State of Play by Michael Calvin

To the cursory observer all seems well with the game of football at present with the nation still celebrating England’s unexpected achievements at the recent World Cup, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the start of another over-hyped Premier League season. Some of the top players and managers in the world are indeed competing and exhibiting their skills in this country and the game – certainly at the top end – is awash with television cash, but are things quite as healthy as they seem?

Sometimes you need someone to act as your conscience, poke around beneath the surface and pose the questions that most observers are afraid to ask – the ones that the administrators would prefer to be swept into the long grass. It is sometimes hard to bite the hand that feeds you and it is understandable, if not forgivable why some commentators and pundits perhaps pull their punches at times and gloss over some issues, but such an accusation can never be levelled at Michael Calvin.

There is so much written about football nowadays and Amazon now stocks over 20,000 books on the subject, but I would be staggered if more than a tiny minority 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 lauding him, but with the forthcoming release of “State of Play” he has now written five exceptional football books each providing a detailed, hard-hitting 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, demonstrated just how stressful and perilous is the role of a football manager and, most memorably provided a forensic, lacerating and yet sympathetic study of what it takes to become a professional footballer and the toll the game takes on young players. Now he shines a light into the darkest corners and recesses of the game and much of what he uncovers is unpleasant and unsavoury in the extreme.

He has divided his new book into four sections covering players, managers, clubs and other football people and he leaves no stones unturned in revealing some of the key issues that affect and blight the sport today.

I well remember the impact the opening chapter of one of his previous books made on me as he described the electroconvulsive therapy treatment undergone by Martin Ling, a well-respected lower league manager who laid bare his struggles against depression. That stayed with me for many months as will, in his new book, Calvin’s heartbreaking, moving and poignant description of the terrible last minutes of former England striker and West Brom icon Jeff Astle as he choked to death on his own vomit in front of his helpless family. He had been in deep and inexorable decline from the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) caused by his constant heading of a hard leather ball, and he died at a tragically young age. Calvin shines a spotlight onto the growing scandal of far too many footballers from recent decades suffering dementia or worse as a result of “industrial injury” from playing professional football.

Dawn Astle, Jeff’s heroic daughter has campaigned tirelessly to force a reluctant hierarchy to fund research into the effects of heading a ball (which is now banned for under 14’s in America) and Calvin justifiably made scornful mention of PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor’s appallingly arrogant, ignorant and unforgivable comment to Dawn that “my mother’s got dementia and she’s never headed a ball”. Finally after years of obfuscation, denying responsibility and putting their head in the sand, the FA and PFA have commissioned an independent study into the long-term effects of heading a ball on 15,000 former players. CTE is a ticking time bomb. I was researching a book on my own team, Brentford recently and discovered with horror how few players from even the mid to late 1960’s were still with us as dementia has taken such a heavy toll. I am sure that many former players from even more recent times lie awake at night worrying about what might happen to them in years to come.

Calvin does not stop there as he examines many other burning issues that tarnish and shame the game such as homophobia, racism, sexism, drugs, gang culture, concussion, depression, suicide and mental health issues, the social media revolution and keyboard warriors, uncaring and ignorant foreign ownership, venal agents and how the sport has generally tried to sweep them all beneath the surface and not accept and deal with them at source.

The book is not always easy or comfortable reading as Calvin gets under the skin of the modern game and tells a series of hard-hitting stories that often show the game in an appalling and uncaring light and yet there is still hope, there are many heroes who are swimming against the tide and doing their utmost to help footballers who are struggling to cope with the physical and mental demands of a relentless and unforgiving game where the rewards for success are enormous and the cost of failure just as massive.

