In footballing parlance, there’s something more than a little ‘route one’ about Gareth R Roberts’ Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? and its efforts to emulate the success of David Peace’s bestseller The Damned United. The cover font and colour combination are pretty direct simulacra, and its game-of-two-halves structure (alternating chapters between the rise to prominence of a charismatic football legend with those marking his tormented decline) is another parallel. It even gives a cameo to Peace’s protagonist, Brian Clough, cast here as a member of the Council of Football Immortals.
Yet cynical marketing aside (or, perhaps, cynical reviewing), this was a compelling read, as the book unflinchingly charts the self-destruction of its eponymous hero with a sure touch. Ravaged by alcoholism, guilt and missed opportunities on and off the pitch, legendary winger Billy Parks is offered a second chance. Indeed, perhaps the true quality of this novel lies in its ability to articulate the nature of addiction: even when given the prospect of something magical – in this case time travel, the chance to score a winning goal at Wembley and propel seventies Britain towards a socialist utopia – an addict like Parks still manages to screw things up. Despite (or perhaps, because of) all that he learned about the plight of his drink-withered mother, Billy Parks still seeks solace in off-license vodka and barfly bonhomie.
That Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions in terms of its high-concept subplot (I really wanted to go back in time for a goal that sparked a revolution) ceases to matter as it succeeds in painting a bruisingly accurate portrait of psychological torment and defective masculinity.
Irritatingly, the novel opens with Bill Shankly’s oft-quoted aphorism about football not being a matter of life and death but being ‘more important than that’ – irritating because by the end you realise that this is really good storytelling that does not need to lean on such clichés and can, indeed, transcend its similarities to David Peace’s worldwide hit. After his liver transplant in 2003, Brian Clough said “Don’t send me flowers when I’m dead. If you like me, send them while I’m alive.” It is precisely this elegance of sentiment that Roberts achieves in this poignant, elegiac tale of heartbreak and redemption.