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Ross Raisin tackles football’s taboo

New novel about a gay professional footballer is a poignant read

15 June, 2017 — By Peter Gruner

Ross Raisin. Photo: Urszula Soltys

TOM Pearman is a top professional footballer who is haunted by a deep secret. He dare not divulge to his teammates and fans that he is gay.

A Natural, by Finsbury Park novelist Ross Raisin, is about 19-year-old Tom’s acute anxiety and relentless brooding that at any moment he will be found out.

Talking to this newspaper, Raisin said he wanted to describe a little of the loneliness and sense of alienation of his character. Poignantly written, the story exposes chauvinism and macho behaviour among individuals running professional men’s football, and the associated laddish culture.

Homosexuality was legalised 50 years ago and is now accepted in every walk of life. But one wonders how many so-called progressive fans, who rightly condemn racism in the terraces, feel as strongly about an undercurrent of homophobia?

Raisin said: “What is it like for a person who has grown up inside a closed community, who has always known and believed only what exists inside that community, and who comes to understand that there is something innate in them which is completely at odds with everything they’ve ever believed in?

“This thought came when thinking about young footballers, and grew into the thought of a young footballer who, in the world outside of the closed community of football, would probably understand himself as gay.”

The novel highlights the predicament of gay footballers who still feel unable to come out of the closet in Britain’s most popular game.

Tom is playing for a second division southern team called Town. Even his proud parents and sister Rachel, who turn up at matches to support him, don’t know that he is gay.

Rachel asks if he is seeing anyone. When he says no she replies: “It’s all right, I won’t tell Mum and Dad. I bet you’ve got girls coming on to you all the time.”

Tom says: “Not really. Sometimes.”

Raisin writes that Rachel’s “faithful smile” penetrated Tom, alongside a deep but impossible need to confide in her.

“Once, two years ago, drunk in his bedroom, he almost had, but then immediately had clammed up in confused panic.”

Tom discovers that the club’s head groundsman Liam is gay and they strike up a secret sexual relationship. “As long as they were not seen together too often,” Raisin writes, “nobody would suspect anything, they believed. They did not look gay, they told themselves. Appearing to be friends was a more sensible ploy than pretending not to know each other.”

Eventually Tom and Liam go on holiday together. They find, albeit briefly, moments of happiness when they can really be themselves. But while they are able to relax about their relationship, who they really are has to remain a secret from any new friends they meet.

On their return to England, Tom discovers to his horror that Liam has revealed their secret to a woman friend who is the wife of a leading player.

Raisin, who grew up in Yorkshire, writes authoritatively about the game and is a fan of Bradford City. He did a fun event at Dulwich Hamlet football club, and recently had contact with new charity, Sports Allies, which works to promote inclusion and prevent homophobia in sport.

So, has there been much feedback from the book, particularly from football clubs and the gay community?

Raisin said: “It’s a slow bleed, a novel – both in its completion, and in its reception. Sometimes it’s a letter that you receive years after publication that finally gives you a sense of the effect a book might have had, in its connection with readers.

“And that, of course, is what matters most – readers. The critical reception of A Natural appears to have been really good (my wife reads that stuff for me), but other than that, other types of feedback are only now starting to arrive.”

A Natural. By Ross Raisin, Jonathan Cape, £14.99

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