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'A generation of footballers are dying without even knowing that they were footballers'

Michael Calvin discusses dementia and various other football-related issues from his book, State of Play.

File pic.
File pic.
Image: Aleksandr Gusev

Updated at 12.01

‘THE FINAL WHISTLE is blown after 90 minutes, but football never stops.’

That’s the tagline for Michael Calvin’s latest book, ‘State of Play.’

The journalist’s 438-page opus, based on hundreds of hours of interviews, ranging from little-known figures to legends of the game like Steven Gerrard and Arsene Wenger, ultimately delivers on its promise of getting ‘under the skin of the modern game’.

A three-time British Sports Book of the Year winner, Calvin has written numerous acclaimed works already — there are few writers better at uncovering the humanity amid environments that are frequently brutal — and ‘State of Play’ is no exception.

Featuring a wide array of topics, including mental health, concussion, dementia, the state of women’s football and the morality of the modern World Cup, the book is a consistently compelling read.

The42 recently caught up with Calvin to discuss some of the subjects he delves into…

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What inspired you to write the book?

We all have sliding doors moments in our lives. My dad came home with two books one day that he’d sort of scavenged from a job that he was on as an electrician from an empty house.

One was ‘The Football Man’ by Arthur Hopcraft, which even now, 50 years on, is one of the top three football books ever written in my eyes. It’s brilliantly written, superbly atmospheric and contains the line about ‘trying to get to the heart of what football is’.

The 11-year-old me looked at it and thought: ‘Yeah, I want to do that.’ In a sense, that was the inspiration of what I’ve done since, in terms of going into journalism and obviously branching out into books.

arthur

The very first quote you reference from Arthur Hopcraft: “The point about football in Britain is that it is not just a sport people take to, like cricket or tennis or running long distances. It is inherent in the people. It is built into the urban psyche, as much a common experience to our children as are uncles and school. The way we play the game, organise it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are.” Do you think that still applies now given how much football has changed since then?

One of the great things about Hopcraft’s book, and it had a big impact on me, was the humanity of the game and it was expressed in his profiles of people like George Best, or his very evocative reporting on the environment of a contemporary football crowd.

Football, to use Hopcraft’s phrase, is still inherent in the people. I think the key line in that quote is: “The way we play the game, organise it and reward it reflects the kind of community we are.” I think that is probably even more apposite today.

We see a society, which is becoming increasingly fragmented and shallow to a degree, and increasingly elitist. Evidence of football as a working-class game, which to me as a working-class lad and a council house boy, I still cling to that belief that it is a working-class game — the more evidence we see of cheese rooms at the new Tottenham stadium, or the glass look-at-me tunnel in Manchester City at the Etihad — to really see things like that, basically the genuflection for tourist culture in the Premier League now, the more you realise the game is growing away from what it should represent and who it should represent.

West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool - Premier League - The Hawthorns General view of the Jeff Astle gates outside The Hawthorns. Source: Nigel French

You describe in the book how Hopcraft was better-known for his non-football writing and how that reflected a snobbery in how the sport was perceived. Do you think that attitude still exists to a degree, or are people more respectful towards football writing now?

I think to a large degree if you look to the journalism of Hopcraft’s era, he wrote for a very progressive newspaper in sporting terms — The Sunday Times. But that was the era, even before my time, where you had ‘if you United don’t win this match, I’ll eat my brown bowler hat’. The main football correspondents were huge social figures, but they were quite flamboyant and probably lacked a little bit of gravitas.

Modern football writing has come on massively when you look at the contemporary work that’s being done by a host of very good younger writers — Rory Smith of The New York Times, Ollie Kay and Matt Hughes from The Times, terrific all-round sportswriters at The Telegraph like Paul Hayward. And I’m going to get myself in trouble here, because there are really more I should be mentioning, but in essence, in terms of the development of the craft of sportswriting, it’s come on leaps and bounds.