Their positive stories are also told and we hear about former journeyman footballer Drewe Broughton who has reinvented himself as an empathetic and highly effective performance coach acting as a father confessor figure providing holistic support to a group of players who are struggling to keep their heads above water. Holocaust survivors such as Zigi Shipper and Harry Spiro tell their awe-inspiring tales of survival from Nazi tyranny and genocide to spellbound groups of international footballers. Pragmatic Accrington chairman Andy Holt who has triumphed against all the odds also cocks a snoot at the patronising “have’s” from the upper echelons of the game who have no conception or interest in what it is like to scrabble around simply to pay the electricity bill. The wonderful work of the Fans Supporting Foodbanks movement which does so much inspiring work in the North West is also highlighted amongst many other such organisations.

Calvin also writes lyrically and from the heart about how Watford, the team he supported as a boy, wildly celebrating Barry Endean’s winning goal against Liverpool in a long-forgotten FA Cup tie as a ballboy, has been transformed, not all for the better perhaps by the ownership of the Pozzo family. There is sufficient rich material here, I believe, for another standalone book.

“The Secret Barrister” – an excoriating polemic that lays bare the myriad shortcomings of the criminal justice system has proved to be a recent publishing sensation and massive success story over the past few months, and I fully expect Calvin’s “State of Play” to fulfil a similar role for the football industry. There is much that is wrong but also so much that, not before time, is beginning to be done to help make things better for our current and future generations.

Michael Calvin has done the game a massive service with this broad ranging, hard-hitting and exceptionally well researched book and he has also written it in a beautiful, lucid prose style. In his introduction Calvin paid tribute to the great Arthur Hopcraft and his seminal study of football in “The Football Man” which helped inspire him to take up writing as a career. The biggest compliment that I can pay Michael Calvin is that this book is as well crafted as anything Hopcraft wrote and in years to come football fans will be reading “State of Play” as they still do “The Football Man”.




First Thoughts

So how do we all feel a mere two games into a new season? It is still quite a bit too soon to get carried away, start screaming from the rooftops and jumping for joy, and I am all too well aware of the dangers of hubris and counting chickens, but it cannot be denied that the early signs for Brentford are very favourable.

Unlike previous years when the Bees went into a new season seemingly holed below the waterline after a series of high profile departures, Brentford’s squad has now never been stronger with quality, cover and depth in almost every position. Interestingly enough despite the variety of options available to him, Head Coach Dean Smith opted for an unchanged team and substitutes for the first two Championship matches.

Rotherham were swept aside by a combination of quick passing, movement and pace allied to a quality of finishing far more clinical than we fans have been used to seeing. Brentford scored five on a sweltering afternoon and quite frankly it could have been far more. “It was only Rotherham though,” sneered the sceptics, but surely a lot of the doubters have been silenced after Brentford’s performance at promotion favourites Stoke City last Saturday.

Facing a Premier League squad in all but name, the Bees took the game to their much vaunted opponents and made them look plodding and toothless.They even recovered from the blow of a defensive aberration that gifted the lead to the home team, totally dominated proceedings, silenced a vociferous crowd, and but for a few attacking shortcomings and a series of fine saves from Jack Butland would have come away with a victory rather than a draw which was far less than they deserved.

The defence has so far been largely untroubled with Bentley barely having a save to make. Dalsgaard, Barbet, Konsa and Mepham have gelled into a cohesive unit, all comfortable on the ball and keen to surge forward at every opportunity. It is noticeable that all are over six feet tall and it is a long time since the Diddy Men of Brentford boasted four veritable giants in the back four and I believe we are better for it given the barrage of high crosses that we are likely to face in most matches. New signing, Julian Jeanvier has yet to be blooded and will likely make his debut at Southend in the Carabao Cup and Moses Odubajo is now a fully-fledged Brentford player and will hopefully soon be as fit as possible and in contention for a place.

Brentford are justifiably renowned for discovering and extracting gems from the lower leagues and it is already patently obvious that Ezri Konsa will shortly be joining that number. Smooth and silky on the ball, as is required from a Brentford centre half, he also knows how to defend and his partnership with Chris Mepham, two inexperienced twenty year olds will be something to savour.

