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Sports Book Chat: Jonathan Wilson

Unknown Friday, November 11, 2011 , , ,

A few day before my daughter was born, the publisher of Jonathan Wilson's first book Behind the Curtain sent me a review copy.  Rarely has a delivery been so timely as over the next week or so it was to prove to be an excellent way to fill the monotony of those late hours spent rocking cradles and trying to get a crying baby to sleep.

Thanks to that book, Wilson became a personal favourite. I tried to read everything he wrote with each piece increasing my conviction of his brilliance.   His ability to write about with passion and verve about Eastern European football (initially) and tactics (subsequently) were insightful and inspirational in equal measures.

Indeed there are, arguably, few writers who have been as influential as him.  Inverting the Pyramid kickstarted the current trend of tactical analysis whilst Blizzard, the magazine he launched earlier this year, has proven that there can be exceptional writing about football.

Yet, mention this to Wilson and he is dismissive saying that he just "rode a wave that was coming his way". Inadvertedly, however he has put it better than anyone else could because spotting those waves and being the first to get to them is precisely what visionaries are capable of doing.

When did you decide that writing is what you wanted to do for a living?  And what sort of training did you have?
I’d always written stuff, from being five or six. I worked on the Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme from being about 16, and then I started doing freelance work for Match of the Day magazine (the old version) while I was doing my Master’s degree. I possibly would have been an academic had I got funding to do a DPhil – on the subject of imperial constructions of masculinity in Conrad and Kipling – but to be honest I’m much happier as a football-writer than I’d ever have been as an academic. I did a journalism course, but to be honest I learned more doing a week of work experience than I did in three months on the course.

Looking back – and taking on board what I learned while teaching a journalism course  - I think the fact I read huge amounts was a big help. I spent six months teaching in a Tibetan monastery in India between school and university, and while there I got in the habit of reading 50 pages before I got up in the morning and 50 pages before I went to sleep, something I pretty much carried on until I started working full-time as a journalist. Even now I read a lot on buses, trains, planes etc. It baffled me while teaching how little reading people who wanted to write for a living did.

You started out at onefootball.com, a site that if I recall had ambitious plans but not a sound business case.  Yet I believe that's where you got the bug about Eastern European football.  What was that experience like?
I’m not sure that’s quite true about the business plan. I think mistakes were made early on – as a lot of people made mistakes in the first flush of the dot-com bubble – but by 2002 we were pretty close to breaking even when the parent company loaded a huge debt on us from another part of the business. That was unsustainable, and that’s why we disappeared.

It was a fantastic place to work as a first job. A lot of freedom, a hugely dedicated, innovative staff, and a great chance to learn about football all over the world. No money, but you don’t care about that when you’re mid-20s.

Why the fascination with Eastern European football?
The first place I went to outside of the UK was Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia, in 1984. I went back with my mam and dad five times before the war, and that gave me an interest in eastern Europe (albeit in its friendly, Titoist form). Then when I was in lower sixth we had an exchange with a school from Tambov in Russia, which strengthened that fascination. So there was a spark there, but what ignited it was that at onefootball I was very junior and so while others looked after the more major football countries I tended to take the eastern stories. I started going out there, meeting people, making friends and contacts, and when onefootball went under, I realised it was a niche in which there was little competition, that it was knowledge I could offer papers  that they didn’t already have.


Where did the ideas of each of your books come from?
It depends. The first one, Behind the Curtain, came from sitting down with my agent and talking through what I could do that was different. The Sunderland and Clough books the publisher came to me. Inverting the Pyramid and Anatomy of England were nothing more complicated than me thinking ‘hmm, there’s might be a book in that’ and discussing it with my agent and editor.

Do you often re-read your books?
Never. I sometimes use them for reference, but I don’t sit down and read them. Just last night, in fact, I was asked a question about why Sunderland are known as the Black Cats. I knew it had something to do with the cannon that used to stand at the mouth of the river and I was googling it when I suddenly remembered I’d written about it in A Club Transformed.

