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‘It’s now becoming common for me to hear that 3-year-old boys are being approached by scouts’

Journalist and author Michael Calvin chats to The42 about his new book ‘No Hunger in Paradise’.

File pic.
File pic.
Image: EMPICS Sport

THE REWARDS IN top-level football are great, but the journey to reach this elite status can be painstaking.

Only a small minority of aspiring footballers succeed in realising their dream.

The vast majority get left behind — often badly demoralised and perceived in some quarters as ‘failures’ before they have even reached their 20s.

Award-winning writer Michael Calvin’s latest book ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ provides a comprehensive and balanced portrait of this harsh, unforgiving system, which can help a child fulfill his dreams or turn their lives into a living nightmare depending on a complex set of factors that determine whether they ultimately succeed.

Calvin looks at underage football in Britain from the perspective of the clubs, the scouts, the coaches, the parents and the players themselves.

Key questions the book asks include: ‘What separates the small minority who make it from the vast majority that don’t?’ ‘How should a parent behave during this arduous process?’ ‘What happens to those that football ultimately shuns?’ ‘And who can be trusted in an environment where children are routinely commodotised for the sake of certain Machiavellian individuals’ personal gain?’

The42 recently caught up with Calvin to discuss some of the themes of his critically acclaimed new book.

Tell us about the book’s background and what inspired you to write it.

It was probably the most personal of the books I’ve done. There’s an image that’s stayed with me for the best part of 10 years now. My son was in the system. He got to 16 and knew that he wasn’t going to be quite good enough. He went into coaching, did a degree in performance analysis and now he’s one of the senior scouts at Norwich City.

He was in an environment where everyone was waiting for the axe to fall. They used to train at a local school, the academy kids, and one of the boys in his group was released. On this particular evening, we just happened to walk past the car in which that boy was just about to be taken home. He was in the backseat looking out, obviously in some distress, and his dad was in the front seat, obviously angry and very animated. Looking at that boy, his face was swollen in this sort of silent scream.

Selfishly, as a parent, you think: ‘Thank god that’s not my boy.’ Secondly, as a parent, you think: ‘What is football doing to people like that?’

They allow boys to dream these grandiose dreams that maybe all of us have had as little boys in the past — ‘I’m going to be a pro footballer’ — when the reality is the actual numbers of people that do fulfill that dream are infinitesimal.

To be specific, out of all the boys who enter academies at the age of nine, less than half of 1% will make a living from the game. And that’s down to semi-pro level. And out of the 1.5 million boys in England who are playing organised football at any one time, only 180 of those will play a minute in the Premier League. That’s a success rate of 0.012%.

Someone said to me it’s pretty much the equivalent of you getting hit by a meteorite on your way home tonight. It’s just bonkers.

So I suppose, the basic premise for the book was that I wanted to understand the power of the dream. But it soon became very apparent that a lot of it would entail concentrating on the price of the dream.

In a way, I wanted it to be as balanced as possible. I have to stress there are some fantastic coaches and parents out there, pursuing really enlightened, holistic strategies.

But there are so many examples of poor practice, and frankly, lack of duty of care that they should have. To quote one parent: ‘I am trusting this football club with the most precious thing in my life. My child, my flesh and blood. I don’t want my boy to just be another commodity, another cog in the wheel.’ Unfortunately, a lot of them are.

It was a fairly lengthy process, but one of the main conclusions I drew was (that the book succeeded in) stimulating a debate in the game. ‘What are we doing to these kids? Who can a talented boy trust?’ It does come down to education. There’s no real education process for parents. What does a good or bad agent look like? It’s all very well having the unconditional love that the good parent has, but he or she is in an alien world, which is highly pressurised and may need more guidance.

calvin

I think the problem is that football at youth level has been effected by the same ills that beset the senior game: greed, opportunism, amorality, concentration on money and a lack of awareness that the raw material is a human being.

What is happening is that there is a race to the bottom in football. I mentioned that stat about academy boys going in at nine – there is a pre-academy stage between six and nine, but now it’s getting even below that. So for instance, it’s now becoming common for me to hear that three-year-old boys are being approached by scouts.

A pattern emerges — there was a case in Manchester, where a mum put up a YouTube video of this little boy playing in the back garden with his little brother. This little lad was three. The next thing they know they get a knock on the door and it’s a scout from Man City.