Given the uncertainty over Ryan Woods’s future, Josh McEachran has been given the opportunity to cement his place sitting in front of the back four and despite his early exit on Saturday with a tight hamstring he has so far looked the wonderful footballer he is, seeing and delivering passes of a quality and precision rarely seen at this level of the game, and just as encouragingly, anticipating and winning challenges and generally looking far stronger and more robust. Could this finally be his year to deliver on his immense potential?

Romaine Sawyers has quite simply regularly demonstrated his God-given ability to thread passes through the eye of a needle and he certainly caught the eye of the envious Stoke City supporters who were distinctly unamused to discover that he was a Bosman free signing. Lewis Macleod is also now fully fit and provides a cutting edge from midfield that has been lacking in recent years.

Brentford rely on breaking the opposition press and breaking forward speedily and in numbers and wingers Sergi Canos and Ollie Watkins have a vital role to play. Canos seems to have recovered his Mojo after an injury-ravaged season, knowing full well that he has the immensely talented Said Benrahma breathing down his neck and waiting for his opportunity off the bench. As for Watkins – what a player and talent he is. Southampton apparently offered around £11 million for him in the close season and were swiftly rebuffed. Totally the right move as his value will surely double this season given the electrifying start he has made. He is so strong, quick and direct and is totally two-footed as thunderous goals with both right and left feet in his last two games prove. He is now being compared in his impact and ability with Dele Alli in his MK Dons days and his future could well be as bright as Alli’s. Watkins is so dangerous cutting in from the wing that it seems likely that the previous plan to play him down the middle is likely to be put on hold for the time being which means that Neil Maupay will need to stay both fit and sharp as we posses very few alternatives apart from the untried Marcus Forss.

The rump of the squad is likely to be given a runout at Southend to give them much needed minutes and it will be interesting to see if Ryan Woods will be included. It seemed a foregone conclusion that he would finalise a move to Swansea on Transfer Deadline day but for whatever reason, Swansea were not prepared to pay the asking price and Ryan is left in limbo. Will another club or even Swansea come back with a loan to purchase move before the end of the month or will he be reintegrated into the squad where he will surely be welcomed with open arms? I suspect that the club was reconciled to his departure as he had given us almost three seasons of dedicated service, we had improved and developed him and it seemed that his valuation was going to be met and that the time had come for him to move on maybe to better things but certainly for more money. Most importantly, in McEachran and Kamo Mokotjo his replacements were already in the building.

It is still early days but the auspices are favourable. Their ability has never been in question but the players also appear to be mentally stronger and more confident and resilient and it is telling how well they recovered from the blow of going a goal down in such ridiculous circumstances at Stoke having dominated the early proceedings.

For me the most disconcerting development to date has been that pundits and rival supporters alike have finally discovered Brentford and recognised how well the club is run, the quality of our football and the talent we possess, and Brentford have been widely tipped to make a serious promotion challenge. Worrying indeed, as I far prefer us to exist and flourish well under the radar and I positively relish the “teams like Brentford” and “pub team” insults and other such disparaging comments that we have been widely subjected to since promotion to the Championship in 2014.

Can Brentford thrive under the additional pressure of being in the spotlight? All will be revealed in the coming weeks. Exciting times indeed!

A New Season is Upon Us!

Time was when I wrote an almost daily blog on the fortunes of our favourite football team. I kept this up with metronomic regularity for a couple of seasons and even succeeded in publishing a couple of books on the back of it (both are still available on the remainder pile in the Brentford FC Superstore if anyone is still interested!)

Eventually I came to the conclusion that over around 400 articles I had written pretty much everything there was to say about the club, the way it operated, its style and ethos both on and off the pitch, its unique and innovative way of doing business and how it was regarded with a combination of suspicion, ridicule and ignorance by the media and the rest of the football world. I stopped at the end of the 2015/16 season because I did not want to repeat myself and run the risk of outstaying my welcome and boring myself and what few readers I had left.

Bees United have now asked me to resurrect my blog and provide a regular series of updates on the coming season and after some misgiving I have agreed and only hope that I find enough of interest to write about.

