Author Q&A: Duncan Hamilton

Injury Time
(Riverrun Books, £18.99 hardback and ebook, £19.99 audiobook)

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Former footballer Thom Callaghan’s career was defined by one truly great moment: scoring the winning goal in an FA cup final. Now retired, Thom is asked to take over managing his former club – which is on the brink of relegation – from the cantankerous Frank Mallory. Duncan Hamilton, author of masterful sporting biographies and non-fiction – the only writer to have won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award three times – turns his hand to a novel for the first time. Thom goes drinking with George Best and spars on and off the pitch with Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Arsène Wenger, Alex Ferguson and more – along with a cast of brilliantly realised fictional characters. 

What inspired you to write a fictional football story following the success of your biographical works? 
In 2018 I published a football book called Going to the Match. The man who became the editor of Injury Time admired it so much that he wrote to me and said: “It’s time for you to write your novel.” I’d actually written a couple of chapters shortly before Provided You Don’t Kiss Me was published in 2007, but other things kept coming up, such as my biography of Harold Larwood. So I’d been carrying the plot and the characters around in my head for over a decade.

Injury Time combines a colourful cast of real and imagined characters. The protagonist Thom Callaghan and his mentor Frank Mallory have a unique relationship. Was there any real-life inspiration for that particular type of relationship in sport?
Well, I know everyone will assume that Frank is based on Brian Clough. Honestly, he isn’t. I think only about 10 per cent of Brian is in Frank. For one thing, Brian was a much kinder, less selfish and self-obsessed man than Frank. For another, I did have a specific manager and player relationship in mind when I wrote Injury Time. I’ll be fascinated to see if anyone spots what that relationship is. I’ll only give one clue. It began in the 1960s. I got the idea for Injury Time when I read their respective autobiographies. I also met them both during the 1970s and 1980s. I can tell you that Thom’s father is, essentially, my father. The book is even set in the year that he died.

You’ve rubbed shoulders with a lot of the football greats and the novel portrays some private and intimate chats with many of them. Are any of those conversations rooted in real-life exchanges with the individuals mentioned?
Oh, absolutely. Someone once said that most sensational things are perfectly true stories. There are some true stories in Injury Time – things which I was told, things which I overheard or witnessed. Let’s say I’ve “adapted” a few of them a little for the purpose of fiction. I researched others. I was very lucky. When I was writing about football, you could actually get very close to everyone involved in it. There were no set press conferences. You merely turned up at a club and waited for either the manager or the player you wanted to speak to. In mainland Europe, it was even better than that. You built friendships rather than contacts. You could also just pick up a phone and be almost certain the person at the other end would talk to you. Sadly, no one travels on the team coach these days the way I once did.

Was it a particular challenge to capture the intensity and action of football matches in a written format when it’s such a visual sport?
It’s difficult both in fiction and non-fiction because you have to make it seem real without dissolving into cliché. In 2008, David Baddiel wrote a piece in The Times headlined: “Why has no one ever written a great novel about football?” He concluded: “Football – if you are a fan – is just too dramatic, too genuinely exciting, too completely involving to fictionalise.” It’s true that every season contains shocks, surprises and enough drama to fill a library, but I’ve tried to capture that and also – as Alf Ramsey once said – the fact that “footballers just are people too”.

The book highlights some challenging issues such as mental health and loneliness. Do you feel professional football takes enough serious action to counteract them?
I think we’re only starting to do so as a country. Growing up, I don’t remember anyone talking about mental health. It was hidden away, a topic to be avoided. Thankfully, we’re in a more enlightened age. As
far as football is specifically concerned, I think the game has been shamefully slow to research the consequences of heading a ball. Why does it affect some ex-players so badly and not others? The game
needs to know the answer to that question and do something about it.

Thom Callaghan refers to his distaste for football autobiographies. “Most of them are so swollen with self-importance, so obsessed with self-justification and so choked with platitudes, evasions, excuses and a lot of other crap. The rest is just pap and padding that patronises the reader.” Does this reflect your own opinion?
Yes, that is me talking. It amazes me that publishers, who ought to know better, are still churning out books exactly like that – and doing so in the hope that the name on the cover will make them a few quid. Or – and this is worse – that there will be just enough in the book so a newspaper will pay for an extract. There are very few sporting autobiographies that are worth buying. Good ones are very rare – and getting rarer, I’m afraid.

What’s next for you? Do you plan to write more fiction books? 
I’m in the thick of researching a non-fiction football book, which is planned for 2023 (fingers crossed). Then I’ve agreed to write a cricket book. I’ve also been researching – on and off for the past seven years – another non-fiction football book. But I know exactly what happens next to Thom Callaghan and also to some of the other characters from Injury Time. Purely for my own amusement, I have even written the first page.

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