ballrollsLatest reviews for For Whom the Ball Rolls

From The Sunday Times, 16/11/03

This endearing volume of 13 short stories is a fine read if you’re looking for something to brighten up a dull journey. It provides an antidote to the never-ending series of tabloid allegations surrounding the behaviour of today’s highly paid professional footballers.

Thankfully, Ian Plenderleith brings a supporter’s perspective to a variety of tangents, all of which are rooted in the beautiful game. His is a bittersweet world in which football can bring joy, misery and bewilderment in the same story (more than a passing resemblance to real life, then) and his tales are invariably underlined by a basic moral.

The Man In The Mascot is a delightful example, detailing the life of a failed alcoholic actor who has been left to pick up the fragile pieces in his latest “role” as Topsy the Toucan.

Plenderleith’s skill is to offer up the painful existence inside the suit ­ being constantly verbally abused and poked ­ as a mirror to our actor’s unsuccessful life outside.

At least in costume he can take his revenge ­ attacking abusive supporters behind the stands ­ and work while inebriated on vodka.

But outside the mask, the actor is crippled by low self-esteem and self-hatred; he has resorted to lying to his girlfriend about his job and is living in squalor. Plenderleith’s twist at the end, as the girlfriend confronts the truth, is top-notch.

The attention to detail and focus on the little man is at the essence of the author’s art.

At a time when everybody seems to be obsessed with the Premiership, warts and all, it is refreshing that Plenderleith should turn the spotlight on the characters we have all seen, or met, at football grounds, especially at lower league level ­ individuals we can all relate to.

There’s the heckler, for example, who has his own set of adoring fans but who ends up as the victim of his own “success”.

And what about the youngster who makes a terrific save after being asked to keep goal in a match of older lads, only to realise he is wasting his time describing the magical occasion to his cynical father and uncle? They wouldn’t want to know about his footballing heroics and they probably wouldn’t believe him in any case.

Where Mothers Cease To Tread is probably the best of the stories here. On the surface, it is the tale of a journeyman full-back in the Sunday leagues whose existence is dominated by his mother. It could be about any number of loyal fans and players who are willing to put up with almost anything as long as they can get their weekly fix of football.

Plenderleith’s mischievous twist is that the control freak has died on the day of the Cup Final and the journeyman must decide whether to report her death and miss the big game, or pretend that she isn’t dead and play in the final.

There are no prizes for guessing the outcome. Well, what would you do in similar circumstances?

From The Mission Statement, September 2003
I’ll be honest; this book worried us for a while. They sent us it out of nowhere. We had no idea where it had come from and especially how they had got our address. Then we worked it out. Then we read it. And it worried us even more. It is very Mission Statement, which isn’t to say that Plenderleith has any idea who or what TMS is, more that it is slightly unsettling, but also uplifting, to find others doing similar stuff to you. So we’ll start this by saying if you like us you might like this.

And then this worried us the most – there is a desire, whether from Plenderleith himself, or more likely his publishers and press people, to segregate Plenderleith, to call him a football fiction writer rather than a writer of fiction. The places they have blurbs from are “442”, “Total Football”, “When Saturday Comes” (for which Plenderleith wrote), “” and “Shoot Monthly”. The Sunday Times refers to his love of football. All the more relevant is his love of the internal voice, his love of the way people think as there is one thing that erodes its way through this collection of stories: that Ian Plenderleith is a very good writer. Football is but the conduit.

Plenderleith has a good sense of the absurd and knows how to spring the odd surBeing a collection of short stories it is fair to say that Plenderleith looks at many different areas, but it can be argued that identity appears to be his main theme. Each of the characters in the stories seems to be having some degree of an identity crisis, whether it is a genuine confusion about themselves, or the fear of presenting themselves to the outside world. “The Man In The Mascot” lies about his job, preferring to have his girlfriend believe he is a footballer, the eponymous story “For Whom The Ball Rolls” shows a man broken by his cup final miss. He can only view his life through this moment. “Behind a Common Cause” shows a socialist stuck trying to watch a game while trying to impress his girlfriend. It becomes a cathartic event – he realises who he isn’t. “The Night Football Wrecked My Life” shows a character who is closer to his aggressive football mate than the business world, resulting in an act of violence. In the non-football section “Opining For Democracy’s Sake” shows a man fast becoming like his bigoted father.

Each of the stories mentioned above crackle with wit, poignancy and sharp characterisation. “Older and Wiser” is a beautiful window into two minds, everything a short story should be, and again isn’t a football piece. It leaves the reader writing his own story about what has preceded the action. It is a shame to lose the company of these characters after a mere eight pages. In addition to that story another father-child relationship is beautifully explored in “Drunk On Success”, the story of a teenager’s team punishing their pushy, aggressive parents. This gives Plenderleith more opportunity to show contradictions between behaviour internal opinions and human behaviour.

