Review: 'Living on The Volcano' by Michael Calvin
Michael Calvin’s previous book, The Nowhere Men, elucidated the often invisible work of football’s scouts whose lives and labour take place away from the spotlight. By contrast his latest work, Living on The Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager, surveys football’s public faces of success and failure. The result is a book that will enlighten the average football follower about the full extent of the job facing a manager; which can combine the role of coach, counsellor, psychologist, guardian, accountant as well as that of husband and father. Above all else, what is established across the 400 odd pages is that the job facing a manager involves a complex network of human relationships, a fact that can be lost on the long distance observer or Football Manager player. The most successful managers are those most skilled at managing their relationships with those around them.
As a read the book can be rather repetitive, as the assortment of managers often echo each others views and philosophies using the same vocabulary. While this may be to the book’s detriment as a source of entertainment, it actually strengthens Calvin’s thesis that all managers share in the same experiences and anxieties. Calvin also deserves credit for the journalistic skills required to elecit the trust of the managers he spent time, and for getting them to speak in more transparent and candid tones than they often do when speaking to media types. The chapter on Brendan Rodgers is a possible expection to this; while the Liverpool boss comes across as an innovative thinker he retains a habit of speaking in opaque obfuscations.
Living on the Volcano is impressive in its scope, encompassing lower league managers such as Martin Ling, Gareth Ainsworth and Kenny Jacket to more fashionable names such as Rodgers, Roberto Martinez, Alan Pardew, Eddie Howe and Gary Monk. There is also a tantalisingly short foreword written by Arsene Wenger; a more detailed exposition of Wenger’s methods would have made for fascinating reading, but alas it was not possible.
The book starts and finishes with the story of Ling, and it is here that Calvin first discusses an issue that transcends football, namely mental illness. Ling’s dismissal from Leyton Orient combined with his father’s ill health saw the symptoms commonly associated with stress devlelop towards acute depression. After taking a job at Torquay, despite some initial success he continued to suffer on a personal level; at one stage his levels of anxiety led him to imagine that he was having a heart attack. Everyday problems and decisions loomed like Everest in Ling’s mind, not to mention decisions such as who to leave out of the team on a Saturday.
After a horrific episode where he considered suicide by running into incoming traffic on the M5 motorway, he was admitted to Roehampton Hospital with the help of his wife, the LMA and his old assistant manager Dean Smith. There he opted to undergo controversial Electroconvulsive therapy, whereby an electric current is passed through the brain in order to induce an epileptic fit. In the final chapter, the reader is re introduced to Ling where we are pleased to learn that he is well and stable.
Another of the grander issues tackled by Calvin is that of race which comes to the fore during his chapter with Brighton and Hove Albion manager Chris Hughton. The former Newcastle and Norwich boss is clearly a studious and considered figure (he studied to be a lift enginner prior to turning pro) and his views on the lack of black managers in the Football League makes for interesting reading. Implied in his words is the delicate balance required to tackle the problem without being seen to be resorting to tokenism. Hughton argues that one of the main reason’s why there is a lack of black managers is the enduring stereotype that black athletes’ talent is purely physical rather than cerebral. Dialgoue between the FA and clubs going through the recruitment process is the key to progress in this area, Hughton claims.
Among the other managers interviewed are Ian Holloway, Karl Robinson, Sean Dyche, Brian McDermott, Mark Warbuton, Mick McCarthy and Paul Tisdale. In every case, the detail and planning that goes into preparing a team for a game is astonishing . Gary Monk records every word that he says during training in order to analyse his use of language and communication skills to make sure that his instructions are easily understood. Eddie Howe has his players log onto computers before every training session to comment upon their physical and emotional well being and are expected to document any problems or anxieties they are suffering away from football. Players are able to watch passages of play relevant to them on their smartphones at most clubs.
Calvin also exposes how football management is fundamentally based on a collection of quite often strained human relationships. Managers relationships with their families can become tense, particuarly after defeats. Karl Robinson tells an espeically frustrating anecdote, where he is spending a Sunday morning laughing and joking with his daughter in their local park. Crucially, it was the day after an MK Dons defeat. A lone fan interrupted him with the curt line: ‘Find losing funny do you?’ To his credit, Robinson retained his composure and turned a deaf ear, but the story highlights how the job pervades the entire life of a manager.
The book also reveals the most important of human relationships in football; those between the manager and his players. When we casual observers pick our teams on Twitter or suggest what we would do if we were at the helm, we are never fully aware of the individual personalties of the players involved. Some might repsond well to being taken out of the team, some could be motivated by public criticism, some might need to stay in the team and play through poor form or some might have issues away from football that are affecting them. All of these factors, added to the more obvious technical and tactical considerations contribute to the difficutly to the job at hand.
In order to maintain these relationships, as well as to the send out the right messages to opponents and the wider public, managers often disguise their true feelings when dealing with the press. The next time any fan, blogger or journalist feels frustration at a manager’s dealings with the media, be it Jose Mourinho spinning his wheel of blame or Arsene Wenger’s eyesight failing him, they would do well to remember that there is usually a considered intention behind their words.
The main virtue of Living on The Volcano is that when the managers involved sat down with Calvin, they were free of such considerations. For a short time, we are afforded a slight glimpse into their true opinions and thought processes.