Living On The Volcano, by Michael Calvin - book review: In football’s hottest seat

Century - £16.99

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Presently, football managers are alluring public figures. Once they were the very definition of an NCO, whose humble origins meant he could never be commissioned, speaking only in approved soundbites. Today, they range from well-bred international pantomime villains such as Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho to Rangers’ former City trader Mark Warburton, whose ex-colleagues were impressed when he started playing computer game Football Manager for real, and from  Bournemouth’s promising, chisel-jawed Eddie Howe, nickname “Boyband”, to Exeter’s quietly astute, cricket-loving Paul Tisdale, 10 unheralded years in the job. 

Yet every one of the many professionals interviewed in this book has something in common – they will be or have been sacked, and the most successful are likely to have been sacked more than once. Veteran sports writer Calvin though, doesn’t uncover hidden depths among the many men that he talks to. (They are, and will probably always be men, for surely only men could so easily and daftly tolerate the insecurity and endless relocation that defines the job). From the basement to the top division, they spout the cliches of management manuals. They study neuro-linguistic programming (aka suggestion and observation). They all love their mums and grandparents and sometimes their dads. And by God, they get up early, for a retired sportsman still needs to keep fit.

The author lives up to his family name when tacitly expressing his disapproval of predictable alpha males such as the often dismissed, generally disliked, but usually effective Alan Pardew. For some reason he dismisses the Everton boss Roberto Martinez as a cheerfully vacant “lollipop man”, presumably not having been near a school in 30 years. He’s more sympathetic to the less exalted likes of Martin Ling, stricken with depression yet unable to escape the life. These men face problems that defy even the author’s most convoluted attempts to escape cliché. The idiosyncratic Ian Holloway, only 52, has moved house 33 times in his career, and yet, with three profoundly deaf children, he is still more grounded than most.

Yet ultimately, below the top level, the supposedly level playing field of football, where a council estate lad can end up in charge of a nationally famous institution, is a myth. Contracts are often obtuse, severance terms debated. Whatever romance remains in sport has no part in the reality of football management.