My stuff notwithstanding, I think the books are becoming more vivid, more intelligent, better targeted — we’ve moved away from an age where in publishing, it was basically ghostwritten twaddle.

But they’re also painting a much more accurate and insightful picture of the game itself now. In that sense, books, long-form writing, podcasting as well — in the Irish sports market, I think Second Captains is fantastic, a brilliant concept.

There are some terrific writers. I think one of the most underrated writers I’ve ever read is Vincent Hogan, who makes it live for me when I read something from him about a sport, GAA, of which I know very little — that’s the sign of a really good writer. 

Football now is attracting good writers simply because it is the platform for a much wider look at society. People have been very kind about ‘State of Play’ and I would hope that the book is seen in that sort of light. It’s not what I would call a ‘forehands and backhands book’ — ‘this happened and that happened and then the other thing happened’. It is focusing on the issues that face the game and bedevil the game, through the eyes of the people that experience or enjoy it.

Take the example of Dawn Astle — there is a doughty campaigner on behalf of her father, Jeff Astle, and hundreds and I suspect it will be thousands of faceless victims of concussion [in football] and the problems with dementia, which come from that. I always think you write better if you’re emotionally engaged with your subject, and with Dawn, I don’t mind admitting that I shed more than a tear when we were talking about it.

It was a hugely atmospheric experience, because here was I sitting in Jeff Astle’s house in Jeff Astle’s chair looking at a huge blown up photograph of him scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final in 1968, so the place was suffused with his spirit. You went to the fridge to get some milk for a cup of tea and there was a photograph of him as a young man, vibrant.

So in essence, his story was given amplification by the work that Dawn has done, not just on his behalf, to keep his memory alive, but also for the people that have suffered. And the most affecting thing she did during the course of my day with her, she gave me a notebook, which is a bit like the sort of notebooks you have as a kid — I think it was purple — and in it was a long list of names, around about 400. And essentially, they were footballers who had died, or were in the terminal stages of dementia.

The surreal thing about it was you saw this testament to unseen suffering with all these names. What I found really moving was you get entire teams, or certainly half a team, wiped out by this.

What Dawn has done to me carries echoes of the defiance of the Hillsborough campaigners. She initially almost single-handedly came up against and fought official indifference.

If you look at how long it took — the coroner had said that her father had died from an industrial disease, i.e. heading a football. That was in 2002. It took 14 years to almost bully the FA [the English Football Association] and particularly egregious in all of this are the PFA [Professional Footballers' Association], into taking some form of action in terms of following up on their promises to do studies on the issue.

If my book counts for anything, it’s hopefully provided some form of platform for someone like Dawn. She’s one of the heroines of the modern game. So I hope it underlines the humanity of things. I’ve also tried to do that in my writing, be it scouts, be it inside a football club like Millwall, be it managers or young players who can’t or are struggling to make it. I’m just trying to bring out the humanity of the game. Sometimes it gets lost among the superficial celebrity and tinsel. So that’s what I hope is deemed valuable.

Soccer - League Division One - West Bromwich Albion Jeff Astle pictured during his playing days with West Brom. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

You mentioned the indifference from the authorities in relation to Dawn’s tireless campaigning. What do you put that down to?

It’s the usual football reaction of ignorance and a bit of arrogance. And I suppose that was latterly replaced by a little bit of corporate fear. Because when you look at football in the age in which we are living, you look at what’s happened in the NFL with concussion — it’s cost them over a billion pounds in settlements.

I’m not taking sides here, but I could see the logic of some form of class action suit by footballers who were debilitated by concussion and dementia. We’re in an age where football is having to live with its conscience, it’s having to work through profound issues in terms of sexual abuse, in terms of player welfare, and that’s another area where I wanted to look at in the book.

The whole idea of player welfare [is covered in] in two aspects. There’s a guy called Drewe Broughton, who I write about, who is the quintessential journeyman footballer and has acknowledged his mental health issues. But he also, through his own experiences, recognises those issues in other young players with whom he works and the lack of preparedness the modern player has for the reality of his profession. It’s a brutal business and I don’t think young players are sufficiently protected.

