Living on the Volcano

Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager

By Michael Calvin

Century, 2015

Arguably the greatest asset of Michael Calvin’s previous, award-winning book The Nowhere Men was its human insight into a shadowy, under-appreciated world. The trials and tribulations of scouting were vividly portrayed through interviews with figures unaccustomed to the limelight. This was always going to be the biggest challenge for his latest book, Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager. As Calvin admits in the acknowledgements, ‘football managers are categorised by the profundity of their pronouncements.’

Living on the Volcano takes the same structural approach as The Nowhere Men: a broad range of case studies (26 at the author’s count), where a quiet, objective narrative style prioritises the words of the subjects themselves. These range from ‘veterans’ Ian Holloway and Aidy Boothroyd to bright young things Garry Monk and Eddie Howe; from League Two survivors to Premier League personalities. Even cutting through the bluster of the likes of Alan Pardew and Brendan Rodgers, there is honest insight to be found throughout.

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‘When we piece together the jigsaw of what makes a successful manager, it contains shards of bone, scraps of sinew and slithers of grey matter.’ As Calvin’s words neatly summarise, no two managers’ stories, situations or approaches are exactly alike; some have expensive technology at their fingertips and swear by it, some pride themselves on a persona of self-belief, and others have little more to work with than old-fashioned man-management.

However, what Living on the Volcano does so brilliantly, is pick up the recurring threads. The ‘band of brothers’ mentality that emerges is built on a mutual world of uncertainty, frustration, and ‘recurrent rejection and renewal’. Each chapter is cleverly connected to the next to reflect the fluid nature of the managerial merry-go-round. The importance of father figures is clear, whether that be mentors within the game or personal heroes outside of it. In such a pressurised profession, the support network is key, as is maintaining perspective. ‘All right, we all want to win, and we might lose our job, but there are a lot of worse things in the world,’ Wolves manager Kenny Jackett stresses.

And whether they’re discussing neuro-linguistics or ‘developing the person and the player’, all managers are trying to create the best environment to nurture talent. Rodgers sees himself as ‘a welfare officer’, former Brentford boss Mark Warburton talks of ‘handling the hunger and the anger’ and Walsall manager Dean Smith describes ‘the natural sensitivities of human beings’. Within each squad, there are a range of character types to understand and get through to. It is this emotional angle that emerges as every manager’s number one challenge, whether they’re fighting for a Champions League spot or fending off relegation.

As a series of individual portraits, Living on the Volcano may seem like a book to dip in and out of. However, in doing so, there’s a danger of missing the power of the overall narrative. Bookended by former Torquay manager Martin Ling’s emotional story, this is a book about people and what it takes to do their intoxicating and exhausting job. Just as with The Nowhere Men, Calvin gets to the personal core of an impersonal industry, arguing for empathy with these ‘Poundland prophets’ and their ‘desperate ambition, absurd pretension and ritual sacrifice’. Living on the Volcano might not make the job any easier, but it should make you give your manager a little more time.

Buy it here

Q&A: Michael Calvin, author of The Nowhere Men

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