ and develops their stories further. I’m already looking forward to reading how their lives move on – with hopefully a few more away days thrown in for good measure.
The Shamrock rating: 6/10
‘Paradise Road’ can be purchased direct from Ringwood Publishing for £9.99 including delivery – e-book version also available: visit http://ringwoodpublishing.com/catalogue/paradise-road/
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