The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin is a deep dive into the world of football scouting. Calvin casts a sincere eye on to that slowly contracting world wherein the attrition is high and the payoffs are rare. Calvin’s polished and insightful writing takes us right smack-bang into the world of the beleaguered scout, who is increasingly becoming marginalised in the modern game.
The highlights of The Nowhere Men are certainly the conversations Calvin has with the scouts who have ‘put the miles in’ over decades in the business. Mel Johnson, Steve Jones, and especially John Griffin are warmly given the soapbox to give their take on their trade and reminisce on old glories. Of particular note is the conversation between Barry Lloyd, Allan Gemmell, and Pat Holland (the transcript of which is an entire chapter); Steve Jones’ scouting report on a Colchester side; and John Griffin’s catharsis at the end. These men are in their twilight, fighting against the technology that will eventually supplant them. Their stories alone could justify a spin-off series.
“Whether it is watching a park game on a Sunday morning, or Bromley, or Dartford, or Manchester United or Liverpool, you’ve got to be there. You’ve got to put the miles in. You’ve got to be there, because if you ain’t wearing those tyres out, you ain’t going to find that one.”Allan Gemmell on scouting (pg. 147)
The final third of the book gets a bit ragged as Calvin spreads himself too thin and loses focus. The usual references to sabermetrics and Moneyball feature here, as well as the pervasive influence of statistics and video scouting. There are tenuous asides to American sport, too. Clearly the focus of the book is on the ‘nowhere men’ and their struggle to stay in the game. In this section, Calvin neither does justice to the scouts, nor the complex world of sabermetrics in sport.
There is no doubt about Calvin’s writing—it is refined, street-smart, and eminently readable. There are some memorable flourishes that may draw a smile or ire from the reader, some examples being:
You can’t create a love letter out of numbers, or express beauty in an algorithm. There’s no sensuality in a sine curve, or warmth in a heat map. The neuron boogie, which causes tiny hairs to elevate on the back of a scout’s neck, is a timeless tune.The art of scouting (pg. 371)
The Nowhere Men was first published in 2013, and the references to then-tyros and youth-level starlets have naturally dated. Raheem Sterling, John Swift, Jeremie Boga, and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill have all had varied levels of success, yet readers will undoubtedly enjoy the anecdotes and predictions laid down by the scouts about the above players and others. The Nowhere Men is sprinkled liberally with these little gems.
Modern football is an unforgiving shouting match wherein the little voices are drowned out. However, upon reading The Nowhere Men, the reader may come to realise that within the din lies the roar of the ‘mileage men’ as they rage against the dying of their profession. It is important to listen to that roar.
“Whether it is watching a park game on a Sunday morning, or Bromley, or Dartford, or Manchester United or Liverpool, you’ve got to be there. You’ve got to put the miles in. You’ve got to be there, because if you ain’t wearing those tyres out, you ain’t going to find that one.” (pg. 147) (Allan Gemmell)
“The Nowhere Men were an increasingly endangered species, but no one had found the magic bullet, the ultimate statistic which proved, beyond doubt, a player’s worth from a spread sheet rather than a stream of consciousness, scrawled on the back of an envelope by a scout who felt football in his bones.” (pg. 172)
FULL TIME SCORE: 3-1 winners. The scout—who brought two of the game’s debutants to the club—is halfway across the country watching another game.Find The Nowhere Men on Amazon