Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool may yet have a say in the matter, true, but Manchester City look set to win a sixth Premier League title since the club was bought by Abu Dhabi royals in 2008. Hard to imagine any of that making sense at the turn of the century, when City were out of the top flight and managed by Kevin Keegan, who could be found blaming yet another cup exit on a 27th-minute red card from the referee. “People should write about Uriah Rennie,” he fumed to reporters after the match, “because that’s what he wants.”
One imagines the glee with which Ashley Hickson-Lovence seized on those words for the epigraph to Your Show, a stirring, stylistically unorthodox novel that sets out to do exactly that by fictionalising the life of Rennie, the Premier League’s first black referee. Told as a montage of urgent second-person scenes, it’s a nervy psychodrama fuelled by ambition, envy, doubt and ego, cutting from his Jamaican boyhood and 1970s youth on a tough Sheffield estate to the highs and lows of a trailblazing career forged in a new era of professionalism for officials amid the sport’s sudden, Sky-fuelled glamour of the 1990s.
Hickson-Lovence re-creates all the talking points that launched a thousand phone-ins, from the time Rennie broke FA protocol to yank Roy Keane away from an opponent he was about to wallop to the red card he gave Alan Shearer, on the striker’s 100th appearance for Newcastle: the first in a series of run-ins that left the England captain (as fond of an elbow as Rennie was of a card) mischievously wondering aloud whether the referee was pursuing a vendetta.
These moments and others are narrated in insistent, fragmentary rhythms that meld You are the Ref-style dilemmas (“Should you caution [Neil] Ruddock? Should you caution [Ian] Wright? Should you book both?”) with freestyle poetry and kick-by-kick match description that speaks of endlessly rewound YouTube footage, to say nothing of quality time spent with David Peace’s Red or Dead, a blueprint for Hickson-Lovence’s biblically iterative prose.
As in Peace’s novel, the compositional method feels so basic that it really shouldn’t work, and yet it does, not least because Hickson-Lovence understands the value of ambiguity for his fundamentally celebratory enterprise. While it’s part of the book’s purpose to unpick the caricature of Rennie as a card-happy attention-seeker (the title reclaims an infamous incident in which a stadium announcer sarcastically welcomed back fans after half-time by saying: “Enjoy the second half of the Uriah Rennie show”), it clearly takes delicious pleasure in playing devil’s advocate for more Keeganesque views too: “Auf Wiedersehen, pet,” Rennie thinks, when Shearer finally retires.
Those tussles with Shearer, together with Rennie’s dream of overseeing an FA Cup final, add page-turning drive as well as poignancy once Rennie, injury-plagued, likewise hangs up his boots in 2008, just when the petro-dollars started flowing into the game. For Hickson-Lovence, you suspect Rennie’s story represents a simpler time, before VAR, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and “men… in overpriced PSG tops yapping on about Mbappé”, yet the bittersweet air overhanging this bold and powerful narrative experiment probably has more to do with things that haven’t changed, given that the Premier League’s first black referee is still its last.