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How Pickles the dog, an England footballer and homelessness inspired new book

England footballer Fara Williams’ six-year spell without a secure home inspired best-selling children’s author Phil Earle’s new book out on World Book Day
Fara Williams and the story of how Pickles the Dog found the stolen World Cup trophy inspired a new children's book on homelessness. Image credit: James Boyes/Wikimedia Commons Inset: Barrington Stoke

The story of Pickles, the dog who found the stolen World Cup in 1966, has entered into football folklore with almost the same reverence as England winning the trophy in the same year.

Now, the tale is being retold on World Book Day. But the new take – by best-selling children’s author Phil Earle – is focusing on hidden homelessness too.

The real-life story of how England footballer Fara Williams battled homelessness inspired Earle to raise awareness of the issue for youngsters.

Williams, the most capped England footballer of all-time, spent six years living in temporary accommodation in the early part of her playing career.

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 “The Pickles story felt like a nice kid-friendly thing I could get my teeth into. But that didn’t feel like it was enough – I wasn’t massively inspired by the idea of rewriting history,” Earle told The Big Issue.

“My son Stan had just read a non-fiction book about the most unlikely stories in football and one of them was about Fara Williams. I found it utterly unbelievable.

“We’ve grown up now with footballers earning a fortune on 300 grand a week, driving fast cars and living in mock Tudor mansions and here is the most capped England player ever and for the first years of her international career she was homeless. It gave me a bit of a jolt.”

When I looked into how office blocks are used as homes, it was just utterly shocking that people could be dehumanised so much

The Dog that Saved the World (Cup) tells the story of Elsie – named after Earle’s daughter – who sees her dreams of playing at Wembley during half-time of an England World Cup match under threat.

When Elise’s dad loses his job, the family has to move into temporary accommodation. Enter beloved family Pickles to save the day and the World Cup tournament, as the real-life Pickles did when he sniffed out the stolen Jules Rimet trophy back in 1966.

The book – intended for readers aged eight and up – is Earle’s 18th and is the first time he has approached the subject of homelessness.

But he told The Big Issue he believes children’s fiction is now in a position to explain difficult subjects to youngsters, especially when the truth around the subject is shocking even to the average adult.

In the latest statutory homelessness figures, 93,490 households were living in temporary accommodation in England between July and September last year, including 59,360 families with children.

Many will call hotels and bed and breakfasts their home but for others, former office blocks have been turned into flats to provide makeshift homes, as Earle describes in his book.

Phil Earle wrote a book on homelessness and football
Phil Earle credit David Owens
Phil Earle's book aims to raise awareness of hidden homelessness through a combination of two football stories. Credit: David Owens

Earle said: “When I looked into how office blocks are used as homes, it was just utterly shocking that people could be dehumanised so much. It felt like that was compelling enough to get me writing.

“It was a challenge to make that readable and applicable to eight and nine year olds. But I didn’t feel the burden of that challenge.

“When you go into schools and talk to kids you realise that the level of empathy and emotional intelligence kids have these days means there isn’t a subject you can’t approach in books for them. There’s nothing you can’t write about. Nothing’s taboo.”

Don’t go into The Dog that Saved the World (Cup) expecting a “quick fix” to come along and save the family from homelessness.

I would love to get the book into Fara’s hands so she can see what her tenacity has inspired

Much like in real-life, Earle insisted he wanted to communicate that homelessness is a long-term issue for many families while also leaving readers with a sense of hope that the issue can be solved once and for all.

Now the book has been released on World Book Day, Earle is hoping for a happy ending of his own.

He added: “I have an afterword for the book where I talk about the inspiration for it and talk about Fara in glowing terms – it would be amazing if she could see it and I would love to get the book into her hands so she can see what her tenacity has inspired.”

The Dog that Saved the World (Cup) by Phil Earle and illustrated by Elisa Paganelli is out now (£6.99, Barrington Stoke)