By Ross Raisin
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
2017 seems to be the year of closeted British soccer players! The new feature film The Pass features Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene as two young Premier League soccer players. Set in their hotel room, the night before a big match, they loll around in their underwear, dialling up the homoerotic tension to combustion point. A Natural also focuses on a closeted soccer player, Tom Pearman, a promising junior who is signed to Town, a team that has been newly promoted to League Two. Living away from his family for the first time, and adapting to the extreme pressures of the team, nineteen-year-old Tom also has to guard his own behaviour in this all-male, all-macho environment where penises casually flopping in his face are a changing room hazard!
The background of the professional soccer club is extremely well depicted – the intense stress, the brutal demotions, the hazing, and the constant scrutiny (not just by the coaches but also by the supporters). Although Tom seems poised to succeed, the novel’s other major character, Chris Easter, is definitely on a slow, painful decline. Easter is Town’s captain and was once the team’s star, but a run of poor performances and then a major injury have brought his career to a standstill. But Easter’s head is as wracked as his body is by the toll of his injuries. He is obsessed with the online message boards where the team’s performance is brutally dissected and where he himself is constantly trolled.
The pressures on these young players are acutely drawn and one of the book’s great strengths. The other exceptional accomplishment is the depiction of closeted Tom slowly being drawn into a relationship with another man. Although it is conducted with utmost secrecy, gradually concessions are made. Friends are told in strictest confidence. Tom confides in one of his team-mates and eventually his sister. The fledgling couple even go on holiday together to Portugal, where no one could possibly know them. But Tom’s future is always precarious. A new manager comes in, new players are signed, including a rising star who plays the same position as Tom.
It is no surprise that the climax of the novel depicts the exposure of the same-sex affair but it doesn’t play out as one might expect and Raisin also has one final twist up his sleeve. ‘Coming out novels’ were once the ubiquitous stock in trade of gay-themed fiction, but Ross Raisin has breathed a new life into this genre. It may be 2017 with gay visibility more in your face than ever before, but the closet doors rarely creak open for professional sportsmen and this is a devastating portrayal of their high stakes situation.