Equally, in the book, I talk about an organisation called Players Net, which used to be called the Players Trust. Here is an independent organisation who offer confidential counselling services and advice lines to players, their parents, coaches of clubs, who feel they’ve got no recourse to their own employers, because if they speak or give out about it, they will be penalised for it.

I’ve seen that organisation at work. There’s a lad called Simon Andrews who has spent half a million pounds of his own money trying to get it together.

The FA, to their credit, through a guy called Andy Ambler have been pushing over the last year in December, and he is trying to get strategic support from an organisation like that. Everyone knows and everyone accepts the need for that type of support.

However, the politics for it are such that even with the FA support, the FA go to the Premier League and Richard Scudamore, who basically say ‘that’s down to the PFA’.

The PFA as an organisation is an enduring disgrace. It has £27 million a year in what some could easily say is unearned income from TV. Okay, the players have driven that rise in value, but I don’t see where that’s going.

We’re in the midst of a row between Gordon Taylor, who is obscenely rewarded for someone in his job, fighting Ben Purkiss, who was the chairman and basically wanted the PFA to be looked at.

Whether there’s going to be an independent review, I’ll be interested to see how independent that review really is, and how long it takes. But I don’t think at the moment you can build a case that the PFA, which is an organisation that has £50 million in reserve and only spends £150,000 a year on something as fundamental as concussion and that sort of issue. And an organisation like Players Net doesn’t need a lot of money.

As Simon Andrews said, if I wanted to go into football and make money, I’d become an agent. 

So to do their job properly, they’re asking for probably a million pounds, which is an absolute spit in the ocean in modern football, yet they’re not getting it. That’s simply because there’s not the will at the moment, politically, to challenge the PFA. 

I go back to the fact that one of the enduring tragedies of a concussion case is that a generation of footballers are dying without even knowing they were footballers — there’s something almost Shakespearean about that. It’s very poignant and profound.

Soccer - FIFA World Cup 2014 - Semi Final - Netherlands v Argentina - Arena de Sao Paulo Lionel Messi pictured prior to kick off before an Argentina match. Source: Nick Potts

In the book, Drewe Broughton describes how with the likes of Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic — the best players in the world — there’s a stillness to them in the tunnel before games. Do you subscribe to that theory that the best players really enjoy the game and are relaxed beforehand, and that is one key characteristic which separates them from the average pro?

I think so. And it’s interesting, it’s not just football. I’m currently about two thirds of the way through a book on golf. The top guys there talk about a sense of serenity, which comes over them, which allows them to fulfil their talent, therefore they win. 

Dressing rooms are fantastic places. The dressing room is the best classroom I’ve had as a journalist. I did a book on Millwall called ‘Family’ where I was basically embedded in the club for a year.

A friend of mine, Kenny Jackett, was the manager at the time. It was the season where they got promotion at Wembley in a play-off. I was almost assimilated into the group there, sussed out initially by the senior players.

Very quickly I was drawn into the pre-match huddle, high fiving, and the great Irish goalie David Forde who basically said that early on, I had to tell him: ‘Look, have a good one mate.’ He went out and kept a clean sheet. And he said: ‘Right, every match, you tell me that.’ He was a funny man.

So I kept on doing that. I saw friends scrapping with one another, a lot of shouting — at Millwall, when you go into the tunnel, it is performance art, it’s fantastic. I used to go out and Fordey was always at the back and I was always behind Fordey, because he was giving it heaps about what was to come.

They would see the opposing team come out of the away dressing room, which was very near the tunnel. And all the opposing players are trying to avoid eye contact, and they’re looking forward through the tunnel, and all they can hear is this noise in big games at the Den, which was basically a collection of Orks waiting outside for them.

