Michael Calvin’s new book, Living on the Volcano, is a straightforward and honest account of life in charge at a football club, from Football League minnows to the Premier League. Calvin, a fine writer as well as a thoughtful, probing journalist, gets to the heart of what it’s like to hold the fate of a football club and its fans and staff in one’s hands. Unfortunately for the success of the book as a whole, the ultimate lack of variety in the subject matter can make the latter stages drag.
That is not to say that Calvin does not find much of interest about football’s ultimate position; the role of chairmen and women is often discussed, but let’s be honest, the real power to shape and change a club lies behind the manager’s desk. Calvin draws on his superb reputation to gain access to some of the more thoughtful and engaging of the game’s gaffers, from the meteorically successful Eddie Howe at Bournemouth, to some of the Premier League’s more interesting innovators such as Mark Hughes and Brendan Rodgers, to lower league stalwarts like Gareth Ainsworth and Martin Ling.
And there is much to celebrate in Calvin’s approach, though it is also, ultimately, the book’s one weakness. He lets these men speak for themselves, plainly and without much in the way of glossing. Calvin links their thoughts together with his customarily elegant and descriptive prose; he is one of the few sports writers around at the moment who seems to manage to use adjectives without it sounding forced or excessive. And many of the managers are interesting to listen to.
Sean Dyche is a fascinating character and talks engagingly about the many facets of the role, including the importance of media profile for out-of-work managers. Similarly, MK Dons’ Karl Robinson’s paternal interest in the transfer of now Spurs midfielder Dele Alli speaks much of the role managers play in the lives of their squad, especially its younger members, while ironically highlighting how tough it can be for their own families. And there is much talk of the positive example of parents, from Brian McDermott or Brendan Rodgers, or of the importance of family more generally, in the case of Howe’s decision to return to Bournemouth after the death of his mother.
The book tackles interesting issues through the prism of the role of the manager, too. Chris Hughton’s time in management sheds light on the issue of race and the potential introduction of a Rooney rule into English football. Many of the managers remark on the sense that these days, young players get too much, too soon, though Dyche has a typically interesting take on it: so what if money is your motivation to win, as long as you’re winning? There are also interesting asides, or in the case of Rodgers, grand perorations, on sports psychology and motivation, or the trials and tribulations of Mark Warburton at Brentford as the owners took the club towards a Moneyball-style system of recruitment.
And the characters of the game come through, skilfully linked by Calvin’s organisation of his material: the juxtaposition of Kenny Jackett at Wolves and Mick McCarthy at Ipswich as the two face each other, both aiming for play-off places, or the use of Queens Park Rangers to link an excellent chapter on Shaun Derry with chapters on Mark Hughes and Chris Hughton, or the triumvirate of Swansea-related bosses, Rodgers, Roberto Martinez, and the intriguing Garry Monk. Calvin has an eye for structure as well as for a well-crafted sentence.
Unfortunately, the book’s only weakness is the lack of variety. Ultimately, much of the material consists of managers highlighting the same core philosophies, the same key tenets and it can be a little repetitive, but I certainly finished the book knowing an enormous amount more about what it’s like to be a manager and also felt I had a genuine insight into the men that Calvin interviewed.