Manchester is a very overheated area. I heard examples of five or six-year-olds and they would be at four different academies throughout the week. They would be at Man City one day, Man United the next, Liverpool the next and Everton the next.

In some cases, they’d be leaving school early. They would be eating in the back of the car, tired and playing on weekends as well.

There has to come a point where you say: ‘Look: kids deserve a childhood.’ It’s their basic human right to have a childhood. Whether it’s parental pressure, which is pretty insidious in some cases, or it’s the lure of the club, that basic right has been taken away from some kids.

There are some very good things in academy football — good programmes, which instill discipline and try to keep people grounded. The problem is if you look at the dropout rates, they’re terrifying. And they beg the question: ‘Who picks up the pieces when football has decided thanks, but no thanks?’

Even the survivors in the game who get their first pro contracts, a lot of those are out of the game by the time they’re 21, 22. Even the survivors in the system need better structured guidance. It’s quite a murky world, to be honest — some fathers within it are quite happy to commodotise their children, their meal tickets.

There’s a fine, terrifyingly thin dividing line between parental ambition and parental bullying. A lot of the boys you see seem old before their time. Yet, if you’re with them for more than five minutes, they still radiate that vulnerability of infants.

One of the things that struck me is people are quite willing to excuse excesses simply because of the football’s prominence. Let’s question that attitude — the question I would pose is: ‘Does that attitude say as much about a parent, a participant, a supporter or an observer, as it does about the game itself? Are we all being sucked into this bubble? Are we all being sucked into the myth that the only thing that matters in life is professional football?’ There’s a lot more to life than professional football.

Huddersfield Town v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium Derby County and Ipswich town in action during the EFL Kids Cup Championship Final last May. Source: Nigel French

It’s understandable that there is almost a lust for seeking out the main charts — there’s an economic imperative for a lot of parents.

I’ve watched a lot of academy football at various age groups. The one thing that struck me is it’s not an individual ambition or commitment from the boy. It’s actually collective ambition and commitment from the entire family.

So this boy is the golden child, the lad who’s got a ‘contract’ with City, United or whoever. He’s there training. Every time he trains or plays, mum and dad are there, siblings are there, I used to see whole families turn up with baby buggies, the whole paraphernalia of daily life. They were camped on the touchline.

There’s pressure on the boy himself. What happens if he doesn’t make it? And chances are, he probably won’t. Is he stigmatised as a failure? Or does the family structure survive those stresses and strains? You look around and sometimes they don’t. It’s a really surreal world.

Academy football is actually a brilliant place to people watch. You stand on the touchline and you overhear family groups. And it’s really interesting the bitching that goes on, and the gossip, and the envy, and the pretty crass political maneuvering that goes on.

Even my son’s academy, where certain coaches would get invited by mothers round for dinner to try to curry favour. It is strange. And you stand next to these groups and you listen to them — it’s all ‘that kid’s dad has got a £250,000 in his back pocket’. And ‘he’s not any good anyway’.

I remember at Tottenham, the fans were laughing at a goalkeeper who basically couldn’t keep his kicks in the same post code. They were all over the place.

So it’s a really strange world, because everything’s focused on the boy and what I was worried about, as a parent, was: ‘What happens to that boy if he doesn’t make it?’

The bigger clubs will relocate families now, offer (to pay for) education. Say that’s offered when the boy is 11. The guarantee usually at the clubs is: ‘We’ll continue your education until you’re 16.’ So what happens if that boy is let go at 13? He can stay at school, but he’s in a school where all his mates are surviving, they’re going training and he’s not.

So most of them say: ‘That’s okay, I’ll go back to where I came from.’ It might be 200 miles away. They go back to their original community, their old school and it’s ‘oh, you used to be wherever…’ I saw examples of boys who were bullied, derided, because they had a go and fell short. Some of that stuff just got to me, to be honest. It wasn’t pretty.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Quarter Final - Second Leg - Barcelona v Arsenal - Nou Camp General view of La Masia, Barcelona's training facilities located near the Camp Nou. La Masia is used as the the residence of young players from outside of Barcelona. Source: EMPICS Sport

So did you have quite a negative view of underage football coming into the process of writing the book?