Once they actually looked at the Millwall team or a Millwall player opposite them, you knew they were gone. I saw teams lose the game in the tunnel. So that was great, and it was shouting, hollering, explicit language and all that stuff, but what Drewe said was right — if you do look at those Champions League prelims where they’re waiting in a warm-up area, they’re absolutely chilled.

Obviously, it’s a cosmopolitan world at that top end, so everyone knows one another and plays alongside one another internationally. But it is this self-possession, which is basically a by-product of self-confidence. So what Drewe said is right, but I love the theatre of the dressing room and the tunnel. 

Dele Alli File Photo Tottenham and England star Dele Alli. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

On a very different note, you write about the “artificial airlock that does footballers few favours” and how prominent its become in the modern game. There are exceptions, such as Duncan Watmore, who comes across as very open and honest in the book, but in general, he seems to be an anomaly. Is there any way to escape the status quo, or are we stuck with it?

I found it really interesting watching the development — almost the social development of the England football team in the build up to, during and after the World Cup.

Gareth Southgate is a very empathetic, emotionally intelligent manager, as such he’s a forerunner of a different culture.

The players themselves, I tell a story of Dele Alli in there. In the managers’ book, ‘Living on the Volcano,’ I do quite a bit of stuff with Karl Robinson when he was at Milton Keynes and that’s when I first saw Dele. He was doing some amazing stuff on the training pitch — juggling with chewing gum, that was amazing. He sort of spat the chewing gum out, controlled it on his chest, put it on his knee, on to his right foot, flicked it to his left foot, flicked it up and got the chewing gum straight back in the mouth.

He was a little kid basically — he was 16 when I first saw him play. I was in the opposing dugout — I was with Aidy Boothroyd at the time. Dele was laughing as two defenders were trying to kick him over the stands. You said: ‘Wow, this kid’s something special.’

You look at him — difficult domestic background. In essence, he’s disowned his biological family. He basically couldn’t afford a pound to train as a kid, and is somebody who’s now got a £4 million house, is a household name and it’s strange because he’s got this reputation of being quite fragile and turbulent. You get to know the guy and he is a smashing kid, brilliant with young kids in the community playgrounds he visits, and very grounded.

The story I tell in the book is where a mutual friend of ours who featured in my previous book ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ — Simon Edwards, a behavioural specialist in Harley Street in London, came to my place for a day, basically to just give me an insight into the psyche of the young player. He’s a terrific guy who helped Dele a lot. Dele was having some trouble sleeping and he carried out some strategies for that.

Unbeknown to any of us, Simon had been diagnosed with terminal cancer three years previously and the prognosis was that he would basically struggle to last more than a year, and he lasted three years. In January of this year, he phoned Karl Robinson and said: ‘Look, this is where I am, I’ve got a couple of weeks if I’m lucky. Can Dele come see me?’

So basically, Dele went to the hospice with Karl and Benik Afobe, another player who Simon had helped. And it was a profound occasion. But Dele had the maturity to basically talk normally to Simon and you have this scene of a young man with the world at his feet talking about what life could do for him, with a man who had basically spent his life listening to it.

It was a very uplifting occasion. They were laughing. Simon tells a story of how there was an international centre forward who wouldn’t talk to him face to face — he had to address him through his football boots. He said: ‘Why do I have to do that?’ ‘My football boots score the goals. The goals get the contract. The contract allows me to look after my family. Therefore, the most important thing in my life are those football boots, so you talk to me through them.’ So just daft stuff like that to a degree.

And I spoke to Dele afterwards. He said: ‘Playing the game is easy. The hardest thing is dealing with everything that goes on around the game.’ I thought, here’s a very mature lad, who in essence is still a lad, who was 16 and kicking the chewing gum in the air and catching it in his mouth.

The public image is that he’s a bit ‘flash’ and ‘turbulent’ — sometimes we forget who these people are. Footballers tend to be ordinary people with an extraordinary talent.

Manchester United v Huddersfield Town - Premier League - Old Trafford Paul Pogba is valuable to Man United both on and off the field. Source: Martin Rickett

On a somewhat related note, you write in the book about the influence of social media on journalism and football clubs controlling their content. Do you see this phenomenon as a genuine threat to independent journalism, or is it more of a fad that won’t make a substantial difference?

