No Hunger in Paradise

No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream.

By Michael Calvin

Century, 2017

No Hunger in Paradise

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’.

 

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Top 5 New Football Titles – April/May/June 2017

April

No Hunger In Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream by Michael Calvin (Century)

No Hunger in Paradise.jpg

Hopefully, this book needs little introduction. Anyone who has read Calvin’s previous, award-winning books The Nowhere Men and Living on the Volcano will be waiting impatiently for this final part of the trilogy. The focus this time is on the players, and their tightrope walk to the top of professional football. Essential reading.

May

Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager by Ian Herbert (Bloomsbury)

Quiet Genius

Herbert, the Independent’s Chief Sportswriter, started out writing for the Liverpool Daily Post. So he’s well-placed to write a detailed new biography of the club’s most successful manager, Bob Paisley. 30 years after Paisley’s death, Herbert is here to tell the story of a modest man.

June

The Mixer by Michael Cox (HarperSport)

The Mixer

It’s great to see this first book from the editor of Zonal Marking and regular Guardian Football Weekly pundit. Cox has chosen to focus his tactical genius on the 25 years of the Premier League. A wise move indeed, rather like Guardiola’s False Nine.

Sober: Football. My Story. My Life. By Tony Adams with Ian Ridley (Simon & Schuster)

Sober

Addicted remains one of the best and most influential football autobiographies ever written. Nearly 20 years later, Adams has teamed up with Ian Ridley again for the sequel. Topics under discussion include Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal reign, England and his charity, Sporting Chance.

The Fall of the House of Fifa by David Conn (Yellow Jersey Press)

Fall of the House of FIFA.jpg

Conn is one of football’s best-loved writers and he loves a juicy story to sink his teeth into. Fifa’s recent rise and fall provides the perfect subject matter. If the title and cover of this book aren’t enough to pique your interest, I really can’t help you.

Above Head Height

Above Head Height: A Five-a-side Life

James Brown

Quercus, 2017

above-head-height

It’s a pretty clear sign that something has really caught on when people are writing memoirs about it. Five-a-side football has never been so popular and it just keeps growing. At this rate, the 2020-21 Premier League season will be played at Power League venues with head height rules. In these boom years, former NME, loaded and GQ journalist James Brown’s book Above Head Height: A Five-a-Side Life arrives with plenty of press attention and a Tony Parsons quote calling it ‘The Fever Pitch of five-a-side’.

Inspired by the death of James Kyllo, his friend and football organiser, Brown wrote a brilliant Telegraph piece last year called ‘Goodbye, my five-a-side friend’. That really struck a chord with the nation and so now, here is Above Head Height, his full-scale exploration of five-a-side football – the players, the psyche, the phenomena. The coverage is comprehensive, with chapters on everything from the history of commercial five-a-side to the various temper types found on the field. Haribo, colonic irrigation, Tony Yeboah – you’ll find it all here.

Above Head Height contains a neat blend of personal nostalgia and universal truths, as well as collected anecdotes from the likes of ‘Orrible Ives, the result of a clever call to social media. Brown brings it all together with passion, self-deprecation and, importantly, humour: ‘Fat people were old, thin people were young and fat young people were goalies’, ‘the no-weather pitch’, ‘any adult who arrives for a five-a-side game in plimsolls could well be a nutter’. Warning: the observational quips about black pellets in shoes, odd kit and getting fat may wear a little thin for the 1% who don’t love Michael McIntyre.

For all the fun football tales in Above Head Height, Brown is arguably at his best when describing the human, emotional side of the five-a-side obsession. He writes powerfully about his own recovery from addiction, the ‘loop of life’ that sees young men becoming dads and their sons becoming young men, as well as the strange relationship that exists between teammates who often don’t ever see each other in normal clothes. ‘I think you can learn more from playing football with someone for an hour than by talking to them or working with them for years,’ one of his teammates tells him.

