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’.

 

Nige Tassell Interview

Nige Tassell’s The Bottom Corner is undoubtedly one of this autumn’s must-read football titles. In between romantic pilgrimages to the far-flung stadia of our fair British Isles (I’m guessing here), the author was kind enough to answer some questions about books, writing, and the magic of non-league football.

1. How did a music journalist end up writing a book about non-league football?

Although the majority of my income over the past 15 or so years has been from scribbling down half-formed opinions about music, I’ve never been exclusively a music journalist. Very few people are. There’s simply not enough work to go round. So I’ve always written about other subjects, in particular sport – whether it was spending a day in the Test Match Special commentary box for The Word or persuading retired footballers to relive their moments of glory for FourFourTwo.

Book-wise, writing about sport was always the aim, the final destination. There are very few music books left to write. Sport, however, constantly renews itself. New stories emerge every week, every month, every season.

2. Was it a difficult sell to the publisher?

I’d be a lousy salesman, so fortunately that’s what my agent is for. But, no, it wasn’t. I was in the process of changing agents and touting around several different ideas for books, but the kindly soul who took me on – Kevin Pocklington – knew exactly where to take The Bottom Corner, so it was a comparatively quick process. I was delighted and hugely flattered to be signing for Yellow Jersey. I’ve been a huge fan of their list for years and years.

­­­­Getting a book commissioned means getting departments right across a publishing company excited – having an enthusiastic editor is just the first stage. But everyone at Yellow Jersey was on board very quickly. It certainly helped that the country seemed to be going non-league mad during the actual week it got commissioned, thanks to the first series of the Salford City documentary, their FA Cup triumph over Notts County and everyone falling for Jamie Vardy’s non-league-to-England fairy-tale.

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3. Have you always been a die-hard non-league fan? Do you ever watch league football?

Well, everyone knows that the greatest season in the history of any club wasn’t that of Man Utd’s treble-winners, nor Arsenal’s unbeaten Invincibles. It was Colchester United’s glorious 1991-92 campaign when they did the non-league double – pipping Wycombe to the Conference title on goal difference and then winning the FA Trophy at Wembley against Witton Albion. Non-league has been in my blood since then, although ‘die-hard’ might be too strong. That’s a definition reserved for those hopelessly devoted groundhoppers. They are a breed apart.

After watching non-league, league football just doesn’t appeal. You can’t wander around watching from various different standpoints. You can’t watch with a beer in your hand. And you go home with far less money left in your pocket.

4. Did you have the season all planned out in advance, or were some aspects more spontaneous?

Back last August, I knew I’d be following two teams throughout the season and that their respective stories would form the book’s narrative backbone, from which I’d depart and return throughout the book. These were Tranmere Rovers, just about to experience non-league football for the first time in their 94-year history, and Bishop Sutton of the Toolstation Western League Division One, who started the season on the back of a 19-match losing streak from the previous campaign. They complemented each other well.

I also knew that I’d be covering certain other aspects of the non-league year – for instance, the Third Round of the FA Cup in January. But, yes, I certainly left myself open for stories that would unfold during the season, such as Ashley Flynn bagging more than 70 goals for Emley, or Hereford FC’s phenomenal first season as a phoenix club.

5. Were there bits that didn’t make the final cut?

Not really, no. The great thing about non-league from the point of view of a journalist or author is that it is a vast canvas with so much rich material to pull from. There are a huge number of great stories to be told. I was able to cherry-pick the ones that, when placed together within the confines of a 320-page book, combined to create what I hope is a vivid snapshot of a world so removed from that of the Premier League with its oligarchs, supercars and tattoo addictions.

I also cherry-picked the more interesting people to talk to. Each and every one was fascinating in their own way, from the millionaire chairman/owner with dreams as big as the sky to the raffle-ticket seller who wants her ashes scattered in the centre-circle of her beloved club. I interviewed more than 50 people for the book and not one of them had their words abandoned on the cutting-room floor.

6. Were there any football/sports writers/books that inspired or influenced you?

When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to have a library at the end of my street. I was also lucky that the only football book they had on their shelves was Hunter Davies’s The Glory Game. I had that book out on permanent loan between the ages of eight and 15. I must have read it two dozen times. I can probably still quote chunks of it today.

That was the pioneering book that introduced the ‘a season with’ format. It’s such a natural, unforced framework for a book, a format that will never tire. It’s the equivalent of the three-minute pop song. Tried, tested and never bettered.

