Panenka – Rónán Hession (Bluemoose Books, May 2021).

A celebration of the things other novels often avoid – and all the better for it.

A wise man recently told me there are an estimated three billion football fans worldwide.

Now this might be a slight overestimate but, whatever the actual number, it’s safe to stay that football is a wildly popular game. So why are there so few novels about it? And why even fewer good ones?

I can only think of three decent adult novels about football – Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, That Damned United by David Pearce (which is partly biographical) and The Van by Roddy Doyle (and, although it’s not a novel, I might throw in too Salley Rooney’s excellent story Robbie Brady’s astonishing late goal takes its place in our personal histories).

I’m sure there are others of course but, given the huge global reach of football, this still seems a shockingly small number. It’s a curio. Football plays a part in the life of vast numbers of people across the world but is conspicuously absent in fiction. There are some things it seems which, despite their prevalence in people’s actual lives, are simply deemed unfitting topics for literary exploration.

But luckily for us Rónán Hession disagrees – and in Panenka has given us a top-class piece of footballing fiction.

The novel tells the story of Panenka, the eponymous protagonist, a middle-aged man crippled by late-night headaches. He lives in The Crucible, a working-class neighbourhood in an unnamed city (perhaps a cross between Dublin and Manchester) and we follow him as he tries to make amends with both himself and his estranged daughter, Marie-Thérése. But as Panenka’s journey to remedy his present unfolds, it gets interspliced with the thorny path of his past: his time spent playing for The Crucible’s beloved football team, Seneca FC.

Seneca are a cause of simultaneous adoration and frustration for the stoically loyal locals; forever on the cusp of making of big but always falling short. The town both loves them as one and hates them as one, often seemingly close to physical pain when watching them play but always unable to look away. And it is Panenka’s connection with Seneca which has made and marred the character we meet in Chapter 1.

The best books about football, like Roddy Doyle’s The Van or Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, are not really about football, of course. They are about, as much as novels are ‘about’ anything, humanity and life and relationships – football is just the background where these human interactions can play out. And so it is too with Hession’s Panenka.

This is only Hession’s second novel (his first being the cult success Leonard and Hungry Paul) but in Panenka we see again his already distinct oeuvre; that of the quiet novel, the narrator with an unerring ability to observe the minutia of life and relationships with skill, precision and tenderness. And so Seneca FC becomes the proxy by which we gain insight into the novel’s protagonist and his cast of supporting characters, the vehicle which delivers us to a terminus of judgement as we guess and second guess all their insecurities and foibles.

There are so many moments in this novel which excel in showing Hession as an author who has succeeded in stopping and listening to the human interactions around him: when Panenka’s daughter has to negotiate a socially awkward lunch break after a promotion to middle management, the innocent questions of Panenka’s grandson, the rhythm of the spiky conversations between Panenka’s friends in the local bar, and how, through the tragic arc of Panenka himself, the town seek to distil a complex story about the causes of failure down into a easily digestible narrative. There so many moments which, for me, mark out a good book – points where, in reading about a character, the reader stops to ask ‘but how did the author know that about me?’.

Panenka is a great novel.

It’s a great novel about life and a great novel about people.

But it is also a great novel about football. And Hession is not afraid to admit it.