Jonathan Wilson: “Football is an incredibly broad church and that’s a great thing”

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There are few football writers as prolific as Jonathan Wilson. A brief scan through a list of his books is enough to demonstrate how wide-ranging his interest in the game is, with titles on everything from Eastern Europe to Argentina via his definitive volume on the global history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid.

A two-hour conversation with the acclaimed sports journalist proves to be no exception. Wilson’s love of football shines through at all times in his encyclopedic knowledge of the game, but he is keen to stress the importance of other pursuits. It is no surprise, then, that our interview veers into a host of non-football related topics including Gabonese politics and college darts.

Wilson, a Durham and Oxford alumnus, has become synonymous with all things tactics since the publication of Inverting the Pyramid in 2008. Even he could not have anticipated the kind of success a book on football tactics would have. Since its publication it has been translated into 25 languages worldwide and enjoyed serious global intrigue.

“The Brazilians have gone berserk for it, the Argentinians love it, the Russians love it, the Syrians love it – which is incredibly gratifying,” he tells us. “I’m just lucky I was the bloke who got there first.”

You might be interested in football because it gives you a chance to get pissed with your mates or because the tactical structure appeals to something in your brain, and both of those are equally valid

This was at a time pre-Monday Night Football on Sky Sports when discussing football tactics was not as fashionable as it is now. Even so, Wilson thinks there is something to be said for its innate commercial appeal given how the sport attracts different kinds of fans.

“Football is an incredibly broad church, and that’s a great thing and we should appreciate that about it. It appeals to an enormous amount of people, and it appeals for different reasons and all those reasons are equally valid.

“You might be interested in football because it gives you a chance to get pissed with your mates and I totally understand that, and I do that, or because the tactical structure appeals to something in your brain that appreciates geometry and how you can try and control chaos, that’s also valid.”

His repertoire includes more marketable books charting the histories of Liverpool, Manchester United and England, but it is when discussing Eastern European football that Wilson’s eyes light up. It was the subject of his first book Behind The Curtain, and he picks up where he left off in his latest book, The