“It is impossible not to be struck by the sense of sadness, underpinned by anger. The venality and vitriol of the senior game is a running sore, an open wound which seeps into youth football”.
Michael Calvin’s recent trilogy of books have established him as the great chronicler of modern British football. He investigates the human stories of English football, shining a light on the real life experiences of those for whom the game is their actual or potential livelihood.
No Hunger in Paradise follows on from Living on the Volcano which focused on managers and The Nowhere Men which examined scouts. This time it is youth football that is under the spotlight.
This is an important book which shines a light on a system which fundamentally fails thousands of children. Calvin interviews a wide range of people – from coaches and agents to parents and players. Many of the chapters would make excellent stand alone stories – combined, they paint a depressing portrait of an industry in which children are seen as assets and often quickly discarded when they lose their perceived value.
Calvin, a very experienced journalist, is clearly a very talented interviewer who draws out the complexity of the stories of those he speaks to. His own voice in the book is mainly one of empathy – its clear he cares passionately about the game and the people he meets. Calvin also made a documentary with BT Sport based on his book which is well worth checking out.
The most striking fact presented is the young age at which players start to be recruited – Calvin repeatedly paints scenes that seem normal for adults or teenagers until he explains the players are 6 or 7 years old. More than anything, if the book has a central thesis, its that this chasing of players at a younger and younger age is fundamentally wrong.
There is also an interesting contrast between old school and new school ways of thinking about youth coaching. While better processes and procedures are undoubtedly important and necessary for safeguarding, you get a sense that Calvin and many of his interviewees feel the use of technology for technology’s sake hasn’t necessarily improved coaching outcomes.
While Calvin’s writing is very readable, this is not an easy read. Calvin constantly, rightly, reminds the reader of the problems in the game. However, the book does focus on the good guys in a bad industry which gives some hope. Calvin highlights the good work done by many clubs, organisations and coaches who he sees as role models for how things could be improved across football.
At a time when there have been so much coverage of historic abuse within English football, reading this book you cannot help feeling that the football authorities in England have gotten their priorities all wrong. Welfare must come first and outcomes second. With the scale of money involved, its unlikely that message will be heard anytime soon. Large scale change has proven possible when designed to improve the English national team – whether it could again prove possible to implement change designed to help those who ultimately don’t make the grade remains to be seen.