Book review: Living on the Volcano, by Michael Calvin

The main impression I took from this book – which consists of a series of interviews with managers from the English professional game – is of the protagonists’ fanatical, lonely dedication.  How much time they spend switched on, wrestling with myriad problems, often with nobody to turn to.  Calvin invites us to consider the manager as a human being living the game, without the luxury of dipping in and out of it like us fans.

Calvin has enjoyed enviable one-to-one access to a host of managers.  However, this comes at a price and he is obliged to indulge their tendency to waffle on about ‘core values’ – a repetitive liturgy of homespun beliefs like hard work, commitment, determination…  blah blah.  It’s all very worthy, but just as tedious as listening to politicians or business leaders giving their self-aggrandising, focus-group approved tales of struggling for success, overcoming ‘challenges’ along the way.

Calvin can’t help but gently lampoon Brendan Rodgers for his habit of sounding like a bit of a knob – the ‘Brenton Rodgers’ tag is not entirely undeserved, on this evidence.  I wonder whether Luis Suárez ever curled up with a copy of Rodgers’ 180-page screed, ‘One Club, One Vision’, after a hard day’s training at Liverpool?  Probably not, although the manager will have tried to instil its contents into his charges during every training session. As Calvin leaves Rodgers, the Liverpool fans are ‘tiring of his hyperbole’ and the sack is beginning to look inevitable.

Perhaps one reason for the repetitiveness of the managers’ back stories is the lack of real diversity in their backgrounds.  Chris Hughton is the only black manager interviewed – unsurprisingly, given that there are so few around.  Hughton wonders whether it may be time for the adoption of a ‘Rooney Rule’, or something similar, in England and this could well be the right way to go.

Whoever the manager is, there’s likely to be something of the obsessive about him.  Eddie Howe talks about watching every training session back, a process which takes up more of his time than the training itself.  Alan Irvine cheerfully admits that he gave up a great job running Everton’s academy because he missed waking up in the middle of the night, fretting about Saturday’s team selection.  There are constant references to working around the clock, going to bed with your head buzzing with it all and then waking up with the same thoughts rampaging through your unrested brain.

The ability to switch off, to not be overwhelmed by each and every defeat, has to be learned.  And the huge mental pressure can exact a huge personal toll, as most starkly revealed by the story of Martin Ling – now thankfully on the road to recovery after being incapacitated by a series of increasingly disturbing panic attacks during his time at Torquay.

There was one brief period in my life when I experienced some of the feelings these men talk about.  When I try to imagine that as basically a permanent state of being, my mind boggles.  Given the serious problems that Ling went through, it’s incredible that within a couple of years, he was back on the front line, taking the reins at Swindon last month.

Calvin visits the painfully unglamorous lower leagues, where we hear stories of the old school – of men who believe in grafting and mental toughness and will get the hairdryer out when they deem it necessary.  They can be sanctimonious, these disciplinarians – and they despair of what football is doing to its most super-talented youngsters, spoiling them rotten before they’ve even played in a first-team.  The fact that young Premier League players are paid way too much these days is a genuine concern, but the managers’ response is also slightly redolent of the Three Yorkshiremen skit.  They can’t help themselves.  When they were lads, they had to lick the road clean.

And there are times when you can’t help but snort at their bullshit.  Sean Dyche, for example, actually says: “I don’t do slagging off other teams” – which is obviously why he kept his counsel about Jason Shackell and Derby this summer, when under pressure to explain the sale of his defensive leader to the Burnley fans.  My snort developed into a full-on gut laugh when Dyche told Calvin:-

“I’m not afraid of money being someone’s key driver…  Last season [Burnley’s promotion campaign], we were saying to the players that they had every possible means of fulfilment within their grasp…  So I’ve got no problem, as long as a player is stimulated to drive forward and get what he wants.”

Right.  Until, of course, it turned out that what Shackell wanted was to go to Derby.  All of a sudden, Dyche was delivering sermons in the press, demanding that players “have to be motivated for the club and what it stands for.”  How high-minded.  How pious.  And how utterly contrary to what he told Calvin about his approach to motivating his squad to win promotion:

“We told them, ‘If you want money, go for it, you’ll get money…  If you want to nick a bird, you’ll get a bird on the back of what you’re doing now.  If you want the car, you’ll get the car…'”

Frankly, managers don’t always help themselves.

And they do not live in a vacuum.  The point is made that these men are affected by today’s 24/7 media machine.  Dyche talks about ‘seeing through the noise’:-

“There’s all this stuff on the outside, media talk, internet sites, perception against misperception…  You have to look through that noise.”

This article is just more ‘noise’, of course.  But even if the manager is thick-skinned enough to ignore the expression of all those invalid opinions, they might upset his owner or chairman.  According to Micky Adams: “A lot of chairmen spend all their time on forums and message boards.  It’s bollocks.  They drive themselves mad.”

My motivation for setting up this blog was to have a space to comment on Derby County away from such forums, because they drive me mad too.  Somebody might post a perfectly good point – but then before you know it, the thread has spiralled beyond any control.  Two people take offence to each other and bicker for pages on end, somebody else posts nothing more than a ‘tears of laughter’ emoji, after someone else got a ton of bile off their chest.  Elsewhere, another user claims to have been told, by somebody within the club, that…

It can be funny, childish, unpleasant, sometimes just boring – but ultimately, it is chaos and more often than not, the posters are anonymous.  Hiding behind a pseudonym allows people to maintain a certain distance from the shit they write and apparently encourages some posters to sink to depressing lows of spite.  Would it be harder for, say, Mr John Ramsfan from Spondon to type ‘Cyrus Christie is wank’ and hit ‘send’ than it is for ‘JRammerslol’, or whatever, to post the same abuse?

The idea that owners and chairmen are actually influenced by this primordial spew is troubling – but undeniable.  Some are patently obsessed with social media and the maelstrom of ‘feedback’ they receive after every defeat affects their decision-making.

This book really comes to life in the final chapters, when Calvin suddenly propels us headlong into last season’s Championship run-in.  He interviews the impressive Howe, Kenny Jackett, Mark Warburton, Mick McCarthy – and very briefly, Steve McClaren. However, McClaren agrees only to speak ‘informally, in general terms’ and nothing much of consequence ensues from a Derby fan’s perspective.   Calvin seems to uncritically accept McClaren’s later assertion that the Newcastle speculation had no bearing on Derby’s unprecedented collapse, without subjecting it to any analysis.  He reports that McClaren was ‘ready to commit another season to the Championship club’, despite Mike Ashley’s increasingly blunt advances.  Thankfully, Mel Morris had other ideas.

Calvin will hopefully continue to produce excellent insider views of the great game and this book is a worthy addition to his catalogue.  That said, I would recommend reading his previous effort ‘The Nowhere Men‘ first, if you haven’t already.  That was a superb, loving examination of the world of the football scouts who subsist on mere crumbs from the multi-billion pound table and the drive of their sheer obsession with football.  They are mad, but amazing – and spin much more entertaining yarns than their managers, who are  mostly too concerned about their public image to ever really open up.

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