Award-winning sports writer Michael Calvin’s latest book is an ambitious, in-depth and wide-ranging examination of the current game. Calvin takes as his inspiration Arthur Hopcrafts’s ‘The Football Man,’ which was written two years after England won the World Cup and is regarded as one of the best football books ever written.
Hopcraft’s book was divided into nine sections but Calvin has gone for four broad headings: The Player; The Manager; The Club, The People.
It is an epic undertaking which covers: the need for more emotionally intelligent managers and coaches; the rise of the women’s game; the failing protocols for assessing and safeguarding injured players; the high-pressure, throw-away culture of the modern game and its toll on mental health; the social impact of football – in prisons, homeless shelters and urban estates around the UK and the future of the sport – for coaches, owners and fans alike.
Calvin interviews many well-known figures in the game including Gareth Southgate, Arsene Wenger and Deli Alli but often the more affecting human stories are with lesser-known individuals such as Dawn Astle.
The daughter of West Bromwich Albion and England striker Jeff Astle, who tragically died prematurely from Alzheimer’s dementia, is at the centre of the “Justice for Jeff” campaign, which she started in 2004.
The football authorities were in denial when the coroner found Jeff Astle had died from an ‘industrial disease’ – dementia brought on by the repeated trauma of heading the ball. A long and all consuming campaign to get justice for Astle and the hundred’s of other footballers who have died prematurely has ensued.
Social media is on the agenda and Calvin comments,
“Twitter has made everyone a pundit. Opinion takes precedence over action”,
and he is particularly scathing of Fan TV,
“The stars of Fan TV, uniformly self-regarding and inevitably self-appointed, emphasize the coarseness of what passes as public debate in a world without the constraint of truth, fairness and balance. Their narcissism is as over-powering as their ignorance, yet they set the tone, purport to speak for those who lack the intellect or inclination to think for themselves”.
Arsene Wenger acidly comments on a modern malaise,
“Five hundred years ago the target for people was to be a saint, fifty years ago it was to be a hero in the war. Today it is to be a billionaire, or, even more a celebrity”.
Calvin delves deep into the ever increasing inequalities of the modern game, while Accrington Stanley Chairman Andy Holt struggles to keep his club afloat, the top six demonstrate greed and avarice and try to impose serfdom on a game that needs to become more civilised than commercialised.
The hypocrisy of most fans’ motives is exposed. Bob Beech a Portsmouth supporter who set up the fans board during their financial difficulties is brutally honest when he says,
“Most fans are liars. They will tell you they want their football club to be as pure as the driven snow, with a great academy producing local boys for the first team. What they really want is to win on Saturday. If that happens they don’t really care whether a Colombian drug cartel is running the place”.
In his summary Calvin highlights the huge contradictions in the modern game when he says,
“Football’s beauty has long been in the eye of the beholder. It is capable of lyricism and cynicism, artistry and banality. It is steeped in reckless romanticism, and bloodless calculation. Its essential contradictions are embodied by its most acclaimed coach Pep Guardiola”.
“The splendour of his teams and the authenticity of his personal principles are undeniable. Yet his passionate espousal of the Catalan cause left him exposed to accusations of hypocrisy, since he has profited from an Abu-Dhabi-owned club Manchester City and his ambassadorial role with the Qatari World Cup. Neither Gulf regime is noted for its Liberalism”.
Betting companies and Agents are a huge stain on the game and exploitative practices, such as West Ham’s policy of charging £700 to fulfil the dream of being a mascot are contemptible.
Breaking through all the hype around football Calvin shows us the reality of what is really going on inside our clubs and associated institutions. It is an intelligent and deeply insightful book if somewhat dispiriting reading, about the current state of our national game.
State of Play – Under the Skin of the Modern Game by Michael Calvin. Published by Century. Price £16.99.
This review first appeared in the November/December 2018 edition of Late Tackle magazine.