The Evergreen in Red and White

Written by Steven Kay
Review by Jane Hill

Rabbi Howell is twenty-eight. Born in a tent on the edge of Sheffield to Romani parents, he escaped the mines and became a professional footballer for the new-formed team of Sheffield United, but a heavy tackle leaves him on the bench for the rest of the season. Is this the beginning of the end? His in-laws regularly tell their daughter, Selina, that her husband needs a proper job. She is just glad that with young mouths to feed he is earning money, but sometimes it seems he is living a dream without her.

Rab is on light training until his leg mends, but he is being paid, and he has the support and encouragement of his brother, Charlie. Then he encounters a lame horse, and a red-headed girl… and everything changes.

This is a fictional account of a real man’s life, and much of the story is drawn from fact. The football history is fascinating and will engage even readers without an interest in the game. The life and work of a professional footballer in the 1890s was very different from the modern image – an employee of the club, players were expected to toe the line. There was no glory or adulation and Rab was looked down upon because he did not work in the pit. The social background is well crafted, drawing on real events such as the Queen’s visit to Sheffield. This was a world where everyone knew their place and duty; the common man respected his betters and did as he was told. A player who argued risked his livelihood; a married man who spoke to an unmarried woman was risking everything.

The story is about a footballer, but it is not a football story. Rabbi Howell is a Romani, but this is not a gypsy romance. It is an engaging, compelling, read, with finely drawn characters and a fascinating background. Highly recommended.