BY DAVID MARPLES
Ostensibly, this is the story of the 1888-89 unbeaten double-winning Preston North End team in comic book form. As it is, there’s enough reason right there to dive straight in. After all, there’s not a lot to dislike, especially given that the artist responsible for the illustrations is David Sque, who worked on Roy of the Rovers.
But let’s take it up a notch. This graphic novel by Michael Barrett – born minutes away from Deepdale – tells not only the tale of the immortal 1888-89 season but also the rise of the professional game as we know it, and the growth of the cotton industry against the socio-economic backdrop of the rise of the working classes in northern England in the late Victorian era. Chuck in some Charles Dickens, American Civil War and some clown cricket (no, really) and you have a belting account on the beginnings of English football.
It’s a beautiful book. A4 sized with glossy pages and a front cover in the style of a classic cigarette trading card divided into eleven chapters, culminating in the season in which PNE not only won the inaugural league title but also remained unbeaten. Just for good measure, they went and lifted the FA Cup too.
Barrett’s story is meticulously researched and liberally sprinkled with lovely splashes of humour. Blunt Lancastrian accents delivered as asides raise a chuckle throughout, resulting in the reader rooting for not only the protagonists (William Suddell being the main one for his dogged determination and visionary thinking) but the people of Preston too. As Bennett confesses in his introduction, in researching the subject, he “found myself questioning any account that went against the North End men.” This approach, combined with Sque’s work, brings the whole thing to glorious life.
With snobbery surrounding the graphic novel form declining and the success of David Squires’ weekly work in The Guardian in which he offers his consistently amusing take on events on planet football, one is reminded why this visual medium is just lovely for football. The kid in you that read Roy of the Rovers and delighted in the double signing of Martin Kemp and Steve Norman yet was deeply saddened when Vic Guthrie and Carl Hunt lost their lives in a terrorist attack in 1986 will revel in the details of the art form when applied to vignettes of football action.
Every decision regarding the visuals and presentation is clearly done so with loving and tender care. The story itself is a belter too with Bennett laying the social and political groundwork of the establishment and rise of the club before the climax of the inaugural football league season.
PNE’s story is, of course, real Roy of the Rovers stuff which makes this book a perfect and triumphant storm of form and content.