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Football Books I Love: State of Play by Michael Calvin

A common compliment handed out to writers is that their book is so good it can be read cover to cover in one sitting. The intense nature of Michael Calvin’s State of Play means that a reading in one sitting is somewhat challenging – but rather it is the depth of research that makes it such an excellent read.

I’ve read it multiple times, as each time you go through a chapter you pick up something you did not notice before. The book contains 19 chapters, split into 4 sections, each containing a unique perspective on the issues facing football today. Calvin certainly knows how to draw the reader in, kicking off with a hard-hitting chapter about the work done by Dawn Astle to address the link between football and the brain injury chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Dawn Astle is of course the son of Jeff, the legendary West Brom striker who passed away as a result of this brain injury at the age of just 59 in 2002. Dawn’s campaign to increase awareness of CTE within the game is criminally underreported in the mainstream media, and so you might not know much about it until you read State of Play. In just 21 pages of that initial chapter, you’ll come away not only with a good knowledge of the issue but most likely an opinion on what the sport can do to shake off its inertia and address the matter.

State of Play is inspired by Arthur Hopcraft’s The Football Man: People and Passions in Soccer. Originally published in 1968, it is a classic of its genre and shines a light onto how football was beginning to change and morph towards the modern game we know today. It is Hopcraft’s ability to capture a moment in time and put it on a page that makes The Football Man a must-read, even to this day. Certainly, Calvin has succeeded in doing the same, and anybody in 60 years’ time wanting to know what football was like in 2018 would do well to start with State of Play. It is off-pitch matters rather than results and league tables which make this a success in both cases. Whilst Hopcraft captures the beginning of football’s wage spiral with the abolishment of the maximum wage in 1961 and subsequent Eastham vs Newcastle United case in 1963, Calvin picks up the story in an age of rampant commercialisation. He examines the increase in external pressures on players and managers as a result, highlighting the negative externalities that have come about as a result of the domination of football in the public’s consciousness. A big part of this is the topic of mental health in football.

There’s no doubt that State of Play was the biggest influence on my own project, Match Fit. What Calvin has done for football as a whole, I wanted to do specifically for mental health, zoning in on the 13 different topics that make up the chapters of my book. My main goal is that Match Fit can softly raise awareness of mental health, but I also hope that we can look back in 60 years’ time and use the book as a yardstick to measure the progress made by the football world in that time.

Calvin has written several other excellently researched books that go into detail on some of the issues explored in State of Play. No Hunger in Paradise looks at youth and academy football, for example, whilst Living on the Volcano explores the unique job facing football managers in today’s game. Both were essential pieces of reading for me before I went into the mental health issues surrounding the respective topics.

Calvin’s main selling point is the extensive research he conducts before writing, meaning he is close to expert level on every subject he writes about. His football books typically include a number of interviews with relevant figures, all of which add an extra level of detail and a personal touch to the story. Recently, Calvin has worked with Holocaust survivor Josef Lewkowicz to produce The Survivor: How I Survived Six Concentration Camps and Became a Nazi Hunter. Though Calvin primarily writes about sport, I have no doubt he is the perfect person to tell this very sensitive tale. It is on my ‘to read’ list and judging by the reviews should be on yours too.

About Johnnie Lowery

Johnnie is a football writer. His first book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. With strong reviews from the likes of Jeremy Vine and Jacqui Oatley, it is selling well online. His second book, Match Fit, explores mental health in football. It looks to raise mental health awareness and is inspired by Lowery’s own struggles as a teenager, when he did not understand why he was feeling down.


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