Allthatsleft Book Club Special: Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? By Gareth R Roberts

by Ray_North on October 15, 2013

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Ok, confession time – this is my book. It is published today as an e-book and will be out as a proper book with proper pages and a cover and everything in January.

I’m proud of it. It is my second book, the first being published about five years ago by a small independent publisher (That Immortal Jukebox Sensation, published by Libros International 2008).

That book was a dark comedy that told the story of a disaffected solicitor who wanted to kill a pop star – this time I wanted to write a book that was about sport, and in particular football. There aren’t many good works of fiction about sport – traditionally, This Sporting Life, by David Storey has been acclaimed as the best book about sport, and in recent years, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and That Damned United have also been critically acclaimed, but they are the exceptions most sporting fiction (and I’m not sure that Fever Pitch quite comes under that heading), isn’t very good.

What I’ve tried to do is write a football book that goes beyond the conventional football stories that celebrate footballers as glamourous and focus upon their pursuit of glory and considers instead the aspects of the game and indeed sport as a whole that make it really interesting, indeed makes it relevant. I asked myself the question – why do I watch the game? Why am I interested in a sport that, actually, when I think rationally about it, I find vulgar, fatuous and self-obsessed – why do I like football? I’ve thought long and hard about it, of course the short answer is the thrill of the seeing the ball hit the back of the net, which has a particular satisfaction, that few other sports can achieve – but it’s more than that – there is a cultural element to football that is still important and in many ways that is forged in the collective feelings of regret that are just as profound as triumph.

Think about it – as a football fan how many times have you sat around a pub table or at work or in your living room, talking about the game and found yourself ultimately discussing the things that went wrong – how, you would have won the match if it wasn’t for the referee, or the post, or a couple of blinding saves made by the goalie; or how you would have won the league if it wasn’t for a key player getting injured or the fact that you didn’t have a decent centre-half – and how, if you were the manager you would get rid of the awful Spanish striker you paid too much for and buy yourself a decent holding midfielder and left back. These conversations, the conversations about regret, about anguish are just as important as the ones about triumph and glory. And these shared emotions are the things that make football pleasingly tribal.

For most English football fans – the collective regret and anguish revolves around the constant hand-wringing about the state of the national team, because rightly or wrongly, many English football fans believe that the national side should be doing a lot better. Many connoisseurs pin-point the decline to the England Poland game of October 17th 1973 – that was the day when England failed to beat Poland, something that they had to do to qualify for the 1974 World cup in West Germany.

I’ve always been somewhat obsessed by this match – because even as a young boy (and a young Welsh boy at that), I felt the failure of England to qualify for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups was somehow wrong, against the nature of how things should be. And, when you watch the 1973 England Poland Match, you can see how it was a bit of a fluke that England failed to beat Poland.

So, I wanted to right that wrong – and the only way I could do so was through fiction. So the back story of Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? is the story of this match, and in particular the fact that England failed by a fingertip to get the win they wanted – a win that would have altered, potentially, not just the sporting history of the UK in the 1970’s but also cultural, may be even political and social history of the UK in the 1970s.

In the real match with a few minutes to go, Sir Alf Ramsey brings on a substitute in a last throw of the dice. As, readers of our Sportsnight feature on this blog will know, the substitute was the luckless Kevin Hector, who then went on to miss an open goal. I wanted to turn back time and relive that moment – to see if anyone else could have scored that goal.

And, this gave me the chance to create a fictional character I have been playing around with for years – Billy Parks. Billy Parks is the personification of the type of football hero I worshipped as a boy – a footballer with sublime skills, great looks and a dreadful attitude. A proper working class boy, who found football desperately easy, and who found himself in the late 1960s an 70s with more money and time and adulation than anyone in his family or from his community had ever had. That is Billy Parks – we all remember the type, Charlie George, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington, great footballers to a man. Sadly, a lot of these men found life after football particularly difficult – some turned to drink, some found difficulty keeping down jobs or relationships, because if you have had that adulation, if you have been that damned gorgeous then your own decline, the lessening of your skills, the diminishing of your status must seem all the more terrifying – and that is Billy Parks, a former West Ham and Spurs legend, who now finds himself drinking himself to an early grave and selling his stories on the after dinner speech circuit.

In my book, I’ve put Billy Parks on the bench for the England v Poland game, ‘sitting, freezing, with his knees drawn up to his chin, between Bobby Moore and Kevin Keegan. He’s not Sir Alf’s type of player at all – far too much of a showboater for Sir Alf’s liking, but his talent is not in question, and in my story, forty years on from the match, when Sir Alf is given the chance to go back in time to make the substitution again in the last few minutes of the match – he has the chance to choose Billy Parks, to put him onto the pitch to see if he can do what Kevin Hector didn’t – score the goal, win the game, change history.

But, to earn that right, Billy, is summoned to appear before the Council of Football Immortals, an esteemed body of footballing geniuses and philosophers – made up of Don Revie, Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and, of course, Sir Alf Ramsey. All of whom, Billy managed to offend back in the day.Billy wants the chance to redeem himself though, he longs for the chance to go back in time, because he realises that it will be his last chance to fulfil his potential and the right the wrongs of his life.

So, he appears before the Council and goes through his life with them, explaining how things were as best he can – and, in the end, they will pass judgement. If he is selected, he will have a chance to obtain true godlike glory, if he fails, well, he’ll be back trying to scrape together enough money for his next bottle of vodka.

The link to the book is here – I really hope that one or two of those who have been reading my thoughts over the years, may be interested in giving it a read.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Elliott October 15, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Pre-ordered last night so should have been digitally delivered by now. Looking forward to reading it.

Who’s the modern day Worthington/Bowles/George then? Can’t think of one myself. Our youth has become so bland and stereotyped and dumbed down and I think that’s also the case for these millionaire footballers that it’s hard for these type of characters to emerge.

As for England tonight the only thing I can say that sums up the way I feel is that I won’t be watching it. I really couldn’t care less about the England national team. A dark and perverse part of me wants them to qualify and watch the levels of jingoism reach a crescendo before the inevitable defeat on penalties to whoever followed by the collective hand wringing by the usual suspects.

The other dark and perverse part of me wants them to fall on their faces tonight and end up playing France in the play off.

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Eddie Kaye October 15, 2013 at 3:58 pm

I may have to wait for the paperback as I don’t own a Kindle. Congratulations Mr North.

I agree on the England thing Geoff – if I wanted a circus, I would…well…go to a circus!

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ray_north October 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm

I have little affection for the type of fans who seem to follow international football after I once sat amongst a group of fascists singing ‘no surrender to the IRA’ at the old wembley – whilst the hype and inevitable disaster that always accompanies England’s World Cup or European champs campaigns are quite amusing – though I can relate to them as we welsh go through a similarly exaggerated period of madness over the rugby team – but saying that I do like the idea of picking the best players from the clubs and putting them into a team – that commonwhealth of football has always appealed.
The book has little to do with modern England to be honest though fellas.

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Charlie_East_West October 15, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Many congratulations.
Ray,

You should be bloody proud of yourself.

I will order a copy tomorrow.

Yours aye,
Charlie

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Mike Killingworth October 16, 2013 at 4:37 pm

That goes for me too.

Except for the bit about ordering it, of course. I want to read the London Review of Books review first. They can’t treat you any worse than they did Ian Banks, after all…

Ray_North October 16, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Thanks Mike,
I’m not sure when it will be reviewed by the london Review of Books – possibly before it comes out in proper book form – if at all. Give it a go my friend 😉

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