It wasn’t negative. All the books I’ve done are well read and happily, pretty well respected within the game, because they are seen as authentic. People within football know that the game is not Walt Disney. It is a hard, brutal, insanely competitive world. They don’t mind people reflecting that, as long as there’s context and balance. I didn’t set out to do a hatchet job. What I tried to do is articulate some of the fears, show some of the excesses, but also acknowledge some of the good work that’s being done.

It wasn’t negative, but when I saw that boy’s face, it did stay with me, as a parent and as someone who has observed football for more years than I care to remember. That was one of the wake-up calls where you think: ‘Is this worth it?’

But then there were some fantastic people. There was a coach called Tony Mee, who’s just got a senior appointment at Doncaster Rovers. Tony is a very conscientious, modern coach, who cares. He cares so much that there was one occasion where he had to release a boy at 16, he wasn’t going to offer him a pro contract. He’d been with that boy since he was nine years old, so it was seven years of that boy’s life invested in that moment. He simply couldn’t tell him, he was crying and sobbing. His assistant had to do it for him.

That’s not a sign of weakness, that’s a sign of strength to me, because there was someone there who understands how fundamental a blow he was about to deliver. He’s a really good coach.

I think there is an issue with the system, which has become almost academically driven. There is something with the Premier League called the EP3, an elite performance plan. The state put £400 million into it over the first four years and it’ll be another £400 million until 2020. So you get £800 million being put into this area.

It’s so over-bureaucratised. Coaches have to put data into their computers. They spend more time in front of their computer than on the grass with the kids, which can’t be right. What is the data for? Who’s it to satisfy? It’s almost like a civil service mentality, and that is being challenged from within now. There is also a growing awareness that football has to be seen to be fulfilling its duty of care in this area.

That’s one of the gratifying things about the book. I’ve had examples of big clubs like Chelsea undertaking projects now because of what they read in the book.

There’s a fantastic organisation, which is just beginning to take route, called The Players’ Trust. This was initially funded by Man United under Sir Alex. The Players’ Trust is run by a guy called Simon Andrews, who was released by United when he was 19, went away and did his accountancy degrees.

What The Players’ Trust does is basically what the PFA should be doing — the PFA have been woeful in this area. They’re offering confidential advice, counselling services, parental education, that type of thing.

I road tested it during research for the book. There were several parents who were at their wit’s end frankly, and boys who were really struggling with issues at the club — they hadn’t been treated properly. Andrews works with a guy called Peter Lowe, who was Man City’s Head of Education for the best part of 15 years.  I saw them do good work.

Hopefully, out of all the money the PFA gets, a certain percentage of that should go to The Players’ Trust, which is basically a non-profit organisation at the moment. If they could get some of the money that goes to PFA, that would enable them to do a lot of good work.

The FA are now talking to them because the FA have read the book . That’s the really pleasing thing — there are some people who would say I was over-critical and I wanted to make a point. But I also had many managers, coaches and players saying: ‘You got it spot on, we have to do something about this.’

Football, specifically because of the sexual abuse scandal, is facing a PPI-style meltdown. You can see class actions being taken by people who’ve been abused by people in the past. You can see it being a huge issue for football going forward. Basically, the house isn’t falling down and it isn’t hugely dirty, but it does need a spring clean.

Britain Soccer Premier League Tammy Abraham is currently on loan at Swansea from Chelsea. Source: Tim Ireland

You alluded to the parents being in difficult positions sometimes. What’s the best thing the parent of an aspiring footballer can do? What advice would you give them?

I’ve been asked that question a lot by parents: ‘What would you do? I’ve got a seven, or eight-year-old.’ The first thing to say to any parent is, it’s your boy’s life, it’s not yours. Don’t live your life through him. I think that’s really important as a starting point.

Secondly, look at the club. Ask yourself: ‘Do I implicitly trust the scout that’s contacting me. Do I know him? Do other people know him? What about the coach that’s being assigned to my boy? Is he the sort of person I’d like him to be.

If a teacher at your boy’s school, say the Maths teacher, behaved the way some academy coaches behave towards young players, would you put up with that? The answer is ‘no,’ but they do put up with it, because it’s football. To quote (former QPR coach) Chris Ramsey from the book: ‘They put up with things like that because they see the gravy at the end of the process.’ They see the money, they see the fame.

I was talking to Paul Clement, the Swansea manager, and we were talking about Tammy Abraham, the striker he’s got from Chelsea.