More recently, Michael Calvin’s The Nowhere Men – aside from its terrific writing – showed there was very much an audience for a football book that took the reader into the game’s less glamorous quarters (in that case, the scouts charged with unearthing the stars of tomorrow while just being paid petrol money). That book’s success, both critically and commercially, certainly helped The Bottom Corner get published.

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7. As a narrator, you keep yourself largely invisible. Was that a conscious decision, to let your subjects do the talking?

It was, yes. I approached the book much more as the semi-detached journalist than the matey first-person narrator detailing every ground visited, every pie munched, every train missed. If the book’s premise had been for me to visit as many grounds as possible in a season, then I would have put myself much more in the foreground.

But while I do occasionally in the narrative, for me the crux of the book is represented by the people who populate non-league. The subtitle is A Season With The Dreamers Of Non-League Football; these dreamers are the focus. The ex-pros trying to extend their careers, the groundhoppers aiming to visit every possible ground, the young lads wanting to walk in Vardy’s bootprints…

8. ‘Heartland’ feels like a very apt word for what you show in the book. Were you at all surprised by the warmth that you found?

The phrase ‘the non-league family’ is one that’s banded around a great deal, but it’s banded around because it carries so much truth. Everywhere I went, from Glasgow to Lewes and all points in between, I was welcomed with open arms. Everyone had time and patience to answer the questions of this nosy parker with his notepad and Dictaphone. I had access all areas. No restrictions, no barriers.

This sense of fraternity extends across the whole non-league world, whether it’s the lack of segregation from the Conference North and South down, or fans and players mixing in the bar after the game. Non-league football offers a salutary lesson to how the wider world could operate, for sure.

9. Are you still following the fortunes of Tranmere and Bishop Sutton? Will there be a sequel?

Bishop Sutton have had a slight upturn in their form, while Tranmere – having recently sacked their manager – are at a crucial point in their season already. Can they regain the free-winning ways they showed at the start of the season, or will they return to their erratic performances of last campaign?

Being based in Somerset, it’s hard to get up to Tranmere too often, so I’ll definitely be among the Super White Army when they make the long midweek trip down to Forest Green Rovers in November. Even if the match is dire, their baiting of Forest Green’s meat-free ways offers plenty of cabaret.

The next book is already in the planning, but it won’t be a sequel to The Bottom Corner, I’m afraid. Perhaps I’ll revisit the non-league territory in ten years’ time to see whether everyone’s dreams did actually come true…

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The Bottom Corner

The Bottom Corner: A Season with the Dreamers of Non-League Football

By Nige Tassell

Yellow Jersey Press, 2016

the-bottom-cornerRarely have I opened a football book with such high expectations. After all, this is not just a Yellow Jersey Press title, but also one that comes recommended by Stuart Maconie, Danny Baker and Barry Davies. The Davies quote on the back cover even compares it to Arthur Hopcraft’s legendary book The Football Man. So is The Bottom Corner really that good?

The answer is yes, although Nige Tassell’s ‘Season with the Dreamers of Non-League Football’ is perhaps more reminiscent of Michael Calvin’s The Nowhere Men and Living on the Volcano. Like Calvin, Tassell takes a case study approach to his subject matter, seeking out the great, lesser-known stories and offering a depth and variety of insight. You may have heard about Salford City and Forest Green, but have you heard of Hackney & Leyton Football League chairman Johnnie Walker, or Philippines captain Rob Gier? Instead of a strong, invasive narrative voice, the characters speak for themselves. ‘Here you’re part of the team,’ an interviewee neatly summarises. ‘In the Premier League, you’re just a number.’

The structure is simple but very effective – a chapter for each month of the season, and three or four stories within each chapter/month. Real thought has gone into it, with September (the international break), for example, dedicated to ‘International men of mystery’, a trilogy of absorbing and exotic tales of far-flung travel. Two particular stories – Bishop Sutton and Tranmere Rovers – recur throughout the book, offering a clever narrative thread. The writing is engaging, descriptive but not too descriptive.

And the tone is perfect. ‘Heartland’ is a word written large in the book’s blurb and it really encapsulates the spirit of the book and the individuals, organisations and communities that it follows. These are heart-warming tales of hopes, dreams and dedication in the face of serious adversity. Instead of the doom and gloom that sometimes dominates the discussion of non-league football, The Bottom Corner offers up optimism and positivity. The harsh reality is not ignored but it is approached with the realism and the wry humour of the amazing stalwarts that keep on carrying on.

