Book Review: Living on the Volcano
Living on the Volcano by Michael Calvin
Published by Century
Michael Calvin stands apart from the main crowd of football journalists in the United Kingdom. His previous book, The Nowhere Men was a fascinating expose of that unsung breed, club scouts; often more familiar with Watford Gap services than Watford FC.
That his next project has seen him turn his attention to club managers at first seemed strange — after all, these men are as much in the spotlight as their back up teams stay in the shadows. We follow their every move, their every breath, and are quick to adopt the status of judges and juries as regards their actions. Their bristliness, their loosened ties, their occasional bouts of extreme temper leave them cruelly exposed — but how do they feel?
Football managers suffer from job security levels that would unsettle an average barista at Costa or a warehouseman at Sports Direct. In 2015, new statistics revealed the average tenure of a club boss to be a mere 1.23 years while in the Championship, the league from which many of Calvin’s case studies are drawn, it’s less even than the span of four seasons, coming in at a shocking 0.86 years.
Amid calls for methods to prevent this such as guaranteed contracts at least until the end of a given season, this trend sees no sign of abating soon. In the eyes of many fans — and especially club owners — success has to be immediate or else a new person will be called upon. Start winless and the message boards and forums will be peppered with ‘I never wanted him anyway’ claims, no matter if the man in question has had no chance to bring in his own recruits or the extent of the ongoing mess bequeathed to him. That Mark Hughes (featured in this book and decidedly prickly after a tough time at QPR) and Steve Bruce signal the importance of experience and learning from mistakes seems to have been lost sight of.
Each of the chapters in the book is devoted to a short pen pic and loose interview with a manager from the four divisions, ranging from Brendan Rodgers, then in charge of Liverpool, to Paul Tisdale of League Two Exeter City. The result is an always fascinating portrait of English football’s hot seat.
That the two managers who come across as the most thoughtful and impressive are Roberto Martànez and Chris Hughton is not perhaps surprising given the fortunes both have experienced since the book was published last year. Hughton seems to have learned fulsomely from his time at Norwich and the turnaround at Brighton has been remarkable while amid the preposterous calls among some Everton fans for the Spaniard to be sacked, the club has eased into strong gear in the FA Cup, their league performance a maximisation of their potential given the resources Martànez is able to draw upon.
Elsewhere, Martin Ling’s battles with depression provide the book with its most powerful paragraphs and having been provided with a second chance it has been sobering indeed to see him forced to revisit the same demons after a difficult spell at the club he served so well as a player in Swindon Town.
One is left scratching one’s head that Ian Holloway has held down so many prominent roles within the game given the gobbledygook he is so prone to expound while the likes of Sean Derry, Micky Adams and even Alan Pardew come across as having flown by the seat of the pants a little.
But we shouldn’t confuse a lack of conventional intelligence and a tendency to be sidelined by a homespun blend of business speak and cod psychology to blind us to the abilities of some of these men. One suspects that Paul Tisdale is a rival to Eric Cantona in the ‘kingdom of the blind’ stakes while had Rodgers pursued another career, he may well have been regarded as a bit of a thicko — but they’ll rightly point to their achievements and we onlookers’ sorry lack of them. Training ground nous and the ability to relate properly to footballers as human beings is something that all the interviewees in the book possess. All come across with dignity and all deserve credit for opening up.
At the time of writing, a little while after publication, a number of the managers have faded into the ether and an updated edition would include a different cast of characters for sure. But the lessons of the book remain even if they are unlikely to be properly heeded. That a re-reading of Calvin’s excellent volume in two years’ time might see us claim that twelve months in a manager’s job to be inordinately long is the real worry.