Tammy Abraham is on 50 grand a week at 19, he’s just bought his dad a £150,000 Bentley. That’s the reward, that’s the dream ticket, that’s what everyone else aspires to and perhaps is a little bit overwhelmed and overawed by. He’s a very good player, and should have a good career — maybe not at Chelsea, although Chelsea think he may be the one that comes through their academy and actually plays for their first team as opposed to anyone else’s. But there are no guarantees.

The other thing to be aware of as a parent is: ‘What’s your overarching strategy for my son’s physical education?’ Some academies say you can’t play anything other than football. That flies in the face of all sorts of pediatric studies (that dictate that) many sports up until the age of 14 or 15 are beneficial.

The major problem is one of over-specialisation to early. Some football clubs say: ‘You’re nine, you can’t play for your school team. You can’t play for your Sunday league team. You can’t play rugby, just in case you get injured. You can’t do athletics, just in case you pull your hamstring. You can’t play cricket, because you might get hit on the head by a ball, or whatever.’

They’re removing the foundation blocks of the boy’s childhood, which is playing with your mates and playing for your school. You could be the best player on the team, so there’s self esteem in that, but there’s a degree of ordinariness.

The problem is that these kids, when they go into academies, the chosen few, the golden children, are defined by football. Going back to the guy who doesn’t quite make it, it’s: ‘Oh, he used to be the boy who was at City, United or wherever.’ So you’re telling someone that he’s a failure — I don’t get that, I don’t agree with that.

If I could do it again, I wouldn’t have my son anywhere near an academy until he’s 12. Because frankly, if he’s good enough, they’ll wait for him. Whereas you’ve now got the absurdities of three and four-year-old kids being approached.

There are academy coaches saying they can tell a boy is going to be a pro when he’s six years old — that’s absolutely nonsense. A guy at the FA told me he has heard of six-year-olds being released because they have ‘picked up bad habits’. How can you pick up bad habits when you’re six years old? What they’re doing is applying narrow-minded adult judgement on something that is completely unsuited to that type of judgement. It’s just wrong.

Overall, do your homework, make sure that you’ve got a good feeling about the people to whom you’re entrusting your boy and be vigilant. And also, most of all, remember it’s not about you, it’s about the boy. And if he’s unhappy, pull him out. If he’s pressurised by it, pull him out. There’s more to life than football.

Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Tottenham Hotspur v Bolton Wanderers Ex-Tottenham player Stephen Carr. Source: Nigel French

I interviewed Stephen Carr a few months back. He received very limited education during his time coming through the ranks and felt that he would have had very few other options if he failed to become a professional footballer. Clubs spend more money on education nowadays than in his time over 20 years ago, so are players in a healthier position now in that respect?

I think it’s gone the other way, simply because the stakes are so much higher now and the level of commitment is so much greater. I don’t know Stephen, but I know guys who played with him who say he was a fierce competitor. He obviously had an intrinsic drive to succeed.

You might not be the most naturally talented player in the world, but that inner drive, that self belief and that ability to take the pain, you can’t really teach that. I had a couple of examples in the book where really bright boys were told at 16: ‘We don’t want you doing your A levels.’ You can do the RB tech courses, which are basically colour-by-numbers sports science more than anything else, just very low-level stuff.

There are some very good academies that say: ‘You don’t do your schoolwork, you don’t play.’ But anecdotally, I heard from quite a few people in teaching, heads of education, who basically say some of these boys go into the classroom and just stare at the wall for an hour. All they’re interested in is perfecting their 25-yard free kick. They couldn’t give a damn about Pi equals whatever it does.

Everton v Burnley - Premier League - Goodison Park Joey Barton's autobiography was ghostwritten by Michael Calvin. Source: Martin Rickett

Out of the small minority of players who do make it, is there any particular characteristic they all share?

There is an acceptance of the basic brutality of the game. I did a book with Joey Barton. He was very enlightening on it. He was a complex guy. He didn’t have a tonne — he was not big enough, not quick enough, not tall enough, wasn’t physically imposing, and was pretty much going to get released. But there was a guy called Jim Cassell at Manchester City who just saw something in him and gave him another chance.

I spoke to Jim about it recently, because I’m doing a TV documentary off the back of the book and he said: ‘It was just something in his eye.’

