London Festival of Football Writing

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In May 2017, an exciting new football writing festival is coming to London. From Tuesday 16th – Saturday 20th, enjoy five nights of football fun with the likes of Jonathan Wilson, Philippe Auclair, Michael Cox and Anna Kessel. I spoke to Kieran The Organiser (consider his rap name coined) to get the full low-down.

Q1. What are the origins of the festival? Is it being run in association with the Manchester Football Writing Festival?

In late 2016, I was running a bookstall for my work at a tedious academic conference and on the bus back home, I drifted in and out of tiredness-induced reverie.  In true cartoon lightbulb fashion, an idea pinged into my brain – a festival of football writing with some writers and authors I want to see in a nice bookshop that also sells cold, delicious beer.  I was basically dreaming after being ground down to a husk by 12+ hours at the stuffy, drab, dry conference venue.  I slept on it for a couple of days and it remained a great idea. And thus London Festival of Football Writing was born!

It’s not affiliated with Manchester Football Writing Festival but the amazing year-on-year growth of the festival has been an inspiration, showing that there is room for reasonably niche festivals on the literary circus.  The MFWF has also been very generous in reaching out, offering solidarity and advice.

Q2. Do you have a specific aim or focus for this festival?

If I’m honest, the aim for this inaugural festival is just to see if it can be done. At the moment, I’m undertaking this without any sponsorship or financial backing but I would be looking to build on this to make next year’s festival bigger and better.

The overarching focus has changed somewhat since I first started putting things together but it still showcases a variety of very fine authors and journalists and that is, above all, the most important thing.

Q3. It’s an amazing line-up of events. Was it difficult to bring together big names like Jonathan Wilson, Philippe Auclair, Rory Smith, Michael Cox and Anna Kessel?

Each and every one of the authors have made putting this together relatively painless.  Anthony Clavane, Philippe Auclair and Anna Kessel in particular have been so generous with their time, offering invaluable advice, encouragement and contacts.

I was also touched by the enthusiasm of Barney Ronay, David Goldblatt, Amy Lawrence, Alex Bellos, Heidi Blake and Ronald Reng, who couldn’t make it for this year’s festival.

Q4. Can you pick one of the events that you’re particularly looking forward to?

I couldn’t possibly do that!  I’m genuinely excited about all of them.  If you pushed me, I’d be tempted to say Anthony Clavane – he’s one of my absolute favourite writers and his recent book, looking at the erosion of working class identity through the prism of sport is arguably his best yet.

Q5. Waterstones Tottenham Court Road is a great location for the festival. It feels like Waterstones are doing more and more to promote sports books. Do you think this is a particularly rich period for football literature?

Waterstones Tottenham Court Road is possibly my favourite bookshop in London, even though it’s only been open for less than 18 months. It’s got bags of character and its events programme is unparalleled in its variety and the big names it pulls in.  The event space is so atmospheric too, a real rarity.

The fact that Waterstones has its own dedicated sports books Twitter page (@wstonessport) is probably more down to the passion of the person in the company who manages it.

I would say the last ten years has seen football writing flourish, and you could probably trace it back to the release of Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid and the advent of blogs.  Now, it is a genre where literary, cerebral books on football fit nicely alongside the big-name biographies and publications like The Blizzard, Nutmeg and Mundial are pushing it into different directions, offering the opportunity for unpublished writers to get their work in print where previously that door would have been firmly shut.

Q6. The literary world tends to exclude or marginalise sports writing. Do you think that’s why the genre needs its own separate festivals like this?

Yes, I think there is an embedded elitism from the literary establishment regarding football writing and maybe that won’t change.  Despite the millions going to football each week, football writing may always be a niche interest.  You’ll always have the big-name biographies published for Christmas and maybe one or two books that cross over into the mainstream.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem though – there’s definitely an appetite for intelligent football writing and people are savvy enough to seek these oout outside of the mainstream, through independent publishers, social media, blogs and word-of-mouth.

The success of Manchester Football Writing Festival and, hopefully, London Festival of Football Writing, is a celebration of this and it shows how comfortable the genre is existing separately on its own terms.

Q7. Finally, give us your best 140-character pitch for football fans who are thinking about attending.

LFFW brings together some of the best names in football writing for five nights of analysis, humour and insight on the beautiful game!

For event listings, tickets and more info, visit the London Festival of Football Writing website

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’.

 

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

April

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

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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)

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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.

A Natural

A Natural

By Ross Raisin

Jonathan Cape, 2017

A Natural

It seems that ‘football novels’ behave a little like buses. After David Peace’s success with The Damned United back in 2007, very little followed for the best part of a decade. But now, two have arrived in quick succession: first Anthony Cartwright’s Iron Towns and now Ross Raisin’s A Natural. Two new novels from acclaimed British authors – is it too soon to call this a golden age for football fiction?

