The Crime Novelist Who Reinvented Soccer Writing

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David Peace writes about crimes and history. He first became known as the author of the Red Riding Quartet: four novels that follow the investigations of a series of murders in the north of England. In books with titles that nod towards Orwell, beginning with Nineteen Seventy-Four and ending with Nineteen Eighty-Three, Peace populates a decade with corrupt public servants, flawed police, religious fanatics, and a general sense of human horror. Three of the Red Riding Quartet were adapted in a television film by the BBC in 2009, with a cast that includes a pre-The Amazing Spider-Man Andrew Garfield, David Morrissey, Sean Bean, and Rebecca Hall.

Peace’s current project is a trilogy of novels set in Tokyo in the years after World War II, also focusing on murder investigations. His 2004 standalone novel GB84, about a mining strike in 1984 and the British government’s attempts to suppress it, doesn’t have a crime at its center per se. But there’s as much of a sense of corruption and violation of the public trust in this book as any other Peace title. In prose that ranges from gritty to hallucinatory, Peace has established himself as a post-pulp revelator, dredging up society’s grim secrets, and then leading his readers to moments of unlikely clarity.

In the midst of all of this, he’s also written two novels about soccer.

Specifically, he’s written two novels about soccer managers. As with most of his work, Peace draws heavily from history; for these two books, 2006’s The Damned Utd and 2013’s Red or Dead, his protagonists are real people. (Both are due out in the US in new editions from Melville House later this year.) The former focuses on Brian Clough; the latter, on Bill Shankly–both considered to be among the greatest managers in the history of English soccer. As with much of Peace’s work, politics play a role, here through the fact that both Shankly and Clough were, each in their own way, socialists. Each makes use of a very particular structure, and each—particularly Red or Dead—provides an answer to a question that might occur to anyone whose interest involve both soccer and literary fiction. How do you translate a compelling game of soccer into vivid prose?

The bulk of The Damned Utd is told in chapters marking the passage of days. Readers familiar with Brian Clough’s career will know where this is going: the novel, told from Clough’s perspective, focuses on the forty-four days he spent as manager of Leeds United, after his rival Don Revie left to manage England’s national team. He quickly finds that undoing the amoral style of play Revie imparted to his players (and that he had publicly criticized) may be an impossible task—especially when Leeds may be unable to win without it.

Interspersed with these first-person narratives are shorter sections, told in the second person, following Clough beginning with the end of his career as a player in the early 1960s. For the most part, this focuses on his sometimes-tumultuous friendship with Peter Taylor (“Your only friend. Your right hand. Your shadow,” in Peace’s rapid-fire prose) and his time as manager of Hartlepools United, Derby County, and Brighton & Hove Albion. His time at Derby County serves as the bulk of these flashbacks, as he leads the team out of the Second Division and into a series of consistently strong finishes in the First.

Peace is fond of conscious, sustained repetition in his prose. This can be used to convey fixation, or to create an almost poetic sense of refrain. It also serves to set up the tempo and mood of particularly crucial matches in Clough’s history. Over the span of three pages, Peace lays out the third round of the Football League championship in 1968, when Derby County played Chelsea, largely through sections that read like this:

Derby. Derby. Derby. Derby. Derby. Derby—

This is that one moment, that one moment when you look into the eyes of the players out on that pitch, you look into their eyes and down into their hearts and you listen to the noise of the crowd, the thundering noise of 34,000 hearts up in those stands and you listen for the eleven hearts out on that pitch, and you hear those hearts beating as one, and you know that this is the moment you have been waiting for, that one moment when everything changes, when no one gives up, when no one goes home, when no one hides—

Derby. Derby. Derby. Derby. Derby. Derby—

That fixation on details might be distracting, but Peace makes it a part of Clough’s character—the narrator of this novel is someone for whom that level of knowledge would be appropriate. Admittedly, in The Damned Utd, Peace can be a little on-the-nose with his descriptions—stating outright what he’s capable of evoking by inference later in the book. Early on, he establishes Clough’s personality in two lines:

This is how you shall live—

In place of a life, revenge.

This bitterness makes for a fascinating character study: a wound, constantly aggravated, as the root cause of seemingly honorable behavior. Peace’s version of Clough is obsessed with a kind of fair play—which puts him immediately at odds with the playing style Revie had imparted at Leeds—it leaves open to interpretation the question of Clough’s deeper motivations. In a 2006 interview with the literary website Dogmatika, Peace was asked about his view of Clough’s character, and The Damned Utd’s juxtaposition of Clough’s post-Leeds triumphs at Nottingham Forest, including winning the First Division the year after being promoted, along with a European Cup win in 1979, with the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. His answer gets at some of the ambiguities at the center of The Damned Utd:

I don’t doubt Cloughie’s socialist principles. He liked Alan Sillitoe, writers like that. But the characters in those books (working class men made good) are proto type Thatcherites, I think. Cloughie supported the miners, voted Labour all of his life, but he has a lot in common with Thatcher.

Peace’s version of Clough is one who isn’t entirely reliable about the motivations of those around him. Clough’s 1974 recollections of his former right hand Taylor—from whom he was then estranged—are punctuated by bursts of “Judas,” though readers will note that much of the blame for their estrangement can be laid squarely at Clough’s feet.

Bill Shankly, manager of Liverpool FC from 1959 to 1974 and protagonist of Red or Dead, is a much more appealing figure than Clough. There is a slight overlap between the two novels: Clough’s short stint at Leeds United began just weeks after Shankly’s sudden farewell to Liverpool in July 1974. The two novels also follow similar arcs: brilliant manager leads club to promotion out of the second division; earns acclaim; finds themselves paying more and more money for the transfer of players. And there’s a clear political dimension to each as well: Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister is juxtaposed with events late in each novel, and the ascendancy of one of the twentieth century’s best-known conservative politicians is contrasted with the actions of Peace’s two socialist protagonists.

