Tag Archives: Michael Calvin

State Of Play – Michael Calvin

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.

cover‘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journey calls at homophobia, mental health issues, failing protocols for assessing and safeguarding injured players, outdated toxic-masculinity, sexism and the high pressure culture of the modern game.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.


Buy it here

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Living On The Volcano

“Living on a volcano: any day may be your last”.
This is is how Arsene Wenger, currently the longest serving manager in the English game, perfectly describes the precarious nature of being a football manager.
The phrase is used as the title of Michael Calvin’s latest book, which charts the progress of twenty managers, all in various stages and levels of their career.
I first met Mike Calvin on that day in Torquay.
He was in a no lose situation, as whatever happened, it would provide some superb copy for his column in the Independent.
As we all know, it was a magical fairy tale rather than a double funeral that was typed up amongst the scavenging sea gulls in the Plainmoor press box.
The following day, in stark black and white, his words also shone a sobering light upon the challenging circumstances that Gareth Ainsworth had dealt with in keeping The Chairboys in The Football League.
Shortly after, Mike began work on ‘Living On The Volcano’, and Gareth’s continuation of his fairy tale last season, provides an excellent frame for the book.
The average life span of a Football League manager is seventeen months, and last season there were fifty-seven managerial changes in the top four divisions.
We all know their faces, watching and listening to their post match press conferences, but what do we really know about these characters that chose a life of high pressure and uncertainty?
The chapter on Alan Pardew is my favourite, learning about his past working on building sites and finally getting his chance to become a professional footballer well into his twenties.
This little known background information, coupled with Alan’s own admissions of his flaws and how he is confronting them has completely changed my perception of Pardew.
I now find myself rooting for him as I watch Match Of The Day which is a complete turnaround for me.
Perspective on life and the human condition is provided by Martin Ling, who candidly talks through his experiences of the serious illness of depression, his subsequent recovery and rehabilitation back into football.
Large parts of the text are purely the words of the managers, but through their trust in Mike, the propaganda of the press room is replaced by personal and insightful stories that provides a fascinating insight in to what makes these people tick and shape their personalities.
The book skilfully interweaves these stories as it skips up and down the divisions and in these days of Premier League saturation, it’s wonderful to read and learn so much about the lower leagues.
Ainsworth recently clocked up three years in the job at Wycombe and a few days later, another belch from the volcano removed Steve Evans from the hot seat at Rotherham.
This has made Gareth the tenth longest serving manager in the Football League which is a ludicrous statistic.
During the time it’s taken me to write this column, Graham Alexander has paid the price for a poor start to the season at Fleetwood.
On average it takes a managerial casualty eighteen months to get another job and a chance to rebuild their reputations.
Fifty-eight percent of first time managers never get that chance which explains Ainsworth’s voracious work ethic in turning Wycombe’s fortunes around.
In fact, Gareth has been working so hard, he told me he hasn’t had a chance to read the book yet!
As a football fan, it has thoroughly enhanced my understanding of the beautiful game.


Available in all good bookshops and on Amazon too.


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