 

Dougie Brimson Interview

Photo Alexey Shlyk

Photo Alexey Shlyk

In 1996, Dougie and Eddy Brimson wrote a groundbreaking, insider’s account of British football violence. 20 years on, Everywhere We Go remains an era-defining, bestselling book. Dougie has since written another 14 titles, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as 4 films including the huge hit Green Street, starring Elijah Wood. With another hectic year ahead of him, Dougie was kind enough to pause and answer our questions on his amazing career so far.

1. How did your first book Everywhere We Go come about? Did a publisher approach you to write it or did you write it and then look for a publisher?

The short version is that during the build up to Euro 96, my brother and I realised that there was a gap in the market for a book which countered some of the rubbish that was being spouted in the media about the culture of hooliganism. But we also realised that if we were going to be the ones to fill that gap, we would have to write something which would capture the interest of both sides of the debate.

So we began to jot down some thoughts and when we had about 10,000 words we simply picked a publisher at random and sent them a sample to see what they thought of the idea. That publisher was Headline, they loved it and Everywhere We Go was published in early ’96. It really was that simple.

Everywhere We Go

2. Your first books were landmark, non-fiction accounts of British football violence. What was the hardest part about writing about the world you knew? And how much danger did these books put you in?

Well that’s very nice of you to say! The truth is that we actually found them quite easy to put together because they are, in essence, our opinions on various issues surrounding the culture of fandom peppered with anecdotes obtained from people we knew or who contacted us. The reason they worked so well is that not only were our opinions pretty much on the same wavelength as many of the people involved in the so-called Saturday scene, but because they were written in a style that was very easy to read.

However, we always knew that we were going to upset people along the way and that proved to be the case. There was certainly a price on our heads at one point but if you’re going to put anything in print, you have to be prepared to back it up and we were.

3. In 2001 you published The Crew, your first of many novels. Football violence was still at the heart but how did you find the switch from non-fiction to fiction?

Well it helped that I had the incentive of developing a basic plot outline for the writer Lynda La Plante who wanted to use football hooligans in one of her TV series. However, once I was up and running, I actually found it extremely easy.

Of course by this time, I had a good handle on my readership and so had a fairly reasonable idea of what they wanted to read and just as importantly, how they wanted to read it. After all, unless they’re on holiday the average bloke generally reads in bed, on trains or in the loo. So I always write in 15 minute chunks which ironically, made things easier with fiction than non-fiction. The hard bit was persuading my publisher to take it on although they were pretty good in the end.

Top Dog

4. Wings of a Sparrow was more football fiction but this time you replaced grit and violence with comedy and dreams. Was it fun writing something a little lighter?

Oh absolutely. One of the main reasons we go to football is because essentially, it’s a lot of fun and after years of writing about the darker side of it, I wanted to write something which made not only me, but the readers laugh about the daftness of local rivalries.

I’d actually written some comedy stuff before, first with The Geezers Guide to Football and then Billy’s Log but Wings is targeted much more directly at the sport and the reasons why we love it. After all, it’s essentially based on one of those questions which fans around the world have bandied about since the birth of the game. Wings really was a joy to write and I hope that comes across on the page.

Wings of a Sparrow

5. Football fiction isn’t a genre with a particularly strong literary reputation. Why do you think that is and do you think it’s unjustified? How would you describe your audience?

That’s a great question and in all honesty, it’s a genuine mystery to me. Maybe you should ask some publishers!

Personally, I think that there is no single answer, just a lot of different factors. It’s certainly true that mainstream publishers are afraid to take any risks these days and it’s also safe to say that football as a subject matter is a huge turn off for those commissioning editors who handle fiction and there seems to be two reasons for that. First, despite its success in non-fiction, the game is still regarded very much as ‘down market’ by the fictional side of the publishing fence and secondly, football books are generally targeted at a male readership and since ‘Lad-Lit’ as a genre doesn’t really exist, even if a writer came up with a marketable storyline, where would it sit?

Ironically, the market is certainly there and it’s gagging for stuff. Fever Pitch still sells strongly decades after its initial publication whilst my first novel, The Crew, has sat at number one on the Amazon football download chart for over four years! Even the sequel Top Dog still sells well and I’m always being asked for more.

That said, I think I’m fairly odd in that I write very much for my market as opposed to the market if that makes sense. I always keep in mind that the most important person in the publishing game is the reader and so have always tried to give my lot what they want as opposed to what I think they might like. Thus far, thank goodness, it seems to be working!

