When it comes to an open discussion about homosexuality in football, it can often seem that little progress is being made. Since Justin Fashanu came out in 1990, no other top-level footballer has felt able to do so. The events that followed, culminating in Fashanu's suicide in 1998, are surely linked to this. He was jeered by supporters, insulted by managers, and publicly disowned by his own brother. One cannot hide from the fact that this is a sport in which some players feel compelled to hide their true selves.
Issues of this kind are often tackled in fiction, and this can help to move the debate forward. Unfortunately, football rarely finds its way into anything other than cringeworthy Hollywood melodrama or cartoonish soap opera portrayals. Rarely does the beautiful game get the literary treatment.
Author Ross Raisin has bucked this trend, however. In his new novel, A Natural, Raisin explores life at the bottom of the football food chain and the question of sexuality and identity within the game. The result is impressive: a work of fiction that blends sport with everyday issues and does so in a way that feels authentic.
"I think football is very easily placed in a box," Raisin told VICE Sports ahead of the book's release on 2 March. "It's low-brow, so literary fiction doesn't go there.
"One of the big things that writing this novel has thrown up for me is that, as we all know, lots of very ugly stuff goes on underneath the skin of football that we just don't see, but we know it exists. In writing the book, I've gained a greater awareness of some of those things, which creates a discomfort for me. I love football, I've had some very memorable moments watching football that are huge parts of my life. They don't sit together with these things, and that's hard."
Raisin was born in West Yorkshire and is a supporter of League One side Bradford City (when we speak he admits to having tentatively checked play-off dates, with the Bantams fifth in the table at time of writing). He was still in his twenties when his acclaimed debut novel, God's Own Country, was published in 2008. He won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2009 and his second book, Waterline, followed two years later.
A Natural has been several years in the making, beginning life as a short story before developing into a full-blown novel. Raisin identifies this as something of a problem. Between the story's conception in 2010 and release in 2017, the debate around sexuality in football has moved forwards considerably, and his work might now be misinterpreted as an attempt to jump on an increasingly salacious media bandwagon.
But it would be simplistic to call this a novel solely about sexuality in the game. As Raisin explains: "For me, the thing that it's centrally about is identity. It's the idea of what happens to a young person who grows up within a very specific world that is completely isolated from everything else. And what happens if that person reaches the age of 18, and everything that they thought they were and were going to be is thrown out of the window?"
The book's chief protagonist is Tom Pearman, a 19-year-old footballer who has been released by a Premier League club's academy and landed at a newly promoted League Two side. Tom finds his new surroundings difficult; he is shy and anxious, with Raisin developing a character whose every physical movement feels beset with nervous tension.
The book explores these feelings of isolation, of being adrift in a world that he feels disconnected from, and ultimately his sexuality. Tom is a man of 19, but comes across as little more than a lost boy. When the novel opens he is living out of a hotel, more like a teenager freshly unpacked in university halls than a professional footballer. Of course, at 19 and away from home for the first time, that is essentially what he is.
"A lot of it is to do with my own interest in lower-league football and a football world that is much more real and interesting than the pantomime of the Premier League, which is a completely unreal world," says Ross. "And within all of that, what [Tom's] grown up believing is normal, he starts to recognise that he might not be normal in those terms. And so the big tension of the book is what he's going to do about it."
A second storyline develops through troubled club captain Chris Easter and his wife Leah, who seems equally adrift. With a young son and no job, the week stretches before her interminably. Leah is in some respects the stereotypical "WAG" – she has no real life of her own, her existence largely revolving around her footballer husband. But what Raisin develops is considerably more complex than this.
"I am quite interested in exploring characters who have some kind of stereotype around them, and the WAG is the biggest stereotype of the lot," he explains.
"In this character's case, she has no autonomy, because she's moved from place to place with her husband, who also has very little autonomy. He's at the whim of a contract or a transfer and she has to move where he moves. He's been quite successful and earned enough money, while she's abandoned the plans she had for her life and has a child. In a parallel way to the main character, she also feels lost, and her identity has become uncertain. She exists around other players' wives and girlfriends who do have autonomy, who have their own lives and careers. So Leah feels even more empty, more lost, because she exists with them yet she's alone and isolated."
Football is a hyper-masculine world in which deviation from the norm can lead to feelings of seclusion and hopelessness, and this theme is prevalent in the book; even the players who appear to conform can become weighed down by it.
To write a story involving footballers is one thing; to make it sound authentic is quite another. Raisin pulls it off impressively. Tom's new team is known only as Town, while his former employers are mentioned without being named. That said, he does use the names of rival clubs, English divisions and cup competitions. Even the Johnstone's Paint Trophy makes an appearance.
The use of the football lexicon lends the book an air of authenticity. To those who follow the sport, fictional names can be jarring and off-putting; the novel is set in the real world, thus it would be disingenuous to use false names.
It demonstrates a commitment to realism that was not necessarily essential, but perhaps the only choice for Raisin the fan. As a result A Natural feels familiar to someone who reads an awful lot about football, as Raisin doesn't dumb the text down at all. A neat example is that the colloquial term Kop – referring to a stadium's stand or terrace – is used without any explanation.
The language of A Natural's characters feels true to the subjects, too, to the point of sometimes becoming uncomfortable. Middle-aged football men casually throw around the word "rape" to illustrate banal points about a match. It's crass, but we know full well that actual football people do this. Tom's teammates are a mixed bag of boisterous youngsters, decent lads, and unbearable pricks. The word banter is used with the reckless abandon we've come to except. In short, Raisin has clearly done considerable research and succeeded in writing a literary novel that feels true to football.
The sexuality storyline is clearly what will be picked up on most. In Raisin's view: "[Football is] so far behind the curve that gay doesn't exist in that world. But I think that players who are aware they are themselves gay have come out in a small circle within their club. As far as I understand it, generally among their teammates it's fine. It's the wider world – what happens in the stadium, with the hierarchy of the club, on social media, and mainstream media – that's the unknown and the fear, I think."
But while this is the attention grabber, the book is about far more. Chiefly, it humanises footballers in a way that the media often fails to. That a young player might struggle at a new club because he is battling depression or loneliness is rarely considered; more often, we simply question their ability, or their commitment. Similarly, little thought is given to how a player's family or partner can be affected by the sport. Raisin achieves this by creating characters who are both authentic and relatable, reminding us that football players are every bit as human as the rest of us.
A Natural is published by Jonathan Cape and available from 2 March.