After a generation or two of insipid and insulting reading matter served up to the football fan, at last something to get excited about. Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is a crafted wonder, and will thrill and then seduce any supporter, addict, father or old codger. If you're all four, don't even try to resist the magic.
This is a remarkable, beautiful, touching, shimmying and evocative meditation on redemption, lost chances, weakness, the lure of excess, family, individualism, the wreckage of war, the folly of man on that other, albeit smaller, stage of the football pitch, and ultimately, the passage of time. The issue of addiction is superbly addressed. I felt I was being drawn helplessly yet willingly to a boyhood past and a warm nostalgia.
The tale pivots around an October evening in 1973, the night the Poles knocked England out of the World Cup at the old Wembley, and weaves the fictional opus of a footballing magician left on the bench. What would have happened if Billy Parks, the closest thing England had to a Brazilian-style player, had come on for the final 10 minutes? How would life for him (and the nation) have been altered?
I read it in two sittings and in less than a day which for a bloke in the Canadian wilderness, with no attention span, two kids under two and a half, and a gripping Old Trafford Test match on is testament to the thoroughly engaging nature of Roberts' gift.
The narrative is so evocative that one constantly asks oneself where the history and myth interface. Sometimes it feels that it is only the high-profile 1973 bench with Parks on it which verifies this thrumming marvel as creative art. The line between fact and fiction is sketched to perfection, and with admirable adroitness and supreme poise, Parks strolls a high wire which could easily cause a topple into parody. But none of that nonsense here.
Some may say that there is more fiction to be found in the long-necked crank claims of those morose faux hooligan books that speak to many football nostalgics, but this is so much more than a football book, though the sporting bait is so bloody seductive.
And of course I adore that Don Revie is rightfully included in the Council of Football Immortals. The Cloughie versus Don spat is reproduced superbly, though of course if anyone is in any doubt as to how Leeds could win in style, YouTube two consecutive Saturdays in March 1972 when twelve goals and a mob of admittedly really hard blokes, swirling around Giles and Bremner, had Barry Davies drooling. The 7-0 thumping of Southampton has become a touchstone for all future showboating, crowd 'Olé's', back flicks, thirty-five pass sequences. "Oh my God look at that, this is just cruel. Every man jack of this Leeds side is turning it on and for the second home game running, the other side is not on the pitch." That other side the week before were THAT lot, inclusive of Law, Charlton and Best (yes, Georgie, who never scored against Leeds or Billy Parks' own nemesis Paul Reaney.)
Gareth, I apologise sincerely for that involuntary hijacking and the self-referentials just then, but perhaps it is only natural as we all felt we had ownership of what we saw as our days. And seeing how moribund and sterile and marketed the game has become (check out Sky Sports' latest emetic campaign to persuade us to watch the new season of unpronounceable mercenary millionaireball), those years were so very, very special. To us. And you just made them so very real and impossibly meaningful again, perhaps for one last time, and for that deep thanks.
The heavenly council reminds me of the celestial courtroom in one of the greatest British films of all-time; A Matter of Life and Death by my heroes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Just another reason to fall for the ballsy, swaggering yet beautifully fallible (in all the best senses of the word) charm of Parksy.
The shaping of the characters (Dad, Mum, Maureen, Higgs, Bobby Moore, the whole post-war jumpers for goalposts imagery, Clyde Best, Craggs, Lloyd and Nish) is immense and rich. I felt I had perhaps once skim-read of Billy's antics between doing my Shoot! League Ladders on a Sunday morning and sticking a Leeds United team group or Tony Currie (now in Persil white and in his pomp) to my bedroom wall with blu-tack, before Goals on Sunday with John Helm, Martin Tyler or Keith Macklin.
If I didn't know better, I'd have placed Roberts as an acolyte of eel pie 'n' mash, a face at The Blind Beggar, knows proper 'Do wot, Jon' geezers. But he's Wrexham and for that courageous move, bravo too.
There is a sharp, brutal and discomforting focus on the hollowness of the addict and the lonely pub performer, as well as the passage of generations and time and the fading of an old man, and the awful guilt-laden ease of prioritising fun over family, but Billy Parks is thoroughly engaging from page one and that discomfort is central to its charm. It builds tension like a Monday night F.A. Cup third round fifth replay after extra time at a bizarre choice of neutral venue like Portman Road or blasted Filbert Street; you know the ones with an orange ball against the 70s snow and ice, Peter Jones describing the mirepoix of Ralgex, Bovril and Condor pipe smoke on Radio 2 to a lad with a torch and a single-batteried radio between covers and an electric blanket on a school night and before the treat of getting back up out of bed for thickly buttered toast and Marmite in pyjamas in front of a fading coal fire, Sportsnight and David Coleman.
Thanks for the memories, and for a thrilling tingle, which sent a joyous shiver through me, as a denouement.
Now can we please go back and have a straight ref for the 1975 European Cup Final. Please.
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