Book Review: Family: Life, Death and Football by Michael Calvin

Millwall.

For the football fan, or those with passing knowledge of the English game, it conjures up a certain image and idea- rough, tough football cheered on by rougher, tougher fans. Even during the bad old days of hooliganism Millwall were notorious for their aggressive, thuggish reputation and they knew it, their unofficial club motto being the defiant “No one likes us, we don’t care”.

It’s a reputation and stereotype but what are the club, and it’s fans, really like. In his book Calvin spends a year with the London club during their 2009-10 season which would ultimately culminate in their promotion to the Championship.

family millwall

Calvin joined them and got an amazing access to the club, interviewing players, staff and fans. He got to see how the club worked with the local community to combat racism, the pressure of youth football and the financial difficulty of competing in a league where their competitors had greater resources and prestige.

It’s a wonderful book, presenting an image of football which is often forgotten when we read about the multimillionaires of the Premier League. Just two leagues lower and players are negotiating over a few hundred quid, worrying about their futures and cleaning their own boots. There’s very little glamour at the Den, but Calvin shows that even in a business as fickle and short term as football their are friendships and loyalty, with the team forming a tight-knit group ruled by a handful of old hands, serving to rally their players to dig deep.

Calvin captures the characters wonderfully, the fiery goalkeeper David Forde and Neil Harris, who seems to be a top bloke. A cancer survivor and Millwall’s highest goal scorer, bagging 125 goals over two stints at the club, Harris is the team’s talisman and a fan favourite,  raising money for charity and signing shirts for ill and injured fans.

A mural of Neil Harris

A mural of Neil Harris

Harris seems to embody what endears Calvin to the club, the way the club unites the community and the way it actively works to engage with it’s fans in a way that the larger clubs can’t match. Calvin notes that other clubs trot out tribalism as marketing tools, but at Millwall the tribe feel is more natural and pronounced, there’s a siege mentality of being the unloved underdogs of English football, the bad guys who aren’t that bad.

It’s not all sentimental and sunny, with the book starting with the story of a Millwall fan viciously attacked by West Ham fans when the teams met in a heated derby, and the devastating effect it has on the family. To their credit, the club offer a lot of support to their fans and their community initiatives appear to make a difference.

We also see the harsh realities of the sport, with youth players let go from their contracts, injuries derailing careers and other managers falling by the wayside. Millwall manager Kenny Jackett’s old teammate and friend John Barnes appears, managing Tranmere, and shows the way fortunes can quickly change in football.

Jackett appears to be a quiet, decent sort of guy who uses his brains to marshal his players and fire them up for games, even while he taking stick from the passionate fans, who are never afraid to voice their opinions and who turn playing at the Den into a baptism of fire for players, both home and away. Calvin highlights the fans’ ability to be cruel, both from the terraces and their keyboards, and they demand their players show the same fire and grit on the field.

By the end of the book I was rooting for the Lions to go up, and Calvin accepts that it is no longer an unbiased account, with him falling for the club and willing them on, celebrating with them, sharing their joys and sorrows. All in all it’s an interesting book which highlights why people fall for football, and helps to show Millwall in a much better light than their reputation suggest. As the subtitle puts it, Millwall is a “proper club”.

Verdict: A well written and insightful look behind the closed door of a football club, capturing the highs and lows of the game. Calvin is hardly impartial in his writing, but it’s easy to see why he falls so hard for the rough, tough club and the people who do like it, and definitely care. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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