Michael Calvin has recently launched a one-man assault on the sports book awards business. His series of penetrating investigations into the heart of football have won even more admirers than prizes.
There was ‘The Nowhere Men,’ an exploration of scouting, ‘Living On The Volcano,’ which delved into the stresses and strains of management, and his probe into youth football, ‘No Hunger In Paradise.’
Perhaps his most ambitious book is ‘State Of Play: Under The Skin of the Modern Game,’ inspired by Arthur Hopcraft’s 1968 classic ‘The Football Man,’ and which is being made into a BT Sport documentary to be broadcast in May.
On a more intimate scale was ‘Family: Life, Death and Football: A Year on the Frontline with a Proper Club.’ That ‘proper club’ was Millwall, Albion’s FA Cup quarter-final opponents at The Den. Updated last year, it was originally written about the 2009-10 season.
Mike was allowed access to every part of the club. “I was very lucky,” he says. “Probably only in Hunter Davies’s ‘The Glory Game’ in a previous generation has anyone got that close to a club. They absolutely exposed themselves. There were no limits.
“And that put responsibility on me. When you write a book, you immortalise a group of people. The players in that book will be 22, 24, 27 for the rest of their lives to readers. So I had to get it right.”
The book is required reading for anyone who thinks they know what happens behind the scenes of a football club.
“It taught me so much about football,” Mike says. “I’d been in sports writing for 25 years when I did it but I learned more in that year about sport, life and humanity than I had done previously at World Cups, Olympic Games, world title fights or on round-the-world yacht races.
“My vantage point in the dressing room was just inside the showers where I could see the entire space but they didn’t really see much of me. So they were completely natural, bawling at one another, celebrating with one another, commiserating with one another, fighting with one another, effing and blinding.
“But the most important thing I saw was confirmation that football matters. It matters to the fans, it matters to the players, and it matters to their families. The families are so intimately involved.
“At that level, League One at the time, a win bonus makes the mortgage easier to pay. They haven’t got the luxuries, the certainties of a Premier League player. They are well-paid compared to the national average wage but they still don’t have security.
“That year gave me a visceral insight into the insecurity that shapes football at every level. The scholars were told their fates on April Fool’s day, which was just a bitter coincidence of the calendar. But to see a boy fighting and fighting not to cry when he was told he was being let go and managing it except for just a single tear – that really matters.
“After witnessing that, you get offended by the manufactured controversies and the celebrity crassness of top-level football. I’m not saying it’s not a wonderful product, and if someone is prepared to pay you an amount of money, however obscene, you’re not going to turn it down, are you? I get all that.
“But there has to be a sense of perspective. At Brighton I see that sense of perspective. At other clubs? Perhaps not. That’s what I like about Millwall. There is a link between club and supporters that doesn’t exist everywhere. It is a community champion in a way that many clubs purport to be but very few are.”
‘Family’ made no attempt to whitewash the image of the club’s fans, but Mike stands up for the work that the club itself has done to counter its followers’ excesses.
“I remember the FA Cup semi-final against Wigan when the Millwall boys all started fighting among themselves. From what I gather some of them had had an all-nighter on the Friday and by the time the game kicked off on Saturday evening some of them probably didn’t even know where they were. I worry about that for this game if they have a full-on Saturday night.
“But – and I don’t want to sound like unofficial PR – I know that Millwall do more than any club. I’m not saying that headlines are pre-written but you and I know that there is a well-used template that comes out when Millwall have a good win in an important match but it is overshadowed by some sort of violent or verbal disorder.
“When I saw the social media footage of that racist chanting at the Everton game, my heart sank because I knew what the reaction would be. It is tough for the people at the club, who are doing all that they can.
“If they cut corners in any way and just dealt in platitudes, I would say that they were open to valid criticism. But the club has consistently engaged constructively with the community, it has helped the police and therefore by extension the local area with anti-knife-crime programmes. All clubs do that to some extent, but Millwall are as consistent and positive as anyone.
“The thing about Millwall is that it attracts and almost demands certain stereotypical stories. I have found that when you get deep under the skin of a football club, you begin to understand the realities rather than the perceptions. Millwall is an unashamedly old-school institution reflective of its community in both good and bad but staffed with or involving individuals who contribute in ways people don’t know about and would be amazed by.
“At a time when football clubs are moving further and further from their communities, I think what Millwall do has so much to commend it. The team also reflects that too. The players who forge good careers at the club understand what playing for Millwall is and what it entails. If you fail and give everything you will be excused. If you don’t put a shift in, you will get slaughtered.”
Some Albion players have ‘enjoyed’ the experience of playing at The Den in Championship games, but Mike knows that the first-timers will face something of a culture shock in the Cup tie.
“When I was writing ‘Family’ I saw managers shepherding their players out of the tiny away dressing room as if they were sending them over the top on the first day of The Somme,” he says. “I have seen a few thousand-yard stares from the managers too.
“I always came out just after the team, almost as if I was the 12th man. The last player out in front of me was David Forde, the goalkeeper, a big guy with a booming voice, who basically let the opposition know what they were in for. Sometimes they unconsciously cringed against the wall.
“We’re in an age of sanitised Champions League tunnels where players give each other hugs. The Millwall experience was somewhat different, a bit of a throwback. Especially at night games: the darkness increased the sense of menace. It was more like Mordor FC than Millwall FC with all these baying orcs outside.
