On The Brink

On The Brink: A Journey Through English Football’s North West

By Simon Hughes

deCoubertin Books, 2017

On The Brink

‘I love being in a region where everything smells like football,’ Jürgen Klopp says in On The Brink. The Liverpool manager is talking about Merseyside but the sentiment can be applied to the whole North West, the subject of Simon Hughes’ brilliant new book.

The project is an ambitious one. Michael Walker’s Up There focused largely on the North East’s Big Three (Middlesbrough, Newcastle United and Sunderland), while Anthony Clavane’s A Yorkshire Tragedy looked at 8 sporting powerhouses in the region. On The Brink ups the ante, by aiming to give equal coverage to 22 football clubs, from Liverpool right through to Barrow-in-Furness. Somehow, Hughes manages to cover the key geographical, political, historical and football points in tight 15-page sections. It’s impressive to say the least.

What On The Brink lacks in depth, it makes up for in characters. As he has shown with his Liverpool Players’ Stories series, Hughes is an excellent interviewer. He picks interesting people and then gives them the stage. ‘Jimmy and James are talking between themselves now,’ he says in the Accrington Stanley chapter. ‘I am listening.’ His experts range from current club chairmen like Preston North End’s Peter Risdale to old club managers like Oldham Athletic’s Joe Royle.

The anthology approach of On The Brink works to highlight the common experiences. Some struggles, like the rise of social media and the Premier League, feel more universal but some feel more North West-specific. Themes of isolation, suffering, spirit and scepticism recur again and again. With the exceptions of Liverpool and Manchester, these are football communities battling to stay relevant.

At one point, Hughes asks, ‘How does a football club exist in a place where there has been years of economic decline, where the possibility of regeneration was snuffed out by the blow of recession?’ He is talking about Morecambe but again, the sentiment can be applied to much of the region. On The Brink isn’t the most uplifting book you’ll read this year but it offers a fascinating survey of north-west life and football in the 21st century.

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

Football Books 2015

The football season is drawing to a close and the holiday season is just beginning. For those that can’t bear to leave the beautiful game behind, there’s only one solution: beach reading. With the help of the best sports publishers around, we’ve collated the best football books around so you don’t have to…

BackPage Press

Neil White: We’re working with Arena Sport on ‘DIEGO COSTA: The Art of War’, translated and updated from Fran Guillen’s Spanish edition of last year to include the World Cup, Costa’s transfer to Chelsea and this season’s dramas. Due out 16th July, more info here

Diego-Costa

We’re really excited about ‘The Five-a-Side Bible’ which we’re developing with Freight Books and 5-a-side.com for an October release. That’s going to have lots of funny stories from the world of 3G, as well as tips from the best fives players in Britain, a five-a-side bucket list and much more. If you play short-sided football, this is the book you’ve been waiting for.

Around the same time, we should have ‘PUSKAS: Madrid, Magyars and the Amazing Adventures of Football’s Greatest Goalscorer’ done. We’re working with Freight Books on that, and it’s written by Gyorgy Szlossi, who heads up the Puskas Academy in Budapest, founded the Puskas Award with Fifa and remains a close friend of the Puskas family.

Pitch Publishing

Paul Camillin: The first half of 2015 sees a variety of titles being added to Pitch Publishing’s ever-growing football list​, including biographies, autobiographies and club-specific titles.

For those who lament the modern game, and feel somewhere along the way football took a wrong turn, losing touch with fans. The Ugly Game by Martin Calladine is a passionate, funny book of essays, and sets out to put football right by comparing it, often unfavourably, with American football, a sport, perhaps surprisingly, that’s showing how money need not destroy fairness and competition.

Ugly Game

Soccer in Stilettos by Liam Newman is a definitive look at the rise of women’s football, telling the inspirational story of how the female sport has slowly but surely stepped out of the shadow of its male counterpart to become the truly beautiful game that it is today. With the future of the sport looking brighter than ever, how did football finally show sexism the red card?

Of the club titles, one is already proving popular with Leeds United fans, and flying off the shelves. Jon Howe’s The Only Place For Us is the A to Z history of Leeds United’s Elland Road home, revealing the stories behind its past uses, famous features and characters – plus fires, gypsy curses and escaped pantomime horses. Using archive research, insiders’ insights and fascinating photos, Jon Howe retraces the intriguing historical journey of one of Britain’s most iconic football grounds.

Then on the autobiography front we have Moody Blue, the self-told-tale of former Rangers legend Marco Negri and Luggy, the story of journeyman manager Paul Sturrock.

