Reviewing a book you really enjoyed can be difficult because there’s so much to talk about. You fall under the spell not just of the language, the plot or the characters, but the whole package. So it is with Danny Rhodes’ Fan, a remarkable evocation of the pre-Premiership era of English football. This is a book that contains a real longing for this lost world – but one that is also soaked in anger, horror and violence.
The story has 30-something teacher John Finch returning home to Grantham to attend the funeral of an old friend. Finch has problems of his own – his relationship with his girlfriend is faltering, and he has been suspended from his job as a teacher. Alongside this, Finch is also haunted by the shadow of the Hillsborough disaster, the FA Cup semi-final match between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool which saw 96 football fans lose their lives. Finch was there as a Forest supporter and watched in increasing disbelief and horror from the other end of the stadium as the Leppings Lane stand was filled to bursting point, very much aware that he could have been there himself.
This event is the black dog that haunts Finch throughout this book, the fixed point around which the rest of his life seems to turn. Like so many other survivors of that tragedy Finch is left wondering why he survived when others did not. And it is this guilt which explains much of what happens to Finch in the book. It leaks through into the rest of his life – in his relationships with his family, friends and his teenage girlfriend – and the way Rhodes shows this is very powerfully done. As a teenager, football meant everything to Finch – and to have this (arguably obsessive) love snatched away from him by Hillsborough is tragic in itself. It is an aspect of the disaster not often commented upon.
The scenes set at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 are very well written, with a rising, almost unbearable sense of dread as kick-off approaches. Rhodes gives us the view of the Forest spectators as they watch the carnage in mute shock, as well as the aftermath – the near silent train journey home, and the way that Finch’s workmates struggle to acknowledge what he has been through. The experience leaves Finch a man full of guilt and anger, bubbling with a rage that frequently threatens to overwhelm him.
Reading Fan, I was reminded of another football novel, David Peace’s The Damned United. Both feature Brian Clough – it is Clough’s death in 2004 which sets the action of Fan in motion. When I saw him speak last year, Peace said that his book was an attempt at a football mystery novel – why did Clough take the job at Leeds United, and why was he sacked so quickly? Fan also poses two difficult (and potentially unanswerable) questions: how did Hillsborough change John Finch and the thousands of other fans like him; and how can he/they deal with that burden? Rhodes suggests that there is a way of coming to terms with it, but also that such an accommodation is hard-won, and reached only on individual terms. It is this strength of character and personality that makes Fan such a successful book for me. Whilst written on a smaller scale than The Damned United it is also very much its equal; and I can think of no higher praise than that.