A Natural is populated with football folk, whether they be players, players’ loved ones, coaches, supporters or even ground staff. There are recognisable football types throughout, from the angry cave man manager to the fat chairman to the goalkeeper ‘who had retired as a player only a couple of seasons ago…but whose face and body were already so swollen that none of the squad recognised him until he was introduced’.

The narrative hinges on the fortunes of two footballers playing for ‘Town’: Tom Pearman, an England youth international who has been released by a Premier league team, and Chris Easter, a fallen hero looking to resurrect his career back at his first club. The action of the novel takes place on football pitches and fan forums, at Christmas parties and sponsors’ functions. There are league tables and match reports. But does that really make this a ‘football novel’?

At its core, A Natural is a human drama. Raisin uses sport as a backdrop for exploring identity and homosexuality in a heavily masculine, suppressive environment. The novel charts Tom’s fight against the pull of the pack mentality, where ‘each joke, each wind-up, bound them, protected them.’ Football is depicted as a world of isolation, routines, ‘unspokenness’ and performance – ‘He was becoming more adept at acting like himself. Splitting himself into two people: one that could be normal, a footballer, the other kept apart.’

In the battle between ‘the unit’ and the self, Tom’s upkeep of ‘normal’ becomes more and more frantic. The pressure mounts, from teammates, family, friends, media and that most powerful of characters, ‘the Internet’. Raisin brilliantly captures the vulnerability of living with secrets in the public eye; ‘But then he thought about the crowd. Alone and exposed amid the eyes and the noise.’ Tom is a squad player for a small, lower-league club. The reader is left to ponder just how difficult all this would be for a top-flight player in the full glare of the spotlight.

Anyone hoping for a Roy of the Rovers ending will be left disappointed. Raisin starts out on a path of grim realism and never wavers. Conformity wears courage down, as it so often does. Well-researched and well-crafted, A Natural is a sensitive and timely novel, whether you want to stick ‘football’ on the front or not.

Spring 2017 – The Best Football Paperbacks

MARCH

Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game (Pro Edition) by David Sumpter

Maths doesn’t have to be boring and pointless. Instead, it can teach us fun and fascinating things, even about football. Especially about football, according to applied mathematician David Sumpter. Whether you’re a player, a coach or a fan (or all of the above), you’ll never look at statistics, tactics and analytics in the same way again. The Pro Edition paperback has updated content and a great new cover.

soccermatics

APRIL

Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches by Carlo Ancelotti (with Chris Brady and Mike Forde)

As Bayern Munich’s recent demolition of Arsenal showed, Ancelotti is still a manager at the very top of his game. Quiet Leadership combines Carlo’s own stories with the reflections of many of the biggest names in football including Cristiano Ronaldo, Paolo Maldini and Sir Alex Ferguson. Like Sir Alex’s Leading, this is a book with a massive dual market: sports fans and business people.

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Mister: The Men Who Taught The World How To Beat England At Their Own Game by Rory Smith

The British invented football in the 19th century and messengers spread the word to other nations around the world, who quickly became better at the sport than us. It’s a familiar story but no-one has written about those first football pioneers with as much style, craft and detail as New York Times Chief Soccer Correspondent Rory Smith. A new cover for the paperback would have been nice but Mister is a highly-recommended read.

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Ring of Fire: Liverpool into the 21st Century: The Players’ Stories by Simon Hughes

First Red Machine looked at the 80s, then Men in White Suits looked at the 90s and now Ring of Fire looks at Liverpool in the 2000s. Simon Hughes’ journalism is exceptional, bringing together insightful stories from Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Gérard Houllier and many more. You don’t have to be a Liverpool fan to enjoy this book but it certainly helps.

ring-of-fire

MAY

Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius by Oliver Kay

This was my favourite football book of 2016 and one of the William Hill Sports Books of the Year. Forever Young is a surprising, enthralling and emotional tale about talent, ambition, disappointment and personality. Trust me – Manchester United’s Adrian Doherty will soon be your new favourite player. In a world of agent-controlled Twitter accounts and bland player interviews, this is a real breath of fresh air.

forever-young

And The Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain by Adrian Tempany

This hugely significant book explores the sporting and political environment that led up to the Hillsborough Disaster in April 1989, as well as the aftermath and the ground-breaking rise of Premier League football. Above all, it’s a book about the fans and how gentrification and commercialisation has affected their experience of football. The new paperback cover is fantastic and should help to bring And The Sun Shines Now to an even bigger audience.

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