“I was a bit tired of contributing to narratives of despair and defeat and I wanted to write a book about a good man for a change,” Peace told the BBC’s Radio Four when interviewed about Red or Dead. And it is clear from the outset that Shankly is a much more decent figure than one usually finds in a David Peace novel—particularly one the size of Red or Dead, which weighs in at over 700 pages. Shankly is happily married; his coaching methodology emphasizes the unity of the team, and he practices respect of his opponents.

Here, Peace examines Shankly—and finds the ways in which he is, ultimately, a fascinating figure—through an unorthodox approach. As with The Damned Utd, statistics and numbers and small details pop up throughout the narrative. In the case of Red or Dead, this becomes a way for Peace to shape Shankly’s character. Reading it, one gets the sense that Shankly is aware of this minutiae, constantly processing it, and deciding when best to act on it.

That level of detail is reflected in the prose. For this novel, Peace opts for the third person, albeit one that almost never leaves Shankly. Here, too, Peace’s use of repetition and refrain is elevated to an even higher level. (The phrase “At home, at Anfield” in particular reaches a certain degree of friendly ubiquity.) Much of that is accomplished over the level of paragraphs or pages, rather than via a series of revelatory individual sentences. This, in some ways, fits its subject: late in the book, Shankly tells a group of children playing a pickup game of soccer that they should aspire to playing as a team, rather than as individuals.

The rhythms that Peace establishes over the course of Red or Dead also serve well to convey the drama of soccer, both on the level of games and entire seasons. And, over the course of a game, these rhythms precisely evoke the movements of the players across the pitch. Here is Peace describing a Liverpool/Everton game early in the 1970-71 season:

But in the sixty-ninth minute, Steve Heighway slipped past Hurst on the left. Heighway cut inside from the left. And Heighway shot through four defenders into the net. The Everton net, the Everton goal. And five minutes later, again Heighway came down from the left. Heighway crossed from the left. John Toshack met the cross from the left. Toshack found the cross. And Toshack headed the cross into the net. The Everton net, the Everton goal.

That repetition also comes up in other ways. Scenes of Shankly at home setting the table for his family are written with the same meticulous repetition as Liverpool training sessions or the team’s progression through the FA Cup. One scene in which Shankly sets the table for four, then pauses and removes two places, serves as the only indication that his reader has had that his children have left home. In games in the late 1960s, when Liverpool played at a good-but-not-great level, readers may note that the descriptions of games are missing the crowd’s interjections of “LIV-ER-POOL” that had characterized earlier, similar scenes. And suddenly, they come back, and it’s as revealing as any statement of the team’s position in the standings of how well they’re doing. Late in the novel, a scene of Shankly washing his car takes up as much space as entire Liverpool seasons. Just short of halfway through the novel, Peace describes Shankly as “[a] very patient, impatient man.” As with some of the descriptions of Clough, it feels a little too perfect, but his later descriptions of Shankly’s quotidian actions bear this out well.

Red or Dead is divided into two parts (though the first is a bit longer than the second.) The first begins, more or less, with Shankly being offered the position of manager for Liverpool, at a time when the club had languished in the Second Division for years. Largely it follows the process of him leading them to successes—first, in the form of promotion to the First Division, and then, to win various titles in England and Europe. And in 1974, he retires, and thus begins the book’s second half, in which a man defined by his relationship to soccer must determine what his life is without it. “Whether I can live without it, I cannot answer now,” Shankly tells the assembled press when announcing his retirement. “I can only wait and see…”

Peace takes a very decompressed approach to writing about Shankly’s time as manager of Liverpool, and it’s one that pays off. One is left with a clear sense of what it is like to be in Shankly’s position: to see a team succeed or fail, on the levels of games and tournaments and seasons. Players enter in their youth and, eventually, suffer demotion to the reserve squad; Shankly and his coaching staff endure. In the end, both the triumph and the fatigue of managing Liverpool are made abundantly clear by Peace’s prose and his structural approach; it is a stunning and rare experience. In the second half, as Shankly settles into life without one thing that has defined him, it is equally illuminating to see how he reacts, from playing pickup games with neighborhood children to engaging in dialogue with Prime Minister Harold Wilson to struggling to find the appropriate distance from his old team.

“My football memories really start in 1974,” Peace told Andrew Anthony of The Guardian in a 2013 interview. “The first game my father took me to was when Brian Clough brought his Leeds team to play Huddersfield in a pre-season friendly. And Shankly, although I was aware of him, was never an active manager within my memory.” Through both of these novels, Peace avoids the clichés of sports narratives, reimagining the past and summoning tension from events that have been in the historical record for decades.

In these books, Peace has found another way to discuss his preferred themes, whether examining other aspects of ideology, obsession, and doing the right thing for questionable reasons, or of examining how one lives an ethical, organized life in the midst of chaos and change. In the same Guardian interview, he notes that, owing to a libel suit from former Leeds player Johnny Giles, The Damned Utd is “the most controversial thing I would write.” Red or Dead was in turn an attempt to write “more than another dark conspiracy.” Between these two books, then, can be found the tonal range of David Peace’s work; in them can be found the thrilling sublimation of conflicts personal and ideological.


Tobias Carroll writes fiction and nonfiction. He's the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his work has recently appeared in Tin House, The Collapsar, The Collagist, Joyland, Necessary Fiction, and Underwater New York. He recently completed a short novel, and is at work on another.