(Barton) was very interesting, he said: “When I speak to kids within a club, I’d look them right in the eyes and think: ‘Kids like you are trying to take my job. That’s the reality of our situation. And I’m not going to let you do it. I’m not going to let you take food off my kids’ table. You’re going to have to steal the shirt off my back.’” So if you really want to do that, just ask the question: ‘What do you have to do to do that.’ Are you going to go out on a Saturday night? No. Are you going to sit in the corner of the dressing room and whinge about how the world’s unfair? No. Are you going to cut corners? No.

And this is what Joe said to them: ‘If you’re coming for my shirt, I’m going to make it my job to discover your weaknesses. And once I discover those weaknesses, I will make sure that I exploit those weaknesses and you won’t be able to take the shirt off me.’ That’s the reality. It’s obsessional.

Joe quoted Conor McGregor when he said: ‘There’s no talent, it’s about hard work. It’s obsession. Talent doesn’t exist. The quote from McGregor was: ‘I am not talented, I am obsessed.’

Successful footballers are not normal. From what I’ve discovered and Joe would back me up on it — they’re pretty much borderline psychotic. They’ll trample over anyone that gets in their way.

Normal people, to use Joe’s phrase, they don’t get to the highest levels, they don’t climb Everest or think nothing about playing football in front of a TV audience of 100 million. The kids themselves, it’s not about money, it’s not about bling, it’s about inner belief. And if you’ve got that inner belief, you’ve got a chance.

The problem is that you’re saying to a boy of 10 or 11 to have those harsh edged, kill-or-be-killed instincts. That is very rare in a kid of that age. But they’re under the tutelage of people who basically survive in the system.

The other thing that people don’t really pay enough attention to is the lack of career planning for coaches. An U9s coach would have to get by on about £18,500 a year, which is buttons.

Rather than insist that every player has to have a GPS system on or do this, that or the other, the Premier League could do everyone a lot of favours — and they have the money to do this — by setting a national minimum wage of say £35,000. Then you’ve got a chance of having a viable career path.

I had several academy managers say to me: ‘I’ve got brilliant part-time coaches, and they’re teachers. I’ve got a job coming up and I’m telling people do not apply for this job, because we’ve got the funding now, but will we have the funding in two years? Possibly not. And then what’s going to happen? I’m going to have to sack you, because we haven’t got any money. So stay as a teacher and do it part-time.’

I found I could have written five or six different books about it. It’s such a huge subject, but that was part of the attraction and the challenge of it. The gratifying thing is that there’s been a good reaction. The debate has started and having a debate in something as absolutely fundamental as this area of life in football is really important.

Hull City v West Ham United - Under-21 Premier League Cup - Final - Second Leg - KC Stadium West Ham United U21 player Martin Samuelsen. Source: EMPICS Sport

There are examples in the book seeming to show that certain foreign footballers value education more than the British players. Why is this the case?

It’s a dangerous generalisation, because the book features someone like Duncan Watmore, who was at Manchester United from the age of 9-12. He went back to normal school football, played semi-pro with Altrincham and came again.

He said that rejection by United was probably the best thing that happened to him. He had a chance, he grew up on an even keel. When he was at university, he got a first-class honours degree, he was a really bright guy. So there’s someone who’s predisposed to education.

And it does get on my nerves sometimes when people trot out the cliche of ‘thick footballers’ — they’re not. One or two might not be able to recite Pythagoras’s theorem, but there’s a streetwise intelligence there. They have game intelligence.

You can’t be defined as educationally inadequate, just because you happen to be good with a football.

But you’re right, there is a greater cultural reverence for education (in some countries outside of Britain).

The guy the book cites is (current West Ham youngster) Martin Samuelson. In essence, he had emotional maturity. When he knew he was going to be released by Man City at 18, he went around and organised his own trials at foreign clubs. When he was away with Norway — he was a full Norway international — he was actually revising for his A levels on the bus. He’s an extraordinary guy.

He phoned up a teacher and said: ‘I’d like to do a Biology GCSE.’ He had nine weeks to do a two-year course. He sat the first paper and he couldn’t sit the second paper, because he was doing a Nike coaching clinic with Wayne Rooney in Oslo.

So essentially, he was marked only on half the paper. So he got zero marks for half the paper and he got a pass, which suggests he was about 90% on the other one.

So there’s a guy who has got great presence of mind, really intellectually mature, self-possessed, driven, someone who comes through the hotchpotch of professional football well prepared for life outside the game.

‘No Hunger In Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream’ by Michael Calvin is published by Century. More info here.

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