So what lies in store for the Bees in the months ahead? Will they manage a fifth consecutive top ten finish in a Championship that becomes ever more competitive and is packed full of big battalions swelled with the riches of Premier League parachute payments? Could we even cherish hopes and dreams of marking our last full season at our beloved Griffin Park home with promotion to the giddy heights of the Premier League, or could the fairytale end and reality kick in and we find ourselves overwhelmed and outmatched by clubs with the wherewithal to outspend us? Before we consider this question in detail let’s have a look at some of their rivals and how they might perform.

As I write these words a mere three days before the big kick off, it is still totally impossible to assess how strong each club will be given that the transfer window still has a week to run and many teams will surely take part in a last minute lemming-like trolley dash which might make all the difference between success and failure.

Given that caveat who are the likely contenders? Two of the teams relegated from the Premier League are likely to challenge for an immediate return. Stoke City are managed by the Championship savvy Gary Rowett and are unlikely to inspire but they have already signed a series of battle-hardened experienced pro’s such as Benik Afobe, James McClean and Tom Ince and most importantly, kept hold of their best player, Joe Allen. The jury is out on newly appointed manager Darren Moore but West Bromwich Albion might also find that their functional style of football is well-suited to the demands of the Championship and Sam Johnstone, Kyle Bartley and exciting winger Harvey Barnes are excellent signings.

Despite their apparent financial concerns Derby County have certainly loosened the pursestrings and supported another unknown managerial quantity in Frank Lampard. Despite lots of speculation top scorer Matej Vydra, scorer of a wonderful goal against us for Watford a few years ago is still at the club. Jack Marriott should manage the jump from Division One, Chelsea youngster Mason Mount excelled in Holland last season and we all know just how good (and indeed, bad) Florian Jozefzoon can be.

Middlesbrough will be expected to challenge but will sorely miss the pace, power and dribbling ability of the injured Adama Traore who was easily the best visiting player I saw at Griffin Park last season. Aston Villa could be absolutely anything after the disappointment of missing out in the Playoff Final and staring at the financial abyss but so far have managed to keep hold of their talisman Jack Grealish. Leeds fans still find it hard to accept that they are firmly ensconced in the Championship with their glory years decades behind them and have a well developed sense of entitlement. Who knows how they will perform under the management of the legendary but explosive Marcelo Bielsa and it could all end in tears. Barry Douglas is a fantastic signing from Wolves but there are doubts whether the enigmatic Patrick Bamford will score regularly enough for them. What is certain is that their supporters are certain to experience a rollercoaster ride.

Nottingham Forest have conducted some eye-catching transfer business bringing in a plethora of highly priced Portuguese imports – and Lewis Grabban. However good they prove to be they now possess a bloated squad and a manager in Aitor Karanka who does not inspire too much confidence. Preston North End also over performed last season and will likely challenge again. They are fit, organised and never give you an easy game but might struggle to score enough goals despite the midfield prompting of Alan Browne and Ryan Ledson.

So where does this leave Brentford? How do I feel they will do over the coming season?

As we speak we have, as is customary, lost a few players having already replaced them with relative unknowns and potential bargains. Andreas Bjelland allowed his contract to run down having performed exceptionally well last season as a calm, left-sided defender who was largely responsible for mentoring Chris Mepham and talking him through games. Bjelland suffered the disappointment of missing the World Cup through injury and has returned home to play for FC Copenhagen after three injury wrecked seasons at Griffin Park. Fate was not kind to him and he never really regained the impetus lost by his long term absence through a terrible knee ligament injury sustained on his debut for the club. Club skipper John Egan has also left the club joining Sheffield United for a reported near £4 million club record fee – a massive profit on the initial £400,000 fee we paid to Gillingham. He too proved himself to be a solid, consistent and effective defender who was also dangerous at set pieces but somehow, for all his efforts and endeavour he never totally inspired confidence with the ball at his feet and as we all know our central defenders are expected to split whenever the goalkeeper gathers the ball, come short to take possession and then act as the first line of attack. This was never Egan’s game and hard though he worked and as much as he improved, which was all to his credit I suspect the powers that be felt that we needed to improve in this area.