6. You’re perhaps best known for writing Green Street, the big football hooliganism film starring Elijah Wood. How was that to work on? What differences did you find between screenwriting and book writing?

Screenwriting is a very different writing discipline and it’s one which has its good and bad points. For a start, it’s very much a collaboration which is great if you’re working with good people, not so great if you’re working with idiots. Equally, with books a writer is in control of pretty much everything whereas in film, it’s out of your hands pretty much from the moment you hand over the first draft of a script.

Green Street

7. What’s your favourite football book (fiction or non-fiction) and why?

I’m a big fan of Left Foot Forward by Garry Nelson because I think it captures the life of an average footballer pretty much perfectly and it’s also brilliantly written. The Tales from the Vicarage series by Lionel Bernie are also pretty awesome reads but that’s because I’m a Watford fan!

8. And finally, what does 2016 have in store for your busy self?

I’m currently writing In The Know which is the third novel in the The Crew, Top Dog trilogy and I’m also working on two films. One about the war in Afghanistan and the other, a screen adaptation of Wings of a Sparrow which is proving to be great fun. Aside from that, Watford are keeping me pretty occupied at the moment. Long may that continue!

For more info on past and present projects, visit http://www.dougiebrimson.com/

The Football Crónicas & Outcasts United

The Football Crónicas

Edited by Jethro Soutar and Tim Girven (Ragpicker Press, 2014)

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town

By Warren St John (HarperCollins, 2014)

Another year, another set of ‘best books’ lists that ignores the sporting world entirely. ‘Snub’ is the correct verb, I feel. Fiction I’ve long since accepted but non-fiction too? Can it be true that not a single book on cycling, football, cricket et al met the ‘literary’ criteria that every nature book seems to meet with a quick glance at the cover? Could the critics not find one book relating to sport, our society’s number one pastime, that was worthy of acclaim? Over this festive period alone, I’ve read two excellent football titles that in different ways push the boundaries of what has come to be expected from a ‘sports book’.

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The Football Crónicas is a wonderfully varied collection of Latin American ‘creative non-fiction’ edited by Jethro Soutar and Tim Girven. The most famous example of the genre remains Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow but there are several pieces here to rival that linguistic flair and exuberance. Mario Murillo’s ‘The Goal in the Back of Beyond’ offers a successful argument for football as ‘an elevated form of artistic expression’, Leonardo Haberkorn’s ‘Run, Ghiggia, Run’ explores fame and its afterlife, and Juan Pablo Meneses’ ‘A Grenade for River Plate’ narrates a tense Chilebus journey with a gang of colourful ultras. Best of all, however, is ‘The Goal-Begetting Women of the Andes’ by Marco Avilés. What begins as an exotic travel piece about a remote Peruvian village of skirt- and sandal-wearing female footballers transforms itself into something much more thought-provoking as the team comes face-to-face with the modernity of the town below. The crónica makes the perfect partner for football writing – a hybrid of fiction and journalism, ‘fact told as a story’.

There is nothing creative about the non-fiction of Outcasts United and yet the story is even more magical. In the 1990s, the American town of Clarkston in Georgia became a resettlement centre for refugees from war-torn nations including Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo. As the town itself came to terms with its new multicultural makeup, football-mad Luma Mufleh founded a soccer club called ‘The Fugees’. Outcasts United follows every step of the amazing journey, reporting on the trials and tribulations of Luma, her players and their families. For large parts of this uplifting story, football is no more than a means to an end. Author Warren St John’s focus instead is sociological; how do refugees come to terms with America and vice versa?

Football is the powerful weapon of choice for teaching valuable life skills and uniting different cultures. As clichéd as it sounds, sport really is the universal language. This bonding experience is also reflected in The Football Crónicas. In Alberto Salcedo Ramos’ ‘Queen’s Football’, a team of Colombian transvestites seek solace and solidarity in the face of abuse, poverty and drug addiction. And in Hernán Iglesias Illa’s ‘San Martín de Brooklyn Eye The Playoffs’, we find another example of soccer’s central role in the lives of US immigrants.

On the back-cover of Outcasts United, there’s an endorsement from cricketer-turned-journalist Michael Atherton. ‘Like all good books about sport,’ he says, ‘this is about much more than sport.’ These well-written books have as much to do with society as they do with sport, and they are far from unique in this regard.

Buy The Football Crónicas here

Buy Outcasts United here