Against Modern Football? Book Review: State of Play by Michael Calvin

“The point about football in Britain is that it is not just a sport people take to, like cricket or tennis or running long distances. It is inherent in the people.” …the way we play the game, organise it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are.”

So begins the Football Man, Arthur Hopcraft’s exploration of the character of football and its effects on people’s lives. Written in 1968, fifty years later the philosophy of football is a genre in itself but the original remains unsurpassed as a study of why football means so much to so many.

Football matters. It brings pain and joy, friendship and enmity, despair and elation. And we keep coming back for more. Sport, says Hopcraft, can be cruel. “Football can make a man more ridiculous even than drink can.” That I can identify with. Then, over the next two hundred or so pages, he reflects on the experiences of people transfixed by the game. He does so with grace and style. Here’s his description of player adulation, as a fan dashes towards the adolescent Georgie Best in the Old Trafford car park:

“the wind blew an old man teetering across the tarmac, wet and flapping in his overcoat like an escaped poster, and draped him across the windows of my car.”

Times have changed. The game is more popular than ever. Its reach extends to all parts of our culture. Football stars are celebrities. Football shirts are fashion accessories. Almost half the nation watched England lose in the World Cup semi-final. The Premier League is a global phenomenon.

Yet precisely at the height of its popularity, football is subject to a withering critique from many quarters that ‘the game’s gone’, increasingly distant from the supporters who have made it what it is and from the values that sustain it. In Hopcraft’s day, football remained accessible to working people, who found in it not merely an escape from a tough working week but also a form of expression, where emotions came alive and the dense, swaying terrace was the source of community, pride and personal identity.

Now it’s the global game. Spurs like their top six rivals are focussed on ‘growing the brand’ with annual summer American tours and an Asian sponsor. To keep pace, fans debate income streams and amortisation alongside 4-3-3 and a striker’s dodgy left foot, as again Spurs fans know only too well at the moment.

It’s complicated, but one word sums up the difference – money, or to use Calvin’s phrase, “the cult of monetisation.” Clubs generate more income than ever before through television rights and merchandising in order to compete in bidding wars. Transfer fees and player salaries soar to stratospheric levels, where the air is thin and fans choke on ticket prices that are similarly out of this world. In 1968, seven years after the lifting of the maximum wage, top players earned decent money but not to the extent that it separated them from the people who came to watch. Fans could still urge them to pull their finger out because ‘we pay your wages!’ No longer.

Even the term ‘a football man’ itself has come to have a different meaning. Hopcraft infuses the phrase with a dignity that comes from a deep commitment and passion for the game. Now, it’s become a term of derision, a shorthand for an incestuous boys club where experience, talent and qualifications are frowned upon and all that matters is that you are perceived by other football men to ‘know the game.’

In State of Play, Michael Calvin revisits Hopcraft. Like many of us who have spent a lifetime enthralled by the game, his faith and hope have been shaken by recent developments, especially the “rapacious Premier League”.

State of Play is his search for a reason to believe. What emerges is the most vivid, revealing insight into contemporary British football that you are ever likely to read. There’s no better place to seek the heart and soul of the game.

Calvin broadly follows Hopcraft’s structure, with sections on the player, the manager, the club and football people, including supporters. As with his recent works on scouts, managers and young talent, the strength of the book is the quality of the interviews. Calvin’s method is dialogue rather than interrogation. Underlying all the interviews is a single basic question: help me understand. Large sections of the interviews are presented without comment. Everyone gets a fair hearing. As someone who talks to people for a living, I know how hard it is to get people reluctant or unaccustomed to speaking up to be open and honest.  In a world notorious for its unwillingness to be candid, Calvin establishes an unparalleled degree of trust with his interviewees. They talk to him because they are confident he will represent them accurately.

Therefore, the reader can be confident of the integrity of what we are reading. The book rings true. This is authentic. This is what the game is like. Equally, Calvin respects his audience. He doesn’t preach or hector, instead allowing us space to read the evidence and make up our own minds. State of Play lays bare the modern game and encourages comparisons with the past. You decide what’s better.

One section where this theme is most evident is a lengthy chapter based around Watford FC. Calvin began his career in journalism on the Watford Observer. The then manager, Graham Taylor, provided the young reporter with insight into the doings at the club and life lessons about morality and carrying yourself in the right way that Calvin has never forgotten. Football does this to us all.

Scott Duxbury, the Watford CEO, takes us through their approach. Managers come and go not at the owner’s whim but because that’s the modern model. They have a two-year life cycle – they either succeed and then move on to a bigger job, or they fail and are disposed of. Long-term loyalty is passé.

Assiduous world-wide scouting identifies talented young players, especially in South America, able to improve not under the Watford coaches but at lower division clubs in Europe. If they end up being good enough, they return, if not, they retain sell-on value. Players come to Europe to better themselves and earn money for their family. You can’t blame them: Calvin certainly doesn’t, but wonders if the club gives sufficient priority to their welfare, a long way from home and liable to move around Europe while they wait for a work permit, or a ticket home.