Konstantin Kerschbaumer enjoyed a successful season on loan at Arminia Bielefeld scoring eight times from midfield. He had flourished towards the end of the 2015/16 season when he enjoyed a good run in the Brentford team and combined well with the predatory Scott Hogan who thrived upon the Austrian’s incisive through balls but perhaps he has found his level in the German Second Division and has joined FC Ingolstadt 04 for a reputed near one million pound fee. He leaves with our best wishes as well as thoughts about what might have been had he not been thrown into the team far too quickly in the Autumn of 2015.

Florian Jozefzoon established himself in the Brentford team last season and ended up with the impressive tally of seven goals and was a constant danger with his pace and set piece ability. Like all wingers he was inconsistent but he will be missed after being sold to Derby County for £2.75 million given that he was coming into the last year of his contact and it is extremely rare for a Brentford first team player to be allowed to run down his contract without being sold. Promising left back Ilias Chatzitheodoridis who impressed in his loan spell at Cheltenham last season but was not in the reckoning for a first team place has left for Panathinaikos where he will hopefully flourish and earn the Bees a healthy sell-on percentage a la Alfie Mawson should he eventually move on.

So far there have been three new arrivals at Griffin Park with two central defenders and a right winger arriving as direct replacements for the departing players. Brentford took advantage of Charlton’s requirement for cash up front by striking where others hesitated and signing their prime asset, England Under 21 International defender Ezri Konsa for a fee reputed to be around £2.5 million and a second centre half arrived earlier this week in the form of Julian Jeanvier from French Ligue 2 champions Reims for around £1.8 million. Jozefzoon’s replacement is exciting Algerian international Said Benrahma signed from Nice for another multimillion pound fee.

What all our signings share in common is that they all arrived under the radar with little speculation and they are all young emerging footballers with immense talent and development potential – as is the Brentford way.

Other long serving Brentford fans like myself still find it hard to read about the club paying (and indeed receiving) such high figure for their players and without checking, and apologies for any errors and omissions, I estimate that we have now paid over seven figures for fourteen players in Moses Odubajo, Jota, Lewis Macleod, Andreas Bjelland, Lasse Vibe, Ryan Woods, Dan Bentley, Sergi Canos, Rico Henry, Ollie Watkins, Neal Maupay, Konsa, Benrahma and Jeanvier and received multi-million pound fees for sixteen players in Hermann Hreiðarsson, Adam Forshaw, Will Grigg, Moses Odubajo, Stuart Dallas, Andre Gray, James Tarkowski, David Button, Jake Bidwell, Scott Hogan, Harlee Dean, Maxime Colin, Jota, Lasse Vibe, Egan and Jozefzoon.

Most Brentford fans are hoping that the number does not increase shortly to sixteen as the elephant in the room is midfield talisman Ryan Woods who is reportedly coveted by Swansea with a potential fee of somewhere in the region of £6-8 million being reported as our asking price. As most Brentford fans realise we remain a stepping stone club which signs young emerging talent, develops and improves them and then sells them to clubs richer than us and ideally further up the food chain at the top of the market, before repeating the process.

Given the size of our current stadium, our attendance levels and limited revenue streams this is the only way we can remain competitive and continue to punch way above our weight. We rely on our analytics and scouting ability to find and secure a constant flow of young footballers who recognise that they will be joining a club with a solid and ever-growing reputation for improving players, putting them into the spotlight and eventually allowing them to leave for greater riches and maybe opportunity when the time is right. And that is the key. We ONLY sell when we believe it is opportune and we have already replaced the outgoing player and only then if we receive top dollar. We are no longer naive and babes in the wood. Clubs have to deal with us on our terms, and generally they do.

