No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream.
By Michael Calvin
When it comes to youth football, Michael Calvin is worried and frustrated. Pushy parents, ego-driven coaches, money-driven agents, data-driven academies, the Premier League promoting inequality through its Elite Player Performance Plan – it’s an ugly, vicious world. ‘England, it seems, remains a province of closed minds and short attention spans’, he states before describing ‘a system suffocating on stardust and sycophancy’. No Hunger in Paradise is the most political and personal of Calvin’s brilliant football trilogy, but he’s far from alone in his thoughts.
To prove it, he has assembled another all-star cast, from a grassroots organisation at Brixton Recreation Centre to the Head of Performance at Manchester City’s £200million academy to England manager Gareth Southgate. No Hunger in Paradise contains the depth and breadth of insight that you’d expect from Calvin’s work. And his passion for the subject never gets in the way of the words of his interviewees. The 19 case studies could perhaps be reduced to 15 but there would be some difficult decisions to make. The cautionary tales of Zak Brunt and Kieran Bywater are fascinating, but so are the success stories of England Under-21 internationals James Ward-Prowse and Duncan Watmore.
‘Growth mindset’ and ‘personal development’ may just sound like today’s buzz phrases but the book makes their importance abundantly clear. The coach’s role is a delicate balancing act. Young players must first learn to enjoy the game in an encouraging, pressure-free environment, long before they become an ‘asset value’. Patience and safeguarding are required to nurture character. The kids need life skills as well as football skills; they need to be prepared for Plan B. As Crawley Town manager Dermot Drummy asserts, ‘The best coach is a community worker, whose best interests are kids’.
But at a certain stage, players must also learn to cope with fame and pressure, rejection and criticism. With ‘Generation Snowflake’ playing on pristine pitches and hiding behind merchandise and social media, Doncaster Rovers Lead Youth Development Phase Coach Tony Mee asks, ‘at what point are we allowed to make kids uncomfortable?’ The resilience to play first-team Premier League football can only be developed through tough, real-game experience. In a world where only 0.012% reach the top, we mustn’t over-indulge. As he prepares for the 2018 World Cup and beyond, Southgate agrees that England’s current young players are not ‘battle-hardened’.
So what next? The cast of No Hunger in Paradise reach consensus on several potential improvements: players shouldn’t be allowed to join academies at the age of 7; players should be encouraged to stay at their local clubs; youth salaries should be capped; youngsters need better support networks, and agents should be fined heavily for ‘selling the dream’ to vulnerable children. Changes won’t happen overnight but this book opens up the discussion.
No Hunger in Paradise has the most universal appeal of all of Calvin’s work. An interest in football helps but so does an interest in young lives. This is a culturally significant book, a considered look at a moral and emotional minefield. Glory, rejection, money, self-interest, success, failure; only the level-headed will survive. Middlesbrough’s Academy Director Dave Parnaby sums it up perfectly: ‘great game, shit industry’.