Like your classic five-a-side player, Above Head Height deserves a lot of praise but there’s always room for a moan or two. Early on, Brown talks about ‘the howling gale of distraction that makes up my head’ and at times, the writing does feel unstructured. ‘What Are We Doing When We Play Five-a-side?’ one chapter begins and after thirteen pages of swirling ideas, it ends ‘In short: we play five-a-side football because we like it.’ A clearer, thematic approach works better in chapters like ‘On The Subject of Violence’ and ‘Shorts, Socks and Coats’.

As I read – and greatly enjoyed – Above Head Height, I couldn’t help thinking it might have been better as a smaller, more focused book of amusing, themed, five-a-side essays, reminiscent of Daniel Gray’s recent book Saturday, 3pm. Wishful thinking, I know, just like James Brown scoring goals like Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke.

Four Football Books to Read in Early 2017

1. Above Head Height: A Five-A-Side Life by James Brown (Quercus, Feb 2017)

above-head-height

In December 2015, former NME and GQ journalist James Brown wrote a very moving tribute to one of his teammates who passed away. The article struck a real nerve with the ever-growing five-a-side fraternity and this book will surely expand on the weird and wonderful camaraderie that exists between people who only meet for an hour every week. Novelist Tony Parsons has gone so far as to call it ‘The Fever Pitch of five-a-side’.

2. Shades of Blue: My Life in Football and the Shadow Within by David White and Joanne Lake (Michael O’Mara, Feb 2017)

David White played for Manchester City for eight years, between 1985 and 1993. He’s always been a club legend but in the last few months, he’s entered the national spotlight as one of the first brave men to go public about sexual abuse at the hands of former Crewe Alexandra youth coach, Barry Bennell. This promises to be a groundbreaking account and in Joanne Lake (co-author of I’m Not Really Here, a groundbreaking account of depression in football), White has the perfect support.

3. Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend by Andrew Downie (Simon & Schuster, March 2017)

socrates

I’ll be honest – I was a little sceptical about this one at first. Sure, it’s got a great cover but do we need another book on a Brazilian legend? The answer, as it turns out, is absolutely yes because this is an unusual biography about an unusual player. Downie is in possession of unparalleled insight; ‘he has had exclusive access to Socrates’s unpublished memoir and many of the tape recordings left by Socrates’. So I think this will be a special book indeed.

4. Nolberto Solano: Blowing My Own Trumpet (Mojo Risin’ Publishing, March 2017)

solano

I’m a big fan of cult footballers and they don’t get much bigger than Sir Nobby of Newcastle. Judging by his Twitter account, I reckon the little Peruvian has plenty of tales to tell about his time on Tyneside. ‘Armed with a lifetime of memories and his trusty trumpet,’ the publisher website states, ‘Solano reveals all in a story filled with hope and punctuated by painful life lessons.’ I can’t wait for this one.

Football School


Football School: Where Football Explains the World

Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton (with illustrator Spike Gerrell)

Walker Books, 2016

football-school

‘But why do we need to know about _______?’

‘What’s _______ got to do with real life?’

If you can’t fill in the blanks based on the experience of youth, then I worry about your childhood. Whether it’s Science or English, Music or History, there are always school subjects that we find harder than others. What we need is a yellow brick road, an engaging way in to that particular world. Well for young football fans, the wardrobe to Narnia has arrived.

Football School, by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton, offers 18 fun lessons ‘where football explains/rules the world’. The book uses cartoons, trivia, jokes and quizzes à la Horrible Histories but this is far from a cheap rip-off. The authors get the balance just right between the entertaining and the educational. Biology (footballers’ poos), Psychology (taking penalties), Politics (football diplomacy) and PHSE (nature vs nurture) are particular highlights, with only English (football jargon dictionary) and Maths (probability of death while playing football) disappointing slightly.

In trying to fit so much into just over 200 pages, Football School naturally spreads itself a little thin but it’s an excellent and significant gateway resource. For teachers and parents, the book offers lessons and activities that can be adapted and expanded to fit whatever purpose. And for kids 8 years and up, the book provides an accessible, real-world route into some very tricky topics.