Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs, By Rodge Glass

This time last year, Ryan Giggs was coasting towards yet another Premier League title with Manchester United. Talented, dedicated and unassuming, the Welshman was regarded as something of an anachronism in football: a gentleman among Rooneys.

But all of a sudden, like a vintage claret left out in the sun, Giggs's reputation was spoiled. There were allegations of extra-marital affairs, and an absurdly self-defeating attempt to keep them out of the press. The same newspapers that had hailed him as a saint began to paint him as a sex-mad control freak, a Celtic Casanova.

As someone who thinks that Giggs has been treated a little harshly, your reviewer approached Rodge Glass's latest novel with some trepidation. With its provocative title, and a lurid cover image that mimics those indignant tabloid front pages, it seems designed to cash in on the whole imbroglio: one expects a media satire, or perhaps a stern morality tale.

Happily, it turns out to be something more interesting. Set largely in 2008, at the height of Giggs's prelapsarian pomp, this fine, bittersweet novel explores the perils of hero worship.

At its centre is Mikey Wilson, a fictional ex-footballer who was once a rising star in Man U's youth set-up. He made his debut in 1992, and looked set to score when Giggs put him through on goal. But the pass was exquisitely misjudged, and, forced to chase the ball, Mike careened into an opposition defender, suffering an injury that ended his career.

Fifteen years later, he remains a United fan, but his support is tinged with regret. Watching the evergreen Giggs he feels "sweet pleasure, and sour pain", and develops a weird, perhaps quasi-sexual fixation on the star. He has surreal, Giggs-related dreams, and contributes to a website that documents every flourish of the winger's left boot.

Glass's narrative is beautifully controlled, full of temporal hops and deft shifts in register. The story is told in a mixture of the first person and a detached, omniscient voice, which allows us to glimpse the slippage between Mike's presentation of himself and his actual circumstances.

These circumstances – as is sadly the case for many retired footballers – aren't great. A recovering alcoholic, he struggles to hold down a job and is rarely permitted to see his young son. Desperate, he sends letters to Giggs asking for money and support, but receives no response. Finally, Mike decides to track him down to deliver the message personally.

There are shades of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver in this obsessive pursuit. Ultimately, however, Mike is not just a Travis Bickle-style sociopath but a representative of those legions of young footballers "paid only in sweeties and promises of things to come", before they are cast aside. The book is, in part, an indictment of the heartlessness of those running the sport.

But through it all, a residual fondness is apparent, whether it is in the evocation of the "full-up-to-bursting" elation of a surging crowd after a goal, or the "simple pleasure" of watching the highlights on Match of the Day. Taken as a whole, Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs is rather like one of his protagonist's anguished missives: a love letter to the game, riven with both bitterness and affection. It is probably best enjoyed by those who share that affection – there really is a lot of football in it – but I'd encourage anyone to give it a try. It is by turns unsettling, moving and gently funny. Best of all, there's nary a superinjunction in sight.


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