I'd take a guess that John King probably has read Buford. Regardless, his first novel pulsates with the intensity of inside knowledge - I know nothing about him at all but it's immediately apparent that he knows what he's writing about and that's what matters. The Football Factory is so comfortably the best fictional work about football I've seen or read that the rest should be embarrassed.
More Hubert Selby than Nick Hornby, this is a novel that forces you into hard choices and relentless self-examination. Although considerably less violent than the cover would like to suggest (I mean, I'd just finished a Dennis Cooper novel and it'd have to go some to out-do that), it's never easy reading because it looks deep inside the characters responsible for football violence, seeing the good as well as the bad, the reasons as well as the excuses. Thankfully, the author takes a backseat and there's no sermonising, no philosophising - King is content to set his characters up and let them do the talking. Just the way it should be.
At times this is so effortless you wonder why it took so bloody long for someone to come up with a novel this good. While concentrating on his main character - Tom Johnson, a member of a Chelsea firm - King weaves in others' lives to the narrative, giving us the full fabric of modern London society. Thus we hear from war veterans, journalists, fanzine writers (a one-sentence chapter - Beckett meets the Headhunters?), mothers, children... Why? Because this is a book about London, England as much as anything else - yes, it centres around football but we all know that the conflict of the match is just a formalisation of the conflicts in society.
The bits that actually concentrate on matches are extraordinarily convincing. For a start, King resists the temptation to present a sensationalist view. So, although we get big rucks against Tottenham, West Ham and Millwall (in the latter, Tom gets an almighty kicking - an obvious parallel with Buford's account), we're also treated to Rochdale, Wimbledon and Norwich. And that's the best thing - the acknowledgement that football, even hooliganism, is frequently as mundane and frustrating as ordinary life. Tom sits watching Chelsea against Wimbledon with the flu and there's instant identification (we've all sat watching crap football wishing we could go home, I think); the Chelsea firm turns up outside Villa's Holt End only to find that there's no-one there to fight with, so they end up watching the match with Rod worrying that his wife might be pregnant.
I suppose that's the point, if there is one. That hooligans are little different from the rest of us - certainly, King does his best to dispel the myth that they're not true football supporters - and that we're not in any position to sit in judgement. The casual, flippant bigotry is an obvious flaw in that argument - but you get that just as much from the ordinary public in the street, so even that's dubious. In the end, there are no conclusions - the novel ends with a stabbing and life goes on. It's like we've been given a window into another world and someone's drawn the curtains to shut us out again.
As with Buford, I can't recommend this enough. Although I had doubts before, caused by years of seeing football fictionalised in a glib, lazy way, The Football Factory comes at you from all angles, modern literature and football in perfect harmony at last. As a novel, it's very fine indeed, particularly for a first effort; as a book about football, it's brave, potent and convincing.