Part of the enduring appeal of Arthur Hopcraft’s “The Football Man” lay in the depths of the game he was able to explore and the subjects he was able to get close to. Another ingredient, in hindsight, was his distance from the sport: Hopcraft was really more screenwriter than football journalist and his curiosity was extremely broad.
Michael Calvin’s homage to Hopcraft’s work is much more focused and, as you’d expect from a veteran journalist, far deeper. He also has much more to work with and attack. Hopcraft was prescient in identifying trends which threatened the game’s future and so State Of Play is really its natural successor: Calvin is here, fifty years later, to confront what have now become realities.
State Of Play opens with one of the most affecting chapters I’ve read in a long time. 16 years after Jeff Astle’s tragically early passing, the author visits his daughter, who has spent those years battling her father’s cause. Astle’s death was hastened by what we now refer to as CTE, a legacy of his playing career, and the details of his passing are truly dreadful. As, unfortunately, are the statistics which document CTE’s prevalence in players of Astle’s generation and beyond.
It’s chilling. Football’s reluctance to confront the issue or look after those who have and continue to suffer after their career’s end is, on this evidence, quite shameful. Certainly, you’ll never look at a player heading a ball in quite the same way again after reading those opening pages.
That first chapter is an appropriate mood-setter, too. This is a very serious book, dealing with some weighty themes. There are anecdotatal passages, too, with Sean Dyche in fine, erudite form in discussing the social atmosphere within which top-flight games are now contested. The interviews with Watford’s Scott Duxbury and MK Dons’s Pete Winkelman are also fascinating, providing rich insights into the respective clubs, their place in the game, and the way in which they see the outside world. Because of the author’s personal history at Vicarage Road, the Duxbury passages are particularly gripping. On one side of the table sits tradition, on the other a slightly heretical dismisal of core footballing values; it’s the perfect portrait of the contemporary neophyte.
The visit to Barcelona also, in spite of being home to one of the continent’s eternal superpowers, evidences a club trying to preserve its reputation for growing its own talent in a world which is becomingly increasingly predatory. The focus is La Masia, of course, but the undertone portrays just how vulnerable principles have become and how unprotected even clubs like Barcelona are from the whims of the oil states and oligarchs.
In essence, State Of Play is the culmination of a series of books. The Nowhere Men dove deeply into the world of scouting, Living On The Volcano shed light on the precarious world of the manager, and No Hunger In Paradise explored the false economy of the academy structure. Everyone has their favourite and, together, they’re required reading for the modern supporter. But this newest installment covers the texture between those topics and that’s really where Calvin is at his absolute best: the chapters which deal with incarceration, rehabilitation and gang culture are among the finest and are all built on enlightening interviews with truly interesting – sometimes even inspiring – people.
To this day, The Football Man remains an absolute classic and that’s great testament to Hopcraft. It dealt with a different age of football, though, and a sport which wasn’t nearly as complex or difficult to unravel. State Of Play’s great success, then, is in replicating the original’s work but spreading that coverage over a far wider area and in penetrating a culture which is habitually resistant to proper coverage and scrutiny. Very few books about football are truly essentially, but this is now one of them.