A story about arson spawned the hero of Alan Gibbons's latest series on a Liverpool junior football team. Karen Hooper met the teacher turned author
Somehow, even when I win I'm a loser," says Kev McGovern, captain of the Rough Diamonds, in Alan Gibbons's Some You Win. The book, the first in the compelling Total Football series, follows the fortunes of Kev, introduced in primary teacher Alan's 1996 exploration of arson, Playing with Fire.
He promises that the story of Kev, the desperate son of a drug dealer, will run "until it's out of steam" in the Total Football books. Four more titles are due out between now and July.
Gibbons's fascination with football language and technique, and his celebration of its icons - he wants to be Eric Cantona when he grows up - makes his gritty portrayal of the trials and tribulations of the Rough Diamonds junior football team on a Liverpool housing estate as provocative as it is entertaining.
He draws on his experience as a father of four and a teacher of 10 and 11-year-old Evertonians who dares to support Manchester United. But he adds: "Children have their own secret lives that adults can never be part of. "
In 1990 his teacher-training tutor encouraged him to write stories to inspire the "lively, switched-off" seven-year-olds in his class. He started with a story of an alien landing in Liverpool, illustrated by his wife, Pauline. Within three months Dent had accepted his first published book, Our Peculiar Neighbour.
Since then the fight against racism and injustice have fuelled his books. Whose Side Are You On?, influenced by a schoolyard fracas when he was a child, revisits slavery, while The Street of Tall People explores the friendship between a Jewish boy and a Gentile during the 1936 Cable Street confrontation with Mosley's blackshirts.
The story of Alan's own grandfather's death in a railway accident is woven into this moving account. "It's a way of repaying a debt to people who got through the hardest times," he says. He finds the language of the Jewish East End of London (the book has a Yiddish glossary) just as exciting, rich and bawdy as the Scouse echoed in his football series.
Gibbons admits the bullied character Davy in Chicken parallels his experience as a farm labourer's son at a primary school in Crewe, where he was bullied by children and teachers. He says: "I detested school. I stopped reading and writing - I stopped dreaming."
He was unsettled until he trained as a teacher in his early 30s. But the experience gave him the discipline to write every evening between 7.30pm and 9pm, always tired, always to an imaginary R'n'B soundtrack.
Total Football taps into his childhood fascination with the Viking legends, in which evil might win but the goodies fight on. "The battle between good and evil goes on in Kev McGovern," says Gibbons. "And it's a tremendous motif for children."
So, he says, at least half of the Rough Diamonds team of 11 will face unhappy endings, "and that's being charitable". Gibbons claims he is "dealing with the cultural fall-out of social exclusion". And he's addressing adolescent males - "the most neglected constituency in literature". He believes his books reflect children's own lives more than the glossier sports fiction, with its "ludicrous scenes of junior footballers coming out to a crowd of 5,000".
He says: "I'm trying to deal with the reality of 18 people and a dog watching on a scabby playing field in the pouring rain with crisp packets flying past. I like to see it as these kids playing out their dreams with derelict ghost towns left by the mistakes of adults in the background."
Alan Gibbons's books are published by Orion. The first Total Football titles - 'Some You Win' and 'Under Pressure' - cost Pounds 9.99 (hbk) and Pounds 2.99 (pbk)