It would be wonderful to hold onto Ryan Woods for another year – and maybe we will – but the model would say that it is now approaching the time to sell him when he has two years left on his contract and is approaching peak value. He has also served us well for nearly three seasons and in my view it is now his time to move on up and reap the rewards he has worked so hard for and fully deserves. One day once we have moved into Lionel Road and our revenues have increased exponentially, I hope that we can hold onto all our star players but for the time being we have to be realistic. That being so we have made it clear to predators that the likes of Chris Mepham and Ollie Watkins are not for sale at the moment. The time will of course come, but at the moment they both have long contracts and they are still developing, improving and increasing in value.

There is also social media talk of Nico Yennaris leaving initially on loan to a European club, with the name of Dukla Prague, being mentioned before eventually joining a Chinese club. There is talk that Dukla Prague share ownership with a Chinese club and given Nico’s Chinese mother I assume he would count as a homegrown player which would make him a valuable asset. I have not bothered to check this information out given that this is an unsubstantiated rumour at present. If both players were to leave then surely a replacement would be needed although I am sure both Josh McEachran and Kamo Mokotjo would expect to be given the chance to prove they could fill the gap.

The squad has been fairly bloated in size by Brentford standards although injuries to Maupay and now apparently Emiliano Marcondes have left us short of striking options with only the relatively untried Watkins and the rookie Marcus Forss currently available to play down the middle. I expect us to go with what we have got up front and not reinforce our currently limited resources as great things are expected from both Watkins and Maupay this season and young Forss impressed during the preseason period.

Said Benrahma has already made quite an impression on his teammates in training and he, Sergi Canos, Watkins and the highly impressive young Chiedozie Ogbene will compete for first team places on the wing with Josh Clarke and Alan Judge also available. Much is expected of Canos after an injury ruined 2017/18 season and hopefully he will rise to the challenge and show us just how talented and dangerous he can be. Alan Judge continues to make progress after his awful long term injury which would have finished a lesser man. His fitness has returned but he is still yet to regain his touch but hopefully more game time will enable him to do so.

The immensely gifted Romaine Sawyers will compete with Marcondes for the attacking midfield berth with the latter finally beginning to find his feet after a long settling in period. Lewis Macleod also will challenge for a box-to-box role and has the advantage of having a decent goalscoring record.

We are now strong in central defence with Chris Mepham, surely destined to become our first £20 million transfer, Konsa and Jeanvier backed up by the ebullient Yoann Barbet and the massive young Mads Bech Sorensen whose time will surely come.

World Cup hero Henrik Dalsgaard will put his comic cuts own goal last Saturday behind him and continue to impress at right back, backed up by the versatile Josh Clarke, but we have concerns at left back where Rico Henry is not expected back for a while from his awful knee injury. Yennaris, Barbet or Tom Field could fill in and it remains to be seen if the oft-injured Moses Odubajo will sign a contract and also compete for the shirt. Moses is more than good enough but there are serious concerns about whether he can stay fit enough to make a contribution.

Dan Bentley had an exceptional season last year and should continue to improve under the guidance of his new goalkeeping coach Iñaki Caña Pavón, He will be supported by the reliable Luke Daniels and another B Team alumnus Ellery Balcombe fresh from his exploits with the England Under 19 squad. A slight problem on the horizon is that both Bentley and Sawyers have only two more seasons left on their contracts and hopefully they can be persuaded to extend their stay at the club.

Brentford’s performance in last Saturday’s friendly against Watford was Brentford to a T. We overplayed at the back and conceded two suicidal and easily avoidable goals. We were at times overpowered by a stronger and more ruthless team which took no prisoners but our sublime attacking one touch football tore gaps in the Watford defence. As per normal we were guilty of playing one pass too many and refusing to shoot when the chance beckoned. We missed far too many flagrant chances in front of goal.

I am hoping and to a degree expecting that the team both as individuals and a group will grow up this season, continue to play some fabulous football but also fight and scrap where necessary and improve their game management. If that is the case and we pick our moments to shoot and become more clinical in front of goal – big “ifs” it has to be said – then I predict a strong challenge for the playoffs.

I am really looking forward to the season and I hope you are too.