Ockley Books

This Yorkshire-based publisher’s small but finely-crafted football list is one of the best around. Current highlights include Adam Digby’s Juventus: A History in Black and White and Roger Domeneghetti’s From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey Through the English Media.

I think the best, however, may be yet to come. It’s pretty rare these days that you hear of a football book and think ‘Wow, why has no-one written about that before?’ The Agony & The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Play-Offs by Richard Foster is definitely one of the most exciting ideas I’ve heard in a long time. You can read an extract here.

Playoffs

Trinity Mirror Sports Media

Hardback:

Danny Higginbotham Rise of the Underdog, RRP £16.99

Danny Higginbotham has always been honest. What he lacked in natural ability as a footballer, he made up for in raw passion and commitment.

He started his football education under the greatest – Sir Alex Ferguson – at his beloved Manchester United. After a headline-making loan spell in Belgium, he embarked on an eventful career journey, taking in stops at high-flying Derby County, Southampton, Sunderland and Stoke City.

Sharing Premier League dressing rooms and pitches with some big names, he experienced both sides of the modern game – from the gut-wrenching agony of relegation to the champagne moments of reaching Wembley. Along the way, he worked under charismatic bosses like Jim Smith, Harry Redknapp and Roy Keane – who delivered the most bizarre team talk he’s ever heard. At Stoke, he learned about the team-bonding tricks of Tony Pulis.

As honest and whole-hearted as his career on the pitch ‘Rise of the Underdog’ is the entertaining inside story of how an ordinary lad worked his way up the professional ladder, learning the lessons it takes to survive at the highest level of the English game.

Underdog

Paperback:

Sergio Aguero Born To Rise, RRP £8.99

‘A must-read for any football fan’ Daily Mirror

Sergio Aguero is one of the top strikers in world football, but his rise to superstardom hasn’t always been smooth. Born into poverty, his life story Sergio Kun Agüero: Born to Rise is fascinating and a real story of talent, desire and the guidance of good people helping him to overcome adversity.

The book features a foreword from his best friend, Lionel Messi, and includes colourful dressing room revelations about his fellow countryman and other stars he’s encountered on his journey. This is a book every Manchester City fan will want to read, but also any football fan who is fascinated by that elite group of world greats who were touched by destiny and born to rise.

Leon Osman My Autobiography, RRP £8.99

“Fascinating” Liverpool Echo

LEON OSMAN has been at Everton FC since he was ten years old and in that time has witnessed major changes at the club and within football. A fixture in the Blues’ team for the past decade, Osman’s humour and thoughtful nature shines through in his revealing and entertaining autobiography.

Osman provides a unique insight into Moyes – the man and his methods – as well as many of the big personalities he has played alongside, such as Duncan Ferguson, Wayne Rooney, Tim Cahill, Thomas Gravesen, Mikel Arteta and Phil Neville.

Filled with entertaining tales and anecdotes from his life at Everton, Osman’s story is fascinating and inspiring.

Best of the Rest – top 5 new releases

  1. Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager by Michael Calvin
  2. Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga by Ronald Reng
  3. Money and Football: A Soccernomics Guide by Stefan Szymanski
  4. Eibar the Brave: The Extraordinary Rise of La Liga’s Smallest Team by Euan McTear
  5. Balotelli: The Remarkable Story Behind the Sensational Headlines by Luca Caioli

Calvin

Best of the Rest – top 5 paperback releases

  1. Thirty-One Nil: On the Road with Football’s Outsiders by James Montague
  2. Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick by Ben Lyttleton
  3. ¡Golazo! : A History of Latin American Football by Andreas Campomar
  4. Louis van Gaal: The Biography by Maarten Meijer
  5. In Search of Duncan Ferguson: The Life and Crimes of a Footballing Enigma by Alan Pattullo

Twelve Yards

The Premier League in Books – Part One

Arsenal

With such rich literary connections, Arsenal is a nice easy place to start. For historical accounts, try Patrick Barclay’s The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman, or Nick Hornby’s 90s classic Fever Pitch. If it’s modern player portraits you’re after, you’ll find few better than Tony Adams’ Addicted (with Ian Ridley), Dennis Bergkamp’s Stillness and Speed (with David Winner), and Lonely at the Top, Philippe Auclair’s biography of Thierry Henry. And if all that’s not enough, Amy Lawrence’s Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season is undoubtedly one of 2014’s best Christmas gifts.

