Football fiction has been a depressingly bare pitch of inspiration. There have been exceptions - the hugely imaginative short-story collections compiled by Simon Kuper and Nicholas Royle, and the engaging efforts of Greg Williams, Charles Higson and Mick Bower - but compared to the heaving shelf of non-fiction accounts of a life lived through football, novelists have largely avoided writing about the beautiful game.
The plot of Jonathan Tulloch's The Season Ticket has a gritty realism reminiscent of films such as This Sporting Life and Life at the Top. Few would see a Gateshead housing estate as an idyll of domestic happiness. But as those likely lads Bob and Terry discovered down the road in Hartlepool, the kinship of the extended family of male adolescence is a source of natural humour.
Tulloch's teenage protagonists, Sewell and Gerry, have something of Bob and Terry about them but, 20 years on, they have none of the life chances of the pre-yuppie Bob and few even of the unemployed Terry. Instead, truancy, breaking and entering, shoplifting and joyriding fill their days. However, their time is anything but misspent: they are on a mission to buy a pair of Newcastle United season tickets, to become part of the fabled Toon Army and to see Alan Shearer and their other heroes in the flesh.
The issue of social exclusion can be deadly dry in the hands of most jobbing sociologists. Yet The Season Ticket is funny, touching and occasionally moving in a way that too many metropolitan writers have forgotten how to achieve. The plot moves between the boys' hapless search for cash and the bitter reality of broken homes, abusive fathers, random violence, a moribund health service and the futility of nurturing a work ethic in a region where there is no work. But hope is what any Newcastle United fan must have in abundance after decades of disappointment and near misses, and this is what keeps Sewell and Gerry going. And hope, too, is the sense of a future that Tulloch leaves with his readers.
The book is set almost exclusively in Gateshead, in a region where the most famous landmark is undoubtedly the Metro shopping centre. Beyond this geography of deindustrialisation lies a blurring of the borders between town and country. The lads - and the action - shift easily from city and street to wood, forest and moors. Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North makes a cameo appearance, and there is an affinity between the landscape in The Season Ticket and that in Barry Hines's Kes. All that's missing is a fat teacher who thinks he's Bobby Charlton. Sadly, Brian Glover is no longer with us.