Seth Burkett Interview

I find that there’s a certain image that comes to my mind when someone says ‘male sports writer’. So it was a real treat to meet Seth Burkett, the young, energetic and ambitious writer behind The Boy in Brazil, Developing The Modern Footballer Through Futsal and Football’s Coming Home.

Seth-Burkett

1. Let’s start with your first literary project, the book you wrote with your grandmother.

Yes, my Gran [Molly Burkett] is a children’s author and she’s had over 100 books published. Ever since I could talk, she’s been trying to get me to write stories. When I was 16 in Year 11 at school, she said, ‘Right, Seth, you need to become a writer! I’m working on a book and you can edit it, and then we’ll put your name on the front cover.’ I hardly did anything; I think I maybe wrote one paragraph! But I got my name on the front cover.

My Gran keeps telling me, ‘No-one reads about football – you need to write for kids!’ I’m glad at least some people do, but I’m trying to make her happy by re-writing her most well-known book at the moment for a modern audience. It’s about badgers. I don’t have a clue about badgers!

Boy From Brazil

2. Next, aged 18, you spent a year in Brazil playing for Sorriso EC. At what stage did you think about turning your experiences into the book, The Boy in Brazil?

From my Gran’s influence, I always wanted to write a book. In Brazil, I had a lot of down-time. After training, I had whole evenings and no-one spoke English. I could entertain them with swearing for an hour but there were lots more hours after that! So I kept a diary to pass the time. When I got back from Brazil, I wrote it up and sent it off to all the publishers and got rejections from everyone.

Then in my second year at University, I broke my leg. I was gutted for a few months but then I decided that it was a good chance to rewrite the book and try to get it published. Again, no luck, but I tried again at the end of my third year and eventually, I got to the stage where I got quite a few offers. I sent it to Ian [Ridley, sports journalist and publisher at Floodlit Dreams] and he rang me back the next day and said that he really liked it. As soon as he was interested, there was no-one else for me. To have that guidance from someone with his ability and experience was invaluable. He was great at getting the book published in time for the 2014 World Cup.

To be honest, I don’t really like looking back now. When I read through it, I just see so many things that I could have improved. But people like it and it’s had good reviews.

Football Coming Out

3. How did you then get involved in Football’s Coming Out with Neil Beasley?

I actually did another book in between called Developing the Modern Footballer through Futsal with my old coach at Loughborough who is the England futsal manager. And then Ian was aware that I wanted to keep on writing more books. Neil actually approached me on Twitter beforehand for some advice on writing the proposal. I gave him a few pointers and then about a month later, Ian messaged me and asked if I wanted to help.

I met with Neil in Loughborough and he was a charismatic guy with really interesting opinions and we went from there. It was a longer process than my other books, as I imagine all ghost-writing always is. But in the end, I think we did a good job on it. To be longlisted for the William Hill was absolutely crazy for me. It was something that we never expected.

4. Finally, what’s next for you?

The answer is I don’t know. I appeared in a film recently [The Bromley Boys]! Stuff like that comes up, so I don’t really like to plan. I think if I keep saying yes and making these connections with people, interesting stuff will come up. I’d like to work on more ghost-writing projects. I’ve got a few projects on the go at the moment and if I’m lucky, one of those will get published. If I’m really lucky, two or three of those will get published. I enjoy writing and I hope I can keep on writing.

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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)

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.

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.