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The Price of Dreams: Michael Calvin on Football's Dangerous Lottery

Posted on 27th April 2017 by Martha Greengrass

"Imagine the moral outcry if the banks started recruiting boys as young as nine, training them up, and then trading them between each other. That’s the reality of youth football today."

Multi-award winning author, Mike Calvin is building a reputation as one of the finest sports writers currently at work.  The first two books in his football trilogy, The Nowhere Men and Living on the Volcano, looked at talent scouting and football managers respectively.  Now, in No Hunger in Paradise, Calvin has turned his investigative eye on the world of youth football. Exclusively for Waterstones he introduces a world of secrecy, pressure, financial gain and staggering human cost.

“Football, bloody hell.”

Sir Alex Ferguson’s wry summary of Manchester United’s defeat of Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final has passed into legend. Those three words form part of the shorthand of the game, but possess a subtle ambiguity that enables them to mean all things to all men.

The phrase can register a sense of wonder or, as I experienced during the research process for No Hunger in Paradise, a sense of worry. In trying to understand the power of that great dream, overcoming the odds and becoming a professional footballer, I’ve come to appreciate its cost.

What is the game doing to our kids? Is it worth fractured families and blighted lives? Does football fulfil its duty of care to concerned parents and vulnerable children? As the questions multiply, I hope the book will be a catalyst for a long-overdue debate.

Sir Alex, one of the last great dynastic managers, had a rare breadth of vision. He saw the need for transitional support for young players going out of the game, and the dangers of the entourage-driven lifestyle of many prematurely-rewarded players. 

The survivors of the system are statistical anomalies. Only 180 of the 1.5million boys playing organised youth football in England at any given time will become a Premier League pro. That’s a success rate of 0.012 per cent. Less than one per cent of the boys who enter academies at the age of nine will make it. The dropout rates are terrifying and beg another big question: Who picks up the pieces? 

The book features great parents and inspirational coaches who understand their responsibilities. But, in the modern meal ticket culture, some fathers are complicit in the commoditisation of their children. Parental pressure can be insidious. Despite advances in safeguarding procedures, education is endangered because it is subjugated to the once-in-a-lifetime chance to shine. Boys seem old before their time, yet they still have the vulnerability of infants.

I spent 18 months, examining all aspects of youth football, from the Premier League to the parks. There are good people at work, and clubs pursuing enlightened strategies. But there are individuals and institutions who abuse the power of opportunity. They exploit fear and insecurity. In an under-regulated world unprincipled agents stalk pre-teen players on social media. I’ve seen them smuggled into training grounds in the backs of parents’ cars.  

Imagine the moral outcry if the banks started recruiting boys as young as nine, training them up, and then trading them between each other. That’s the reality of youth football today. There’s no education process for parents. Sometimes unconditional love is not enough. They need help. Excesses excused by football’s prominence say as much about us, as parents, participants or supporters, as they do about the game itself. I hope you will read No Hunger In Paradise, and see the person, not the player. 

Things have to change. Cherish the dream, celebrate achievement, but protect the innocent.

No Hunger in Paradise by Michael Calvin was published by Century on Thursday 20th April 2017.

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