Invincible

Aston Villa

Despite being one of the Premier League’s perennial few, the Villains have made little contribution to the literary canon. In my humble opinion, that’s because the likes of Mark Draper, Julian Joachim and Alan Wright have so far steered clear of the confessional. A few, however, such as Gareth Southgate (Woody and Nord), Stan Collymore (Tackling My Demons) and Dwight Yorke (Born To Score), have been more communicative. Paul McGrath’s candid Back From The Brink is the pick of an average bunch. Perhaps Gabby Agbonlahor will one day right this wrong.

McGrath

Burnley

Same colours, same dearth of books. Thank goodness for Clarke Carlisle. His You Don’t Know Me, But… is an excellent, warts-and-all look at the realities of lower league football. Carlisle’s happiest and most successful years were at Turf Moor: ‘Owen [Coyle] came in and completely shifted the dynamic. His focus was on total enjoyment. It was fun at training, something a lot of the squad hadn’t encountered for a few years. This change led to a happy workforce, and a happy workforce is a productive one…We were definitely a classic example of a team whose total was greater than the sum of its parts.’

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Chelsea

It always surprises me how little of note has been written about the Russian revolution at Stamford Bridge. Until the arrival of beige autobiographies from John Terry and Frank Lampard, we’ll have to make do with the managers. Ruud Gullit: The Chelsea Diary and Mourinho on Football are entertaining reads, but Carlo Ancelotti: The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius is the pick of the bunch. Although largely based around his time in Italy, the book ends with the brilliantly named chapter ‘Summoned by Abramovich’.

Ancelotti

Crystal Palace

Where the Eagles are concerned, Simon Jordan’s Be Careful What You Wish For soars head and shoulders above the rest. Mobile phone entrepreneur Jordan bought Palace in 2000 at the tender age of 36 and took them back to the Premier League. Ten years later, he was bankrupt and his club was in administration. This explosive and revelatory book will appeal to all football fans with an interest in what goes on behind the scenes, but it will mean the most to the long-suffering Selhurst Park faithful.

Jordan

Everton

This year has seen the publication of four books about Toffees heroes: Kevin Kilbane’s Killa, How Football Saved My Life by Alan Stubbs, Ossie by Leon Osman and best of all, In Search of Duncan Ferguson by Alan Pattullo. Here’s a juicy sample from the beginning: ‘Everton got under his skin. He would never ever forget how it felt to soar into the air, to head that first goal against Liverpool, before sinking to his knees with joy and relief in front of the Gwladys Street End; the legend before the player, the rise before the fall. On the same date 12 months later, he was languishing in jail.’

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Hull City

If a book could ever be said to sum up a football club, it would probably be Bend it like Bullard, nearly 300 pages of cult, no-frills entertainment. Here’s Jimmy on his motorway-side scrap with teammate Nicky Barmby: ‘I’d love to be able to say that I sorted him out, but the truth is that it was little more than explosive grappling for a few seconds. As the gaffer said later, it was hardly Ali-Frazier. We both ended up lying on a bush with no real leverage to get out of it.’

Bullard

Leicester City

The Foxes are back in the top flight again but it’s their 90s heyday under Martin O’Neill that provides the literary goldmine. Steve Claridge’s Tales From the Boot Camps is an underrated gem, while Savage! is as entertaining as you’d expect. Apparently, everything slotted into place when he joined Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet in the centre of the park: ‘With those two at my side, I produced my best forty-five minutes in a Leicester shirt…At the final whistle, everyone came over and hugged me. Martin had his arms around my shoulder. “Thank Robbie for getting us to the final”, he said to the others…That was the day I became Robbie Savage, Leicester City footballer. I was accepted by the lads from that moment on, and I still believe we were the best midfield that Leicester have ever had.’

Savage

Liverpool

As befits a club with such history, there’s a long list of options here. For the nostalgics, I’d recommend David Peace’s Shankly epic Red or Dead and Tony Evans’ I Don’t Know What It Is But I Love It: Liverpool’s Unforgettable 1983-84. But this Christmas, it’s all about the controversial ex-strikers: Craig Bellamy’s GoodFella (featuring the winning combo of John Arne Riise and a golfclub) and Luis Suarez: Crossing The Line. The Uruguayan’s story promises to be as explosive as his finishing.

Suarez

Manchester City

Unlike Chelsea, City have an excellent book on their recent rise: David Conn’s Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up is a brilliant look at how the football times are a changing, for better or for worse. Beyond that, there’s Blue Moon by Mark Hodkinson about the 98-99 promotion season, and Paul Lake’s I’m Not Really Here, a powerful and cautionary tale which you really don’t need to be a Sky Blue to enjoy.

Conn

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