Q&A with Michael Calvin

The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin was voted the overall Sports Book of the Year in our poll after the awards in 2014. It is a fascinating look at football’s hidden tribe – the scouts who scour the world to discover the millionaire stars of tomorrow.

Michael Calvin is an award winning author and sports writer. He works as a columnist for the Independent on Sunday, he is the author of three books so far: Family, Proud (with Gareth Thomas) and The Nowhere Men.

Here is our Q&A with Mike:

Where did the idea for The Nowhere Men come from?
It developed from a chance conversation in the manager’s office at Millwall, with the then-chief scout Jamie Johnson. He featured in my previous book, Family: Life Death and Football, where I was embedded at the club for a promotion season. There were so many untold war stories, too many intriguing characters, to resist. Like many football fans, Ben Dunn, my publisher at Century, was fascinated by the process of discovery. He saw the potential of delving into a hidden world.

What do you hope people reading your book take away from it?
A sense that the game is still all about dreams. Scouts are central to the mythology of football. They are the faceless, nameless men who sit in the stands, or congregate on the touchline, with the sole aim of spotting raw talent. I wanted to give an insight into who they are, how they operate and why they do what they do. It is a really disconnected life, with a lot of time on the road, eating on the run. They deserve our understanding and respect.

You mention this question in your book – Do you think football is still a people’s game?
In essence, it should be. Most players have working class roots. Clubs are status symbols of the community they represent. And yet it is not. Football has grown away from its roots. It is awash with TV money, but resistant to share its good fortune. There is ill-concealed contempt for the core customer. The game is being repackaged for corporate fashionistas and tourists, who wave plastic flags and get their tickets on secondary sites.

How much luck is involved in youngsters being picked up by clubs?
Increasingly less. There will always be tales of scouts being assigned to watch a certain schoolboy star, and having their attention diverted by something, and someone, unexpected. But the system is becoming rigorous, especially in the pre-Academy age groups, of boys from six to nine. The best are expected to sacrifice their childhood, which is fundamentally disturbing.

Do you think there will ever be a time when scouts will disappear and stats/analytics will be used completely?
No. Analytic systems are becoming more sophisticated, but there can be no substitute for the intuition of an ‘old school’ scout who has the game in his blood and bones. Things will evolve, through a new generation of scouts with applied sports science degrees, but there will always need to be a balance.

What do you think about Greg Dyke’s plans to increase English players in the Premier League and will it be a good thing for UK scouts?
You can’t argue with the principle, but he will struggle to overcome the political realities of his situation. The FA are impotent, compared to the Premier League. I also worry about Dyke’s track record as a sloganeer. He talked of Harry Kane as if he were a Martian, spotted walking down White Hart Lane, but he had been known to the scouting fraternity for years. As for the boys on the road, they are unaffected by the power plays of men in suits.

Is the emphasis for scouts to find UK based players already?
It is a hugely competitive market, especially at youth level. In terms of senior players, clubs are worried about a premium on transfers involving home grown players. Fans, though, love to see players emerging from Academies. You only have to hear Spurs fans sing about Kane as “one of our own” to recognise that.

What about what some people call ‘the crisis’ at the 19ish age group. The players that have been in the big club academies and cannot break their way into the 1st team – is there anything that can be done to make that easier etc?
The lack of game time for young English players is an obvious fault of the system. The Under 21 League, in which many linger, is a pale imitation of the real thing. The problem will not be solved by the Premier League’s ruinous youth development strategy, the Elite Player Performance Plan. This merely masks greed as supposed progress. It was written by the top 8 clubs, for the top 8 clubs. The real problem – poor coaching – has still to be addressed.

Who is the best player you have ever seen play?
Diego Armando Maradona. I was in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City at the 1986 World Cup as a young reporter. We saw the devil and the angel that day – the Hand of God goal, followed by the mesmerising dribble past five England players, which is among the best three goals I’ve witnessed.

A lot of current young England players are mentioned in The Nowhere Men – what do you think of the current England team and England’s chances in the Euros?
There is a sense of optimism and freshness about the England squad, which required wholescale revision after an abject performance in the 2014 World Cup. I worry, though, about the natural conservatism of Roy Hodgson. His fate will be decided by England’s progress in Euro 2016; I would love to see Gary Neville given the job, sooner rather than later.

What are you currently working on?
My next book, Living On The Volcano, is out in August and will again be published by Ben, and Century. It is a study of 25 football managers, across the four Divisions, across two seasons. I’ve watched them work at close quarters, and have been fascinated by their response to illogical, unrelenting pressure. They’ve opened up as human beings, rather than football men. Most of them had read Family, and The Nowhere Men. They’ve shared their fears, rationalised their ambitions, and spoken very personally about their formative influences.