Everything about my reading and research of football novels (and I can say, hand on heart, my research has led me to read hundreds of them – not exaggerating) made me not want to read Mr Cleansheets. It looked every bit the mediocre romanticised tosh so often turned out when a failed footballer wrestles their fantasy onto paper. If only for the solid recommendation of a very smart and well respected Norwich City fan (a phrase you might never see again) I would not have paid as much attention. I would have had a look at it one day, but not in a hurry.
Then I started reading it.
As I imagined, it’s filled with silliness and melodrama and reaching coincidence, but it differentiates itself with pace and humour, action aplenty, rounded characters, and a solid story. As far as football fiction goes Mr Cleansheets makes it beyond the fourth round of the cup.
When I get a chance, I’ll be picking up Adrian Dean’s other work too.
The titular Mr Cleansheets, Eric Judd to everyone but his team mates – including his millionaire rock star girlfriend – stands squarely between the posts of a far-fetched but enjoyable stand up blend of wisecracks, football and high impact airport fiction adventure.
On the way to its dramatic though not unexpected conclusion, there are football matches, hooligans, sports and secret agents, white supremacists, terrorist plots, kidnappings, goals, Glastonbury, love, and friendship.
Eric, a decent keeper and a bit of a dick, falls into it all the same way he fell into the inheritance that provides the catalyst for his dream’s pursuance. His good luck, football smarts and willingness to dirty his hands combined with the generosity of the people he meets see him china-shopped bull his way to a fitting ending. Very decent and much more detailed reviews do a much better job of outlining the story if you’re interested, see South of the Border or this excellent review on ever reliable Footy Almanac review by Adam Myut
Deans puts an innovative spin on the classic football fan pursues his love of the game to an extreme any self-respecting manchild could dream of. Any one my (and I suspect the author’s) age who played football at any level who still imagines one day it could happen for them – I can’t help thinking of Tony Hedges and Ron Benson in Mike Bassett: Football Manager – will find Judd likeable and enough of an arse to counteract the quiet envy. Watching him negotiate his way through a series of crises is a lot of fun.
Up against other novels in this type of football fiction, Mr Cleansheets has dimension. It appears to draw on Steeple Sinderby as it meets Colin Bateman on the way to the game (I know he’s not a football fiction writer, but he’s a St Mirren fan and he writes cracking and often very funny action novels).
It has its flaws, the phonetic presentation of the multitude of accents gets tiresome for example, but it does well to draw on real clubs and references without dating itself.
In terms of its position in the genre, there are approximately 62 pages of on the pitch football from first person perspective, which make it rare within the genres fold football, the fact that it does it well is an additional bonus.
It’s not literature, but I don’t think that was Deans’ intention. It takes the best elements of football fiction’s romantic texts and its club saving adventure story and throws them from the sidelines into a blender with bullets and music and thugs. The result is an unapologetically far-fetched action-packed novel riddled with great humour.
One of the gifts of football is the clean sheet. It’s a good day at work for a keeper when nothing gets past him. That football has a keeper, as Eric Judd, Adrian Deans’ dynamic hero, argues is what separates it from those other free scoring codes in Australia. In football the goal, to score a goal, is precious. They are difficult to get and prized. Just like a good book really.