It’s been an amazing few months for sportswriter Michael Calvin. In May, his latest book The Nowhere Men beat the offerings of Messrs Balague and Lowe to win Best Football Book at the British Sports Book Awards. A month later, he completed the double, scooping the Times Sports Book of the Year award. Having reviewed his excellent look at the unknown world of football scouting for the Football Blogging Awards blog, I had a few questions for Mr Calvin, which he was all too happy to answer.
Q. Was the subject of scouting a difficult sell for your publisher? Especially when sports publishing is so focused on media-friendly ‘brands’: a player, a manager, a team or country.
I was very fortunate: everyone involved ‘got it’ from the moment the idea took shape during a chance conversation with Jamie Johnson, Millwall’s chief scout, in the manager’s office after a game at the Den. Ben Dunn, my publisher at Century, instantly understood the potential of exploring such a fascinating, but hidden, world. He related it to the authenticity of my previous book, Family: Life, Death and Football. He’s a football fan (West Ham, unfortunately) and like most fans he was intrigued by the process of discovery. Once I came up with the title, we were off and running.
Q. Was there a Eureka moment behind the Nowhere Men project? Did it emerge from your empathy with the scout’s plight, or were you specifically looking for an undiscovered aspect of the footballing world?
If there was a Eureka moment, it probably happened in my second game out on the road with Mel Johnson, the scout who acted as my mentor. It was an Under 19 international, and his principal target was the Czech goalkeeper. He noticed me doing what I had done thousands of times previously in reporting matches: annotating the team shape and following the flow of play. That wasn’t my job as a scout. I had to concentrate on our man. That intensity of focus made me view the game in a completely different light. It brought out the humanity of the process. That, in turn, stimulated my empathy with both player and observer.
Q. As your book so brilliantly evokes, scouts operate within a closed, ‘tribe’ environment. Was it difficult to infiltrate the fraternity and get them talking, or was Steve Rowley more of an exception?
Scouting is like any other specialist field: it is enclosed and initially hesitant in opening up to outsiders. I was a bit of a curiosity at first, but once they realised I wanted to share their lifestyle and tell their stories, they were intrigued and, I have to say, a little flattered. I quickly became part of the network. I found them brilliant to deal with: even Steve, who was more reserved and uneasy, was politeness personified.
Q. For much of the book, your voice is very subtle, keeping the spotlight focused firmly on your interviewees. Was it difficult to remove yourself from the picture, as a journalist accustomed to offering opinions?
Not particularly, to be honest. Observation has always been my stock in trade as a sportswriter; being a columnist on a national newspaper is the privilege of experience. Sport enshrines the best in human nature, and the worst. That’s what makes it so compelling to write about. The reader sees the scout’s world through my eyes, but I took a conscious decision to allow them to speak for themselves. It is interesting that many readers tell me they loved the ‘Chat Show’ chapter in which I recorded the conversation of Patsy Holland, Allan Gemmell and Barry Lloyd. They gave us a fantastic insight into true football culture.
Q. Which of the many set-ups discussed in The Nowhere Men impressed you most and why? Personally, I felt the team of Matthew Benham and Miguel Rios at Brentford came across particularly well.
Brentford surprised me, because what I discovered defied the perception of the club. I was hugely impressed by the work done at all levels. Interestingly, Miguel and Mark Warburton, who is now manager, come from a City trading background. That makes them more inclined to think laterally and differently. At Academy level, the human chemistry between Shaun O Connor and Ose Aibangee, who are different characters, really works. This is a club operating to a long term strategy: much of that is down to owner Matt Benham, who is a fan, but also utilises his professional experience and perspective.
Q. Do you feel that English football analytics have made much progress in the past year? It’s interesting to read that Brendan Rodgers, widely seen as a very modern manager, still puts such faith in his scouting set-up.
No, I don’t. In much of the Football League there is very little understanding of, and respect for, analysis in terms of performance and recruitment. Far too many clubs are taking the short-sighted, short-term option of employing unpaid interns or recent graduates, who are ready to work for free. They are exploiting the ambition of a new generation of support staff, which is utterly wrong. Liverpool have a strong analytic base, but also have faith in old school scouts like Mel. The wider issue, though, is that too many clubs are becoming over-reliant on video scouting; you cannot beat eyes, ears and instinct.
Q. And finally, having had this privileged education, would you ever consider scouting on the side?!
Funnily enough, I have been asked to look out for players. A few of the scouts keep in touch and ask where I will be at the weekend. They might ask for a favour – ‘see what you think about so and so, will you?’ – and they happily swap news and gossip. It works both ways!
Buy The Nowhere Men here