I think there is this sort of corporatisation of communication that’s going on. Access to players is becoming more difficult and it’s usually linked to commercial activity as well.

At Manchester United, you look at Paul Pogba — there’s a turbulent player and someone who was obviously at loggerheads with [Jose Mourinho], yet to the football club and the brand, he is very important because of his social media penetration.

Manchester United, whose official accounts talk about the Cayman Islands as their home, they enshrine their social media penetration in their annual accounts. So Pogba, and in the future more players, will become central to those sort of marketing commercialisation platforms.

The Players’ Tribune, that sort of communication, at the moment is sanitised and strategic. If you want to show a documentary of a football club, Amazon marched into Manchester City, paid them £10 million and came out with a very polished and superficial piece of club propaganda to sell merchandising in Dubai, Moscow and wherever else.

So that genie is out of the bottle. So if you go to Arsenal tomorrow with a similar idea to do a series, it’s: ‘Okay, certainly, how much are you going to pay us?’ I think that’s going to be a big issue going forward. We’re going to be in a situation where superficiality could become deeply ingrained in the fabric of the sport. That would worry me.

There would still be some brilliant journalists and some fantastic sportswriters who will get to the meat of the issue and the heart of the individual, but it’s going to become more difficult to do so, I fear.

Paul Clement File Photo Paul Clement recently departed as Reading boss. Source: Anthony Devlin

You also further explore a topic you’ve looked at before in some detail — managers and the immense pressure they tend to come under at every level in professional football. It struck me when I was reading that section — the words ‘obsession’ and ‘obsessive’ are mentioned more than once in relation to managers. Do you think you have to be a bit obsessive to be a successful manager?

I think in some ways, it’s a pre-requisite, but being obsessed doesn’t guarantee you anything.

It’s interesting that we’re speaking on the day that Paul Clement, who features quite heavily in the book, gets sacked. He’s a very intelligent, driven man. He has a very broad, almost educational approach to sport and his work. 

Yet football managers tend to be prisoners of their football clubs. They’re there for a long time, maybe with the wrong people around them, and it’s very difficult to get out of that. Paul Clement was at Reading, a club who are frankly on a hiding to nothing. You talk to scouts and people in the game and they’ll say ‘there’s no money there’. So he has a substandard squad — he’s trying to turn water into wine. 

I hope I’m wrong, but he’s landed into a situation where I would guess he’ll struggle to get another managerial job. He might have to go back to being what some might say is his forte, which is being a brilliant number two. 

‘Obsessive’ may not be the right word, but managers certainly have to be detail-driven. And there’s no certainty.

In the book, I talk at length to Sean Dyche. What he did at Burnley last season was one of the great achievements. It was almost like a mini Leicester in a sense where you get a club like that seventh.

Now they are bang in trouble this season, things aren’t going right and you’ve got fans saying: ‘Oh well, we better get rid of Dyche, let’s bring in Sam Allardyce.’ One, good luck with that. And two, that is how fickle the whole process is. I suppose the managers themselves now are becoming more conditioned to the fact that a football club is not for life.

Paul lasted nine months at Reading. In terms of dynastic managers, you can probably put Sean Dyche in that category now — he’s been there at Burnley over six years. In that sense, it’s a bit of an impossible job.

We’ve seen a lot of First World War footage with the 100th anniversary. It’s a bit like these guys are going over the trenches and just keep on walking towards the bullets. Occasionally, miraculously, one of them will get to the other trench, but there’s a bullet with their name on it, and I suppose that must influence their thought processes.

Chelsea Ladies v Manchester City Women - SSE Women's FA Cup - Semi Final - Kingsmeadow Stadium Chelsea Women's coach Emma Hayes. Source: Adam Davy

Another area you deal with is women’s football and the challenges it faces. Would it be fair to say there has been progress made in terms of the professionalisation of it in England, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of equality, seeing female coaches manage male clubs et cetera?

