Book Review: Living On The Volcano

Eruptions are a familiar part of football’s touchline pantomime – just ask David Meyler – but the stories behind the frayed tempers exhibited by Pardew and co have rarely been examined with the detail which runs throughout Michael Calvin’s book, ‘Living on the Volcano’.

The widely-respected journalist trawls through the personalities which define football management at all levels of the game, from the upper echelons of the Premier League to the pressure cooker of England’s bottom professional tier.

The latter provides the backdrop for the start of Calvin’s journey, which begins by following Martin Ling, former Leyton Orient, Cambridge United, Swindon Town and Torquay United manager. A handy player, who appeared in over 600 matches across all four divisions, Ling is a complex figure with a harrowing tale to tell. His battle against depression, rooted in a potent combination of work-related stress and family ill-health, takes in panic attacks, admission to hospital with a bogus brain tumour and electro-shock therapy at the Priory.

This cautionary tale is carefully chronicled by Calvin, who pays due attention to exceptional circumstances beyond Ling’s job, such as his father’s life-threatening bowel condition. However, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the pressure of the professional environment Ling operates in is a critical contributor to his condition.

This devotion to management is echoed throughout the 20-plus interviews which Calvin conducts. We meet Eddie Howe behind his office desk at 6.30am, a regular state of affairs for the Bournemouth coach, who openly talks of a work/family balance that is “ninety to ten to the football club”. Former Colchester manager Joe Dunne frankly admits that the first 18 months of a new job require “you to just forget about your family”, whilst recalling 9am-9pm days during his spell in charge of ‘The U’s’.   

The commitment which Calvin captures is endearing and worrying in equal measure, particularly when set against Ling’s ordeal. It also offers a glimpse into the multi-faceted characters which the author brings to light. Chris Hughton and former Leicester manager Micky Adams both talk eloquently about the ritual abuse they suffered whilst playing and managing, whilst ex-Leeds coach Brian McDermott is revealingly honest about the confidence crisis he suffered whilst at Arsenal (“I felt like a nobody”).

Indeed, despite easy headlines portraying managers as money-grabbing time-wasters, all of Calvin’s protagonists possess a reassuring focus on understanding and nurturing players’ personalities. Whilst this sometimes strays into self-parody – Brendan Rodgers labels himself a “welfare officer”, rather than a manager – even cold-hearted cynics would struggle to take affront at Karl Robinson’s touching reaction to Dele Alli’s move to Tottenham (“seeing him sitting there, I had a tear in my eye. I had known for along time…that he was going to go”).

Surprisingly, despite the common characteristics which knit together many of the managers Calvin meets, there is a pervading sense of artificiality to the relationships that exist in a profession which is more labour-of-love than most. Adams, in particular, is caustic in his description of the links between his counterparts (“managers call each other mates, but we’re not really. I wouldn’t really trust a manager or a scout”).

Style over substance is an accusation that’s certainly been levelled at Brendan Rodgers and the Leicester’s manager’s ‘I love to run on the streets around here’ monologue is cannon fodder for his detractors. However, Calvin again gets beneath the veneer, showing how Rodgers was affected by the sudden death of his mother and father. Even a figure who appears as initially anodyne as Mark Hughes is portrayed in a light many will be unaccustomed to, with the former Stoke manager given an opportunity to talk quite touchingly about the impact of his single-parent upbringing.

Of course, a book devoted to football managers wouldn’t be complete without some inherent contradictions, and there is a fascinating dichotomy between the apparent zeal for new coaching methods and reverence for old-school hairdryer incidents. Joe Dunne provides the most memorable passage on the subject, oscillating between admiration for Pepijn Lijnders’ in-vogue coaching at Porto and Aidy Boothroyd’s bollockings.

Chuck in the occasional dose of pure football management-speak (‘the toes you step on today could be connected to the legs that support the arse you need to kiss tomorrow’) and the book covers the profession in a genuinely illuminating way, that stops short of pretentious navel-gazing. Indeed, Ling’s tale arguably reverberates beyond the confines of the dugout, acting as a warning both for those that the prowl the touchline on a Saturday afternoon and those that sit behind.