Monday, January 31, 2011

Dreamland: A Scottish World Cup Success Story

Football lends itself supremely well to the pursuit of counterfactual history.

Maybe that's particularly true of international football in Scotland with our litany of perceived hard luck stories and our decades old theme of being governed by diddies.

There is an argument that counterfactual history is little more than a distraction to the real study of history, a parlour game that shouldn't detract from more serious business. Why argue over a "what if…" when we we already know what did happen? Fair enough.

But we should all be allowed a bit of fun. And what could be more fun than applying a touch of virtual history to a book about Scotland's national football team, whose "what ifs…" are always more romantic, more glorious than the reality.

The result is every schoolboy's sporting fantasy. A parallel world where Scotland have a World Cup history that matches the brilliance of our individual talents, where Scotland really did become the "greatest football team."

That, as the title of Graham McColl's novel suggests, would be a Dreamland.

McColl covers 60 years of World Cup history. Scotland's greatest players and managers, and our most comedically grotesque administrators, mingle with the odd fictional eyewitness from the fourth estate and the terraces, to chart the World Cup history we all wish we'd had.

And it is a hell of a cast to call on. Bill Shankly, with his hyperactive and entirely democratic approach to the discussion - democratic if all you wanted to do was listen, whoever you were - of football, is a gift for a novelist.

The bringing together of the great triumvarate of Scottish managers, Shankly, Matt Busby and Jock Stein, is fine dramatic device as well as serving as a reminder of the days when it seemed that we really did rule the world.

There are a fine list of villains as well. From George Graham, think a 1950s George Peat, who refused to let Scotland attend the first post-war World Cup to South American defenders and dictators to Stein baiting journalists and bandwagon jumping fans of the "new" football of the 1990s.

Even an unnamed Jimmy Hill is allowed an appearance, a dismembered voice echoing in an Italian stadium.

Sometimes the pudding can be over egged. The World Cup drama that Ally McLeod managed to write for himself was so compelling that it is difficult to improve on. Where do you take a fictional Ally? That McColl's answer includes the overthrowing of a dictator and a turn as a water skiing politician shows the difficulty of creating a larger than life fictional persona for a man who was in life, rightly or wrongly, already seen as larger and life.

But this is a comic novel. It is not trying to do for Jim Baxter or Matt Busby what David Peace did for Brian Clough in The Damned United's dramatic re-imagining of dark, tormented souls. So Baxter can remain forever suspended as the playboy joker, as irresistible to women as he was unplayable to Alan Ball. And Busby can always be the benovelent grandfather with tactical nous and an Ayrshire miner's regard for the value of pennies and pounds.

And largely the comedy works. The chapter on 1998 didn't come off for me because it was allowed to unfold as it actually happened, the comedy provided by the hapless "yah" from Edinburgh's New Town suddenly drawn to the game as football enjoyed a renaissance as a respectable sport for respectable spectators.

We've all met his kind before. But as a comic device it didn't really happen. Maybe I was just depressed though. As McColl points out, threatening the fourth wall, by the end of our 1998 campaign most of us were in agreement that this had been too bad to make up.

But there are funny moments enough to keep the reader smiling even as thoughts turn wistfully to the World Cup squads we once had - or could have had - in those years when our international failures, given the talent available at the time, were probably almost as bad as the current squad's shortcomings.

The book ends with a young Scotland squad unexpectedly embarking on another World Cup odyssey. Fitting really. McColl shows that reimagining our footballing past can be funny and diverting. But it is the dreams of the future that will always sustain the football fan.

Buy Dreamland: A Scottish World Cup Success Story at Amazon