I’d barely had a chance to tuck my trusty Three Lions shirt back in the drawer, cleansed of all the flying beers, tears and sweat of a scorching World Cup summer. But, the English Football League and Premier League was BACK already to dazzle us with its rollercoaster ride of emotions for another glorious season.
Fresh from a young and multi-cultural England team giving a lot of us something to unite behind in these most fractious of times, surely now is the time for football to puff it’s chest out and be proud of its wonderful unifying and far reaching influence for good. Or is it? As you and I both know from bitter experience – where there is hope, despair is never far away.
‘State Of Play’ is the latest offering from award winning journalist Michael Calvin and the turning of the pages is akin to watching an end to end, nail-biting cup tie. As you’d expect from a hugely impressive thirty odd years at the coal-face of journalism, the supporting cast assembled by Calvin is of the very highest calibre – Arsene Wenger at his philosophical best; the gravel soaked common sense of Shaun Dyche; Gerrard, Dele and Gareth Southgate et al. But the common thread throughout Calvin’s work is the light he shines behind the scenes, unearthing the human stories and unsung heroes who are the real stars of the show.
The book is made up of an exhaustive nineteen chapters, split into four parts – The Player; The Manager; The Club and The People.
The opening pages are a literal bucket of cold water to the face as the dying moments of former West Brom legend Jeff Astle are poignantly recounted by his daughter Dawn. Astle died aged just 59 from the ravaging effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition common in boxers.
Thanks to the relentless campaigning of Dawn Astle, the FA and PFA have finally commissioned an independent study into the long-term effects of heading a football. I was completely unaware of the issue of CTE, but with shockingly high numbers of former footballers potentially affected, it could have huge ramifications for the game. Calvin’s delicate treatment of this topic is as skilful as it it is heartbreaking and provides Dawn’s fight the exposure it surely deserves.
With my attention firmly in his grasp, Calvin’s investigative journey calls at homophobia, mental health issues, failing protocols for assessing and safeguarding injured players, outdated toxic-masculinity, sexism and the high pressure culture of the modern game.
The back drop for these stories is behind the scenes at some of the biggest clubs in the world alongside prisons, housing estates, homeless shelters and non-league grounds. The beauty of this book is that people like Tony McCool, manager of Dunstable Town, working with a budget of zero sits side by side with the general manager of FC Barcelona, Jose Segura. Everyone has equal importance and input in ‘State Of Play’ as Calvin gets under the skin of the beautiful game.
It’s far from all doom and gloom though. The superb bluntness of Accrington Stanley chairman Andy Holt is thoroughly invigorating as his opening quote of chapter 13 illustrates perfectly:
“Sport in this country is being taken over by rich people who take the piss. Football is a gambling den. It’s not an industry. It is just a casino. It’s awful. Some clubs are like Formula One cars, allowed to fit rocket boosters. I’m still pedalling this little bike like mad.”
Holt is the local boy made good who has taken it upon himself to make sure the club that famously wouldn’t die continues to stay alive for the good of the community. There is no magic wand with Holt or unsustainable spending, just gritty pragmatism and an amazing transparency that fans of other clubs might not want to admit to being slightly jealous of. And it’s working too with Stanley waltzing to the League Two title last season.
Triumph in the face of adversity is a common theme, often doused in perspective allowing success or failure to be measured outside of the binary form of football results. Calvin’s pursuit of the ugly truth is a masterclass of balanced, informed journalism. The facts and testimonies are woven together with a free flowing and relatable passion for the game which places trust in us as readers to see the message for ourselves.
I have learnt a huge amount from the books of Michael Calvin and ‘State Of Play’ is his finest work to date. I just hope that the power brokers in football can bear to look in the mirror that Calvin holds up to them.
STATE OF PLAY BY MICHAEL CALVIN IS PUBLISHED ON 23RD AUGUST BY CENTURY AT £16.99