There is so much written about football nowadays and Amazon now stocks over 20,000 books on the subject, but I would be totally amazed if more than 1% of them are more than dross and have much literary merit or originality.
Amongst the ghost written pap there are a frustratingly small number of authors who stand out from the sea of mediocrity and one of them is Michael Calvin. I make no apology for writing about him yet again but with the forthcoming release of “No Hunger In Paradise” he has now written four exceptional football books each providing a detailed and informed study of a different aspect of the sport.
He has previously spent a season as a fly on the wall in promotion winning Millwall’s dressing room, given a voice to scouts – one of football’s most ignored groups, and demonstrated just how stressful and perilous is the role of a football manager.
Now he has surpassed himself with a forensic, lacerating and yet sympathetic study of what it takes to become a professional footballer. He has followed the journey followed by so many desperate and naive youngsters and examines the reasons why well over 99% fall off the parapet and disappear into obscurity or even worse, and only a handful make it into the big time.
Talent is of course a necessary prerequisite but it is by no means the be all and end all. The difference between success and failure can be minuscule. So often it is a case of having a good game at the right time and catching the eye of the right person. Injuries can strike just when contracts are being decided and woe betide any youngster who is perceived to be a problem, or who falls out with his manager or coach.
Calvin journeys far and wide and tells the salutary tales of kids from who are chased by clubs when they are barely more than babes in arms and how they can fall into the clutches of rapacious agents who often seem to act as a law unto themselves and are merely seeking riches without much thought for their clients’ wellbeing.
What can make all the difference is the presence of a levelheaded set of parents who want nothing more than to act in the best interests of their son, instill in them a set of values and protect them as much as possible from those who see them as no more than commodities or as a meal ticket. My heart went out to young Zak Brunt, who has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles at home and abroad and a father who initially found his situation hard to deal with, and is now at Derby County. Zak’s rollercoaster ride is heartrending and has been beautifully and lyrically summed up by Calvin: “Go well, young man. You have earned the right to dream. Stay safe out there, for there are still many swirling rivers to cross.” Not all parents are perfect and we hear of those who are more concerned with making a quick buck rather than looking at doing what is best for their son.
What Calvin describes is a veritable snake pit where corruption is rife and the innocent fall foul of adults who should know far better and are motivated by greed and the allure of finding the next big name.
Calvin exposes the ego driven coaches, such as the goalkeeping coach who insists on lining up the defensive wall for his 13 year old charge, who forget that it is all about the kids and not them, and the bullying mindset that frighteningly has still not been fully eradicated from the game. It really is all very shocking to read.
Fortunately there are some exceptions with heroes such as Steadman Scott with the supportive work he conducts at the wonderful Afewee Training Centre where talented kids from backgrounds well beyond deprived are given the help they need. So far more than 40 boys have benefited from their holistic approach and are now in the academy system, all hoping to follow in the footsteps of their most famous alumni, Nathaniel Clyne.
It is humbling to contemplate the obstacles that some of these kids have to overcome: broken homes, social deprivation, lack of role models and positive parental influence, poor schooling and the ravages of the gang culture. It was truly heartbreaking to read of the academy players whose form dropped off owing to the unimaginable effects of seeing good friends become the victims of street murder.
Everything is slanted in favour of the big clubs who can plunder the best talent from below with impunity owing to the dictates of EPPP, a self-drafted and self-serving manifesto for youth development written by the top six clubs which was ridden roughshod through the protests of their weaker brethren by the threats of withholding the much needed solidarity payments from the Premier League.
Calvin provides a snapshot of the fallout caused by Brentford’s decision to close their Category Two academy in May. He rightly lambasts the club for parading the Under Eights on the pitch before a full house crowd at the Fulham local derby less than a fortnight before the decision was made public, an action that Co-Director of Football, Phil Giles regrets but was forced into owing to HR protocols related to staff redundancies, and as a parent himself, he fully understands how the parents must have felt. Giles is taken to task for this PR own goal but makes a persuasive case for why Brentford decided to stop investing around one and a half million pounds each year in an academy that whilst it was turning out fine young men in abundance, it had yet to produce any first team material and the two most outstanding prospects in Ian Carlo Poveda and Josh Bohui had been picked off by Manchester City and United respectively for relative peanuts. The club, innovative as ever, has now launched a B team Development Squad operating outside the system and its success is being closely monitored by many other clubs who similarly feel that it has hardly worthwhile investing time and money on prospects who either fail to make the grade, or conversely, even worse, prove to be far too talented to hang onto and are snapped up for fees that bear no resemblance to their likely future value.
One small quibble, as is the case with everything written by this author, facts are scrupulously checked, however I would query his assertion that fullback, Rico Henry, singled out as one of the most promising youngsters in the game had found it hard to establish himself at Brentford, given that he was seriously injured at the time of his signing for his new club and was not fit to play until well into the new year, since when he has played almost every game and impressed everyone with the quality of his performances and the heights that he might reach one day.
This is an important book which is often uncomfortable to read and one that raises many important and difficult questions. We owe a massive duty of care to our children and it is apparent that football and its acolytes are falling far short of their responsibilities and Calvin deserves credit for shining a light on and exposing many of the game’s shortcomings.
No Hunger In Paradise by Michael Calvin is published by Century at £16.99.