Is there any one of the books which you consider as being your favourite?
Not really. Pyramid is the only one that when I was writing it I was confident it was worthwhile, but there’s a lot of stuff in that I’d change if I were writing it again – both in terms of uncovering details I hadn’t known and stylistically. But there’s bits of all of them I’m proud of and bits I’d change.

Undoubtedly the one that really made an impact was Inverting the Pyramid.  First of all, where you expecting the reaction that you got?
No. The last month or so of writing it I was waking at 6am each day, and retching with tension because I knew it was going well and I didn’t want to mess it up, which was awful and exhilarating at the same time. When I submitted it, I knew I was happy with it, and you tell yourself that that’s all that matters, but obviously you want other people to agree with you and thankfully they did.

Has there been a change in culture since you wrote that book?  Looking at the success of the Zonal Marking website it is clear that more people want to learn more about tactics.
I don’t know. I think in some ways I was just lucky and rode a wave that was coming anyway.

There is always a lot of research in your books.  How do you go about this?
It depends on the book, but the academic in me still loves sitting in a library uncovering stuff in old books or newspapers.

Equally, there are also a lot of interviews.  I get the impression you love doing these: is that the case?
Yes and no. There are few things better than talking to an old player, coach or journalist with great memories, but then there’s little worse than dozens of phone calls to an agent then hanging around in a hotel lobby for hours for five minutes of bored inanities.

How was Blizzard born?
You’ll excuse me, I hope, if I just quote the Editor’s Note from Blizzarrd issue Zero:

I’d been frustrated for some time by the constraints of the mainstream media and in various press-rooms and bars across the world, I’d come to realise I wasn’t the only one who felt journalism as a whole was missing something, that there should be more space for more in-depth pieces, for detailed reportage, history and analysis. Was there a way, I wondered, to accommodate articles of several thousand words? Could we do something that was neither magazine nor book, but somewhere in between?


As I floated thoughts and theories to anyone who would listen, I became aware there were other writers so keen to break the shackles of Search Engine Optimisation and the culture of quotes-for-quotes’-sake that they were prepared to write for a share of potential profit, that the joy of writing what they wanted and felt was important outweighed the desire to be paid. The only problem, I explained to those around the table in Fitzys, was finding a publisher equally willing to take the gamble.


I suppose you don’t really think of your old school-friends, people you only really see these days in the context of the pub and the match, as having jobs. Sitting next to me that night, though, as he’d sat next to me in sixth-form English, was my mate Peter, who happens to run a design and publishing company. Flushed on White Amarillus and a Darren Bent hat-trick, we knocked around ideas for the rest of the night; remarkably, in the cold light of morning, it still seemed a viable plan.


The result, about a year later, is The Blizzard, named after the short-lived and eccentric, but rather brilliant, Sunderland newspaper launched as “the organ of Mr Sidney Duncan” in 1893. It only ran to 12 issues, during which time Duncan, who pretty much wrote the whole thing himself, doubled the cover price in an attempt to cut circulation because he found the effort of handling all the money he was making so tiresome, a policy I’m pretty sure we won’t be following should we experience similar success.


What has the feedback been like, both from writers and readers?
Hugely positive and very encouraging. The writers have had faith in us in that they’ve worked hard and contributed articles knowing that there was no guarantee  of payment; and the readers have repaid that by responding responsibly to the pay-what-you-want model.

Is the pay what you want model working?
So far, definitely. There are a handful of people who keep paying a  penny, but it is just a handful. By and large people have responded as we hoped they would – maybe paying a penny for their first issue and then, if they found they liked it, offering an amount that seems realistic.

Given that there are so many sites writing about football, and some of the articles are truly excellent, is there space for a printed magazine? And with so much stuff being free, is there space to make money.
I hope so. I’m not sure anybody else gives you the range of articles or the depth of quality that The Blizzard does. And there are still people who like the physical feel of a book.

What future projects are you working on ?  And what's in the pipeline?
Nobody Ever Says Thank You, my biography of Brian Clough, comes out in November, and I’m working on The Outsider, a book about goalkeepers that’ll come out late next year sometime.


This article originally appeared in the November issue of the online magazine Swinging Balls.  More details about Blizzard magazine can be found here.

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