When reading anything by Mike Calvin, I know I’m going to get something evocative, incisive, tirelessly researched and important. His new book “State of Play” is all of those things – and more.
It’s immediately clear that this is to be a voyage through some difficult topics, and the first chapter is as heartbreaking as it is significant. I’d heard about Dawn Astle’s campaign to shine a light on the issue of brain injuries caused by football. I also knew something of the Jeff Astle foundation, the organisation founded in her late Dad’s name, but I have to confess I was painfully unaware of the extent of the serious health that evidently permeates the game.
There are slivers of that opening chapter that are a joy. Learning that Jeff Astle returned home after helping WBA win the FA Cup only to be unable to open his door thanks to the masses of thank you cards conjured a wonderful image, but in the main it provides a sobering and upsetting insight into a worrying trend that deserves far more attention and action.
This seems to sum up Calvin’s view on the state of football, too. His love for the game clearly endures, but he firmly believes (and demonstrates) that if it is to be rescued and safeguarded for future generations of players and supporters, it too requires attention and action.
Across four sections, the book delves into an incredible array of footballing facets, providing an illuminating and often troubling look beneath the surface of the game we love. We’re told of players who have everything. The dream job, untold riches, houses, cars, glamour, with crippling insecurity and self-doubt thrown in for good measure, too.
Those that haven’t made the grade are given a voice, providing the reader with a stark reminder as to just how unforgiving the game is, with the almost invisible lines between success and failure often proving too tough to navigate for many. Unsung heroes feature too; from those that provide psychological support behind the scenes, to those that use football as a force for good in difficult communities.
There’s a look at several threats to the state of the game as it once was, including the explosion of professional eSports. This burgeoning industry is already bigger than the average lay person would think, with Ruud Gullit recently opening his own academy and Manchester City recruiting athletes from around the globe. Millions of children and youngsters are now beginning their football experience on a games console, but are these experiences a gateway for a lifelong love of and participation in the actual sport of football, or a major blockage?
The book is full of interviews with some of the biggest names in the game, with a host of anecdotes and stories about players and managers throughout history, but as a Watford supporter, my interest was naturally piqued by an honest dialogue with Hornets’ Chairman and Chief Executive Scott Duxbury.
Duxbury is unsurprisingly unapologetic about the model Watford have adopted since the club were taken over by the Pozzo family in 2012. He’s surgical in his explanation of how they go about their business, including the approach to hiring and firing Head Coaches. Perhaps the most compelling message is his honest assessment of players and where they will come from. Watford boast a team of 35 full-time scouts, with a focus on South America and “an eye on” emerging footballing hotspots like China and India. Watford have to sign players “before they are known” says Duxbury, meaning that players are often bought in despite being ineligible to play for the club at that point in time. It’s a balance between signing future stars at an affordable cost and bringing in talent that can advance the first team, and it’s one that means the pathway for youngsters in clubs academies is becoming harder and harder to negotiate.
In delving into footballs darkest recesses, the book feels like an attempt to tackle the negative aspects of the game head on, in the hope of finding some of the good that still exists. Pleasingly, an example of this is found at Watford’s Vicarage Road Stadium, where instead of creating more executive boxes or hospitality suites, Watford have created a sensory room, currently the largest in the Premier League, where children on the autistic spectrum can attend matches in safe and comfortable surroundings. This decision allows families to experience football when they had previously thought there would never be the opportunity to do so. It’s a development that is keeping at least a few footballing dreams alive.
The book pulls no punches, but if you’re a football supporter, it examines the issues that should be firmly on your radar. We all lose ourselves at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, but we’d do well to remember that for all the sensory rooms and thank you letters for Jeff Astle, there are far too many unsavoury aspects blighting our game. It’s still beautiful, we just have to look harder for the beauty. This book helps do just that.