Also, this sense of transience is in stark contrast to the loyalty of fans, who turn up year after year, decade after decade, who pass the baton down to long-suffering children because Watford is their club, their local club, and they support them for life. There’s little emotion in Duxbury’s vision, yet it’s emotion and passion that keeps the fans in the stands.

At MK Dons, Pete Winkelman talks at length – you can almost hear Calvin stifling a yawn – about global strategy and “the synergy with multi-national companies.”  Best get out of League 2 first. Both talk of being close to the community and to supporters, yet this language and the way of thinking that it represents serves to merely alienate.

Alternatively, are the Watford and MK Dons models a realistic response to contemporary conditions, designed to ensure success in a highly competitive market, which ultimately benefits the fans? You decide.

Calvin quotes one executive: “The Pozzos love football and they want to make money. If you had a shitload of money anyway, what better way would there be to spend your time, working they way they do.” Football is a sexy way of turning a profit. Long gone are the days when Calvin played darts in the clubroom against Elton John who was resplendent in pink and a feather boa.

If State of Play has a message, it’s that the biggest downfall of the modern game is a lack of compassion. Football is about people. Fans, players and managers aren’t commodities to be shifted and traded. It creates and maintains a culture where weakness is a sin. Players and managers all experience tension, anxiety and uncertainty, natural because of the pressures of the game yet largely denied throughout football as long as on the surface, everyone stays chipper. The existence of mental health problems is denied. Calvin is fearless in revealing the truth.

In the same way, discrimination is rife. Emma Hayes, head coach at Chelsea Ladies, has been hugely successful yet stands no chance (her assessment) of being appointed to the most lowly coaching post in the men’s game. Racism and homophobia persist.

But modern football is more than this. It’s contradictory by nature. It incubates hope and aspiration, it’s uplifting, and above all, it still reaches out when all other avenues have been closed. The book is full of examples. Tajean Hutton brings north London estate gangs together, not to preach but to play football and bring out long-buried positives. He refuses to allow these boys to be written off.

Everton and Liverpool fans jointly running food banks. Local businesspeople like Andy Holt rescuing Accrington Stanley, not as a vanity project but because he wants to restore a sense of identity and community he believes football has lost. For him Stanley is a community asset, providing social inclusion programmes, health and drug education. Nothing else in the town can reach out like a football club, least of all the politicians. The Stanley striker admitted he was depressed. Holt gave him time off. The groundsman is a recovering alcoholic. They both know that at Stanley, “they’ll put an arm round you and they’ll give you a cuddle. You don’t get that in football.”

Or how about Watford, where the hut where the darts match took place is now a sensory room for autistic children. Able to express themselves, some now sit in the crowd, proud father and son together, passing the baton, being together, communicating through football.

Football mirrors society, however much we pretend the game is an escape from reality. One difference fifty years on, Calvin says, is that we are now part of angry Britain. In Angry Britain, demand is instant, there’s a thirst for blame and negativity, and for those making the most noise, there are no consequences. Individualism is rife, community and solidarity minimised. Calvin is scathing about certain types of fan discourse on social media.

Typically, most of the comments in the preceding paragraph come from an interview, in this case with Sean Dyche. Calvin’s books reveal that time and again, people in the game are motivated by the right values. Dyche embraces sophisticated coaching and technology yet comes over as a man driven by upholding “truth and core values”, about treating players and fans with respect, about understanding the game’s responsibilities to the community.

This theme recurs throughout. At Erith where a local businessman saved a club no one watches, at Dunstable where a respected coach risks his reputation because, well, the team needed him and he couldn’t say no. Steven Gerrard sharing what he was taught at Liverpool, or, in the interests of impartiality, Arsene Wenger’s speech to an Arsenal AGM.

And, most movingly, in the opening chapter about Jeff Astle’s early onset Alzheimer’s. His family struggle first to look after him and then to get the game to understand the damage done by repeated heading of the ball. For Gordon Taylor and the player’s union to continue to deny this for so long is shameful.

The right values. Respecting people. Treat people the right way. State of Play ultimately leaves the same impression as The Football Man. The soul of the game is held by the people who are part of it, the heart is still beating strongly.

State of Play is rich, comprehensive and perceptive. It’s overflowing with insight and wisdom. Calvin digs deep into football’s being and spirit. Sometimes he uncovers dirt and muck, sometimes he finds diamonds, and that’s the way it has always been. For instance, pine for the good old days of the terraces but remember that club directors didn’t care about fans, who they took for granted, and ground conditions were primitive and dangerous.

Calvin is currently the best writer on British football and this is the best of his best. If you care at all about the game, read State of Play. You’ll understand why you care, and know yourself a little better too. Recommended unreservedly.

State of Play  – Under the Skin of the Modern Game by Michael Calvin is published by Century

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