This collection is not perfect, “The Right Result” is something of a sour denouement to an otherwise excellent tale, the clever ending put in seemingly only to act as a punchline, rather than staying true to the characters. “The Day FIFA Came To Lincolnshire” is more of a curiosity than a proper story and “Me at Xmas 2049” seems a little indulgent. But these are pithy criticisms. The surreal, almost Kafkaesque humour of “The Man Who Forgot What Football Results Meant”, or the viciousness of “Fitchie Gets The Point” (in which a non-football supporter points out the emotional involvement does not equal the league remuneration, a dramatic draw earns the same point as a boring one) both attack football supporters. Plenderleith writes like a man looking to move away from football. In his stories he points out the foibles of the supporters, generally sarcastically. The fact that we care so much about other people’s achievements is something he tends to sneer at, perhaps rightly so.

It is Plenderleith’s ability to write about people that is exceptional here. If these characters were literary or political types, going about their business within a collection of short stories it would not be marketed or reviewed as genre based, as it seems to be doing – we wouldn’t have received our discomfiting copy. But I’m glad we did, I’m glad that for this collection he is pigeonholed. But by the time of his next work, hopefully a novel, I hope Plenderleith and his advisors are willing to let him test himself outside of football, outside of an easily captured audience and allow his ability to frame poignant emotions with true lightness of touch free rein.

 Other reviews


“A fascinating collection of stories… a must for all those who love football and love reading.” Liverpool Echo, 30/8/03

“Delicious black comedy ideal not just for football fanatics, but anyone with a wry sense of humour.” Western Mail Magazine, 20/9/03

“ANOTHER collection celebrating the beautiful game, but this time fiction, with a few non-football related stories to prove that Plenderleith can craft an entertaining, offbeat little tale. He understands both the necessities of the short story idiom and the equal demands of football worship. The result? Stories that bring out the passion, fears, hopes and failures of his characters, football fans or not. A failed actor plumbs the depths as Topsy the toucan, a football mascot. A pushy father becomes unhinged at a son¹s football match. A business entertainer has to choose between his career and football. Perfectly dippable, it’s the ideal accompaniment to the late summer and cunningly timed for the kick-off of the new season.”
The Scotsman, 23/8/03

‘”His love of the game comes through in this collection of short stories. A collection of characters and stories that have humour, tenderness and situations that everyone has experienced.”
Burton Mail, 23/8/03

“Football journalist Plenderleith obviously knows his stuff. This is a little more than your average lad fiction.”
South Wales Echo, 9/8/03

“Written with flair and substance. If you’re anticipating Roy of the Rovers from start to finish, this is not for you. It is, however, well written and has wide appeal.”
Shoot Monthly

“The football stories contained here are funny and poignant but Plenderleith has enough about him to entertain when the action strays away from the field of play.” Glasgow Herald

“Ian Plenderleith’s excellent short stories follow a similar pattern – he concocts a great punchline and spins a web of circumstances that allow him to deliver itŠ These are well-crafted tales from a writer with a good grasp of the dynamics of the short story and a firm grip on the reality (and surreality) of what it means to be a football fan.” Total Football (UK national soccer monthly)

“Plenderleith injects genuine pathos into his tales… Recommended.” FHM

“Reviewing football books is a double-edged sword. As you wade through page after page of dull-as-dishwater tomes explaining in excruciating detail that football is now heavily influenced by money and football/violence books in which ugly blokes with beer bellies tell you that they’re very, very hard, the only thing to keep you awake is the knowledge that there are books like For Whom The Ball Rolls out there. Books written by people who love football.

“Although this book is an entirely fictional collection of short stories, it manages to capture precisely what the game means to so many people in a way that no in depth academic study of footy, no matter how well meaning, ever will. Nice.” (international soccer website)

“Grimly funny” The Observer

“For Whom the Ball Rolls is a superb volume of mainly football related stories from WSC regular Ian Plenderleith in which the author looks behind almost every emotion connected with the game and delivers a wonderful collection of tales that will set new standards in football fiction.

“From the semi-autobiographical tale of childhood in ‘Save of the Day’ to ‘The man in the Mascot’, the story of a failed alcoholic actor, Plenderleith gets into the psyche of all his characters and gives each story a poignancy and sharpness previously lacking in many that have tackled this genreŠ in fact it is the varied nature of these tales that makes the book so readable. Ranging from bittersweet to sidesplitting, there seems no emotion has been unturned by Plenderleith as he casts his eye over football’s incongruous as well as euphoric nature.

“I really can’t praise this book highly enough, it’s as eloquent a footie book as you’d find anywhere. Intelligent, thoughtful and praiseworthy in the extreme, go out and buy this book now.

“In a word …………Brilliant! ” Footie51 (UK-based independent soccer website)

“This breezy collection of short stories offers critical and sympathetic celebrations of the game¹s little people ­ the eccentrics, the small-town dreamers, the losers and loners, the frustrated idealists and the plain mad. In short, the sort of people who, it might uncharitably be said, read magazines such as this one…

“Plenderleith has a good sense of the absurd and knows how to spring the odd surprise. There is darkness, pathos and a pleasing lack of sentimentality. There is more than enough here to entertain discerning fans of the game and, for that matter, many who can¹t stand it. Real storybook stuff, as they say. Or perhaps not, thankfully.” When Saturday Comes (UK national soccer monthly)

“In this collection of short stories football is a mere springboard in a study of some wonderfully weird lives.” Four Four Two (UK national soccer monthly)