But where there are ever bigger winners there are ever greater losers, and it is those left behind that Glass is interested in, those who are tossed aside by the beautiful game; hearts broken, dreams in dust and no idea of how to do anything else but kick a ball. This is a timeless tale, but one which this novel brings right up to date, looking at how those boys who came close to living the dream of becoming footballers in the last twenty years have been promised a profession which will support not only them but their family, but also sold an accompanying lifestyle of fame as well as fortune; Baby Bentley’s, champagne fountains and cigars lit with twenty pound notes. In the early 1990s, thanks to News International’s millions, football became big business and as any good Marxist knows, that means that the labour becomes expendable in the aim of increasing the capital.
There are two famous quotes which occur to me after reading Rodge Glass’s latest novel Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs. The first comes from Liverpool’s legendary manager, and son of Glenbuck, Bill Shankly who once proclaimed, ‘Some people believe football’s a matter of life and death […] I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’. As anyone who follows a team who have had tragedy visit knows only to well, that’s just not true. Of course Shankly knew this, the point he was making was that at times, to those involved, it can seem that way.
The second quote comes from Eli Kazan’s 1954 movie On the Waterfront, when Marlon Brando’s deadbeat ex-boxer Terry tells his brother Charlie ‘I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.’ With Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs, Glass has written a novel which gets to the heart of both of these quotations. It would be wrong to think that an obsession with football is a modern phenomenon, no matter how it is packaged. Look at the attendance figures from the pre-Premier League/Sky era and you’ll see how nonsensical that claim is. What has changed is that the game became synonymous with the rampant growth of late-twentieth century capitalism, where the gap between the richest and poorest grew ever wider, and there appeared to be no shorter cut from the latter to the former than being signed up by one of the bigger football teams, at least until reality TV appeared.
Everyone will have met at least one person who signed school boy forms for (insert team here) but didn’t make it because (insert excuse here). The pubs the length and breadth of the UK are full of them. The difference for Mickey Wilson, the book’s protagonist, is that he really was a contender. Or was he? This is a book where many things may not be what they seem. Mickey is widely regarded, by those who actually remember him, as Manchester United’s least successful player of all time (which may come as a surprise to anyone who followed the Utd career of Ralph Milne). As Mickey tries to come to terms with the fact that his career is over before it’s really begun he makes Utd legend Ryan Giggs his nemesis, a doppelganger who gets everything promised to Mickey. Love/Hate relationships don’t get more intense, or one-sided, than this.
Professional sport is literally survival of the fittest, Darwinian theory writ large. Those who are no longer of any use are forgotten, often becoming embarrassments to a business where coming second is nowhere, and image is as important as results. This doesn’t just apply to the unknowns. Think of all the one time legends who have met with, or seem destined for, tragic ends, unable to cope with life after their career. There is a brutality about modern sport which reflects the times. Winners are lauded, losers are nowhere. If you proffer the idea that the most important thing is how the game is played you will likely get branded as some sort of hippy dreamer or reactionary. The issues that are raised in Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs include personal responsibility versus social responsibility and how branding young people as failures can become a self fulfilling prophecy. This is an interesting time for this novel to be published as it does seem that football may once again reflect the economic climate by collapsing financially. I think people will look back at the football culture of the last twenty years and view it as the last days of Rome, a place where all sense of perspective was lost. That’s why the title of the book is so prescient as Ryan Giggs is one of the few who has been there for all of it.
You may read Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs and think that Mickey Wilson is the only one to blame for how his life turns out, but if you do then I think you may be lacking some ‘ticker’ as Aussie sports fans say. This is not a football book, but is one which uses the current cultural obsession with the game to shine a light on how people treat each other and themselves. Glass asks the reader to consider if they are happy to live in a land where success is celebrated so slavishly, and failure is ridiculed. Never has the term ‘the beautiful game’ seemed less accurate.