Alastair Campbell talks his new book Saturday Bloody Saturday

Alastair Campbell and his partner Fiona Millar on Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath

Alastair Campbell and his partner Fiona Millar on Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath - Credit: Fiona Millar

Gospel Oak’s Alastair Campbell talks about his latest novel with Paul Fletcher, focusing on a football team under pressure in the middle of the IRA troubles

Saturday Bloody Saturday

Saturday Bloody Saturday - Credit: Orion Books

If you prefer the Bolshoi to Bolton Wanderers, then Alastair Campbell’s Saturday Bloody Saturday, probably isn’t for you. This book unapologetically oozes football, like deep heat from a dressing room door at 5pm on a Saturday.

The book is a throwback to Campbell’s yesteryears in more ways than one. Not only is it set in 1974, when Campbell in his late teens was watching his native Burnley in the old First Division, but also it’s penned alongside former Clarets top-scoring striker Paul Fletcher.

However Campbell, who lives in Gospel Oak, had originally delayed looking at Fletcher’s idea. “I’ve got to know Paul over the years from when he was Chief Executive at Burnley, and we now travel to matches together. Once when we were heading to a game after my brother had died, he told me he had this idea for a book, and I said I’d have a look. I put it off, and the manuscript was on my bedside table. When I got around to reading it, while it wasn’t well written, the story was brilliant, and we went from there.”

The former Labour spin-doctor’s influences are also felt in the book’s themes, as well as the writing. The backdrop to the book is the atmosphere of fear after IRA attacks on English cities; Campbell was present at the Good Friday Agreement negotiations. Meanwhile Harold Wilson is on the brink of returning to power. Naturally the manager of the side, Charlie Gordon, partly inspired by Brian Clough, is looking forward to seeing Wilson back in Number 10, whereas the plotting board of directors want Heath to cling on.

Authors Alastair Campbell and Paul Fletcher

Authors Alastair Campbell and Paul Fletcher - Credit: Orion Books

The story of the book follows Gordon’s beleaguered side as they try and recapture past glories. They’re circling the drain of relegation, and the pressure’s on their Scottish manager to try and turn the season around. Themes common to any football fans are present, the young apprentice feeling a fish out of water, the board trying to avoid scrutiny over their less-than-legal practises, players frittering away thousands from a gambling problem they can’t escape, and the flash footballer with an eye for the ladies rather than where his next goal is coming from.

Reading the book, it’s easy to get confused as to which team you’re reading about. Footballing titans from the era are referenced, Billy Bremner, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, and others. Yet the side at the focal point of the book are never named. It’s a tactic which is entirely intentional according to Campbell.

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“We don’t give them a name, and we don’t give them colours because we wanted the reader to think it was their side, but particularly one in the north. According to Paul, sides at the time were scared of coming to London because of the IRA.”

The influence of the authors previous books are there. In 2015 he wrote Winners:How they succeed about the psychology behind teams, and that feeds into his writing about the side, but also about the terrorists planning to send a shock to the heart of the British establishment.

Reading the book, you get a feeling of empathy for the characters and are willing them to beat their own demons, as well as the opposition. Campbell felt the same way, particularly when the young trainee, Buchanan borrows the manager’s coat to go and ring his girlfriend in the rain after a match.

“I thought to myself what a sad sight that seemed him in this coat which dwarves him, but then I had to remember ‘wait a minute, he’s not real!’”

In footballing parlance, it’s a book of two halves. The first half is slow building, methodical, and resembles an insiders guide into a fictional club’s season review. The language at times is overplayed rather than incisive. However once the plot line becomes clear, how all of the factors will combine to produce the crescendo, it’s a book that hooks. The final twist is cleverly done, and leaves you kicking yourself for not seeing it coming sooner.

As for whether after the end of the book, the side manage to win the cup, Campbell shows his old habits die hard. “No, I don’t think they do. I think they get beaten by Burnley at Wembley.”

Contact Hampstead Waterstones to get your copy of ‘Saturday, Bloody Saturday’ signed