“The tunnel being so narrow amplified the noise. You could see all those tell-tale signs, players licking their lips and all that stuff. I’ve never seen any other ground, and I’ve been to a few, where players are too scared to take throw-ins. It is a factor and it will be a factor.
“The mischievous part of me would have loved to see Pep Guardiola on that touchline at The Den expanding his vocabulary. That would have been an experience he had never had before. Managers get fearful stick at The Den but by and large they don’t mind it because it is so old-school. I’m not going to defend some of the things they get called. But in an age of antiseptic, vanilla football it has got certain attractions.
“We have both been around the Premier League long enough to see the old school grounds closing and the out-of-town stadia that are more like shopping malls taking over. They are often interchangeable.
“I actually find the Amex a really good stadium because Brighton, in its way, is a club in tune with its heritage – playing Sussex By The Sea – and I find that almost quaint but it’s important because it is a link to the club’s past.
“Millwall have ‘Let Them All Come Down to The Den’ and also what they call the Monk’s Chant, that “Mmmmiiiiiiiiiiilllllll” and I’ve seen it freak players out. It’s almost white noise and there’s something almost earthy about it.
“I was at Portsmouth against QPR and was in Kenny Jackett’s office afterwards watching the Millwall v Everton game and you sensed it was one of those Millwall occasions – cold, pouring with rain and the noise was off the scale. I was still listening to it on the radio driving back and when Millwall got that late free kick, I knew instinctively that they were going to score the winning goal.
“The Cup inspires a wonderful collective insanity in that fanbase. When they get going, nothing stops them. And it played into Milwall’s hands that the Everton game was played after dark. It could be to Brighton’s advantage that the kick-off in this one is early.”
Mike may not have had his dream draw against Guardiola’s Manchester City but is still looking forward to the quarter-final.
“It will be interesting,” he says. “Brighton’s dip in form could affect the team selection at The Den, even though it is so close to Wembley. Chris Hughton is a fantastic manager as well as being a first-class human being – I interviewed him at length for my book about management, ‘Living On The Volcano,’ and I’m hoping to feature him in the ‘State of Play’ documentary. The team he picks will have been thought about carefully.
“I’m an admirer of Anthony Knockaert and have been since he was at Leicester. He has an element of the maverick but I love him as a footballer and he could cause chaos. With Millwall, you have to get on them early and their confidence is not that secure at the moment – they were 3-0 down in about 20 minutes against Preston.”
In the adjoining technical area will be Millwall manager Neil Harris, once a legend at the club as a player and a man universally admired by those fortunate enough to have met him.
“When I did the ‘Family’ book Neil was still a player and he was the first to come over to me and say hello. I got to know him pretty well pretty quickly. He is a very nice guy although he can be hard if he needs to. But there is a tenderness to him.
“One of the first games was a testimonial for Richard Sadlier and Danny Senda , a terrific attacking full back who is now first team coach at Barnet, came down from a header, landed awkwardly and destroyed his Achilles. He was carried into the dressing room to wait for an ambulance and Neil came in at half-time and just kissed him on the forehead. He didn’t say a word. And I just thought that the intimacy of that moment in a very harsh professional environment was incongruous but very special.
“As I got to know Neil I went to his house and we found these letters in his attic that were sent to him when he had testicular cancer. The humanity of the game, what he meant to fans as the embodiment of a local hero, came out through that.
“The goal that Neil scored against Watford that marked his comeback from cancer is immortalised in a fantastic picture of him being carried on the shoulders of his teammates. It’s like a victorious general coming back from a Roman war.
“Sean Dyche was one of the players and he told me that was one of his most emotionally engaging moments in football. And there’s a guy who is one of life’s pragmatists.
“I looked at Neil from several different directions. He is an intelligent, principled man who knows what it means to go to work, because he used to commute into London on the train from Essex and play part-time. He grew into the fulcrum of the dressing room.
“There was a group of senior players that I christened The Guvnors, five or six of them, who set the personal and professional standards for the entire group. That dressing room had a ‘No dickheads’ rule before the All-Blacks had even thought of it. There was always an assumption that he would end up as a manager. He’s an impressive guy.
“He and Chris Hughton have a lot in common. Chris is very aware of his roots, knows who he is, he was an apprentice lift engineer, he knows a life away from football, and coming from a mixed Ghanaian and Irish background was shaped by all that ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ stuff.
“I’m quite sure both he and Neil can be ruthless if they need to be. There is a quiet certainty to them, a sense of men of principle in operation. They have quite a few things in common and I’m quite sure that people who are unwise might make a big mistake and underestimate them.
“Millwall does demand strong leaders and I can see Steve Morison being the next Millwall player to become a manager. He is someone who is very firm in his convictions and is someone else who has been outside the game, working in a paper-shredding business and playing semi-pro. Millwall does create that type of characters.”
After going so deeply into football in ‘Family’ and his other books, can he still bear to watch the corporate giants clashing on so-called Super Sundays?
“I appreciate the game on a different level,” he says. “I certainly find myself falling out of love with the superficiality and the cynical nature of top-six football – the tourist culture, the grounds that almost echo with indifference at the highest level.
“I like grounds like The Den where the fans are on top of the game and it’s not just an athletic contest. It’s almost performance art because it involves everyone and everything around it. I don’t think you get that in much modern football.”