To be honest, I think they’re two different sports anyway. And that’s not detrimental to either. In the book, [Chelsea Women's coach] Emma Hayes comes across absolutely brilliantly as someone who doesn’t hide from anything. She talks about the diverse sexuality of the game, which frankly, I’ve never heard anyone talk like that before. She talks about the physiological issues of women playing through their menstrual cycles and everything that she has to factor into her coaching.

They’re in a situation where on average, the goalkeeper is about four inches smaller than the average male goalkeeper. Yet she has to protect a goal, which is the same dimensions as a men’s goal.

So where does that work? There’s an in-built bias against that. So it’s a different game and I would say it probably should be played on a different playing field — maybe a bit shorter. And that’s not to be derogatory towards the women’s game. It’s just a different game.

If you watch it, and I’ve watched quite a bit of it recently, it has real attractions in terms of the technique’s quite good. There are always going to be issues with physicality and things like that. It’s not something that’s ever going to get a billion-pound TV deal, but it’s something that’s got real merit. The World Cup next year is important for the game’s development.

The problem is you’ve still got this latent sexism and crass schoolboy nonsense — the Ada Hegerberg incident at the Ballon d’Or. That was a really symbolic moment for women’s football, because it was the first time a female was awarded the Ballon d’Or, yet she ends up being almost insulted professionally and personally by this clown.

It should have been a huge occasion to celebrate her presence, achievements and skills within the context of the women’s game. I think most people had sympathy for her and she did speak well about the honour. But that, to me, summed up a big problem. Is society catching up with sport in this instance? Probably not.

But I think we would misjudge someone like Emma Hayes if we judged her by saying: ‘Well actually, to prove yourself you need to go into the men’s game.’ That’s nonsense. She could quite easily coach in the men’s game, because she’s a damn good coach — I’ve seen her at work. She’s very intense, very methodical and the session I watched, Eden Hazard and David Luiz were watching, so there was a degree of professional respect implicit in that.

Overall, I think we’ve got a way to go. You look at the current accusations with regard to the abuse suffered by the Afghan women’s team. You had that leak a couple of weeks ago where the Women’s Super League contracts in many cases, if you’re injured for more than three months, you don’t get paid. Well, that is the bedrock of professionalism. You’re either professional or you’re not. And that’s what the women’s game has got to sort out.

Gianni Infantino File Photo Fifa President Gianni Infantino. Source: Nick Potts

Finally, a number of the people who have been tasked with running football over the past 20 years have been exposed for their various wrongdoings. Would it be fair to say you’re not particularly optimistic that the Gianni Infantino era will enact significant change at the top?

It’s almost as if now, Infantino could be worse than [ex-Fifa President] Sepp Blatter. He’s doing things in public that Blatter did in private — the shamelessness of his obsequious behaviour hanging around with someone like Vladimir Putin during the World Cup.

Addressing the leaders of the world at the G20 — that’s bizarre. He was rattling on his usual platitudes about ‘peace’ and ‘the beautiful game’ and that malarkey. I’m sorry, you’ve got someone there who’s attempting to re-shape the game in his own image.

I’ve met some really good people who work for Fifa, there are some, but in general terms, it’s moving away from an independent arbitrator of the game to a commercially interested party within the game, who values the World Cups at five billion euro they talk about.

There are a lot of tectonic plates shifting within football at the moment — you’ve got the horror show of UAE and Manchester City. You’ve got Saudi Arabia’s influence. It’s a pretty nasty list of vipers in many ways. And I’d be lying if I said I had any confidence whatsoever in Infantino to give it an intelligent and mutually engaging way forward.

State of Play: Under the Skin of the Modern Game by Michael Calvin is published by Century. More info here.

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne look back on a memorable year for Irish rugby.


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State of Play: Under the Skin of the Modern Game by Michael Calvin is published by Century. More info here. 

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