Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2,331: Whatever happened to Billy Parks? by Gareth Roberts

Billy Parks, the titular hero of Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is a washed-up ex-footballer from the ‘70s who threw his talent and career away into a sea of booze.  Now, he’s a broken alcoholic, divorced and estranged from his daughter and grand-son and reduced to telling old stories for drinks in pubs.

But, what if it could be different?  What if there was one thing that, if it could be changed, would make everything OK again?  What if there could be redemption for Billy Parks?  And, in Whatever Happened to Billy Parks?, there might just be something.

So, let me take you back to 17 October 1973.  To Wembley Stadium.  To England’s final qualifying match for the 1974 World Cup.  To a match that has haunted England fans for 40 years.

England needed to beat Poland to qualify, whilst a win or a draw would work for Poland.  In a now infamous quote, Brian Clough had described the Polish goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, as a “clown”, a comment that would come back and bite England.  As the match progressed, England were dominating possession but couldn’t score, being repeatedly denied by an inspired Tomaszewski.  Against the run of play, the Poles then took the lead on a counter-attack, leaving England two goals to the bad.  A dubious Alan Clarke penalty saw England pull level with 30 minutes left on the clock but Sir Alf Ramsay, in what would turn out to be his last game in charge, dithered over a substitution, leaving it to the 88th minute before bringing on Derby County’s Kevin Hector.  With only seconds to go, Hector had a certain goal cleared off the line and England were out of the World Cup, sending the nation into trauma.

But, what if?  What if, instead of Hector, Sir Alf had brought on a different striker?  In fact, what might have happened if his finger had pointed at Billy instead?  How would life have been different?

On that awful, awful night for English football, the unpredictable genius of Billy Parks was left on the bench but now the Council of Football Immortals is offering Billy the opportunity to go back in time, take Kevin Hector’s place and score the goal that would make everything right.  The catch?  Well, the Council has to choose between Billy and Kevin Keegan and to be chosen, Billy will have to justify his life to the Council.

Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is one of those rare beasts, a truly good novel about sport.  It manages this by being, first and foremost, a fine story about how people cope with fame and success, the nature of genius, alcoholism and, ultimately, the power of not only redemption but also the mere hope of redemption.

On top of this, Gareth Roberts layers an almost historical story of football in the ‘70s with a cast of the greats and not-so-greats of English football of the time.  Bobby Moore, George Best, Sir matt Busby and Brian Clough all pass through the pages of the book as Mr Roberts paints a picture of the era.

There are relatively few really top notch sports novels that spring to mind:  This Sporting Life, The Damned United, Chess (if you allow chess as a sport), The Master of Go (which really stretches the definition of sport) and that’s about all that come to mind, so it’s a real pleasure to come across another one.  The concept is highly original and, with the caveat that the supernatural or fantastical elements to it may make it difficult for potential readers or booksellers to categorise, it will, hopefully, do very well.

Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is nostalgic, melancholy, full of footballing atmosphere and, if you want to know whether Billy finds redemption, I recommend you buy a copy now.

I'd like to thank the publisher, The Friday Project, for allowing me to read Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? via Netgalley.


Allthatsleft said...

Thank you for your kinds words about my book.
Hope this isn't rude - but, if anyone is tempted by your review to purchase it - here's a link!

Tom Cunliffe said...

Just found your book blog - it's all very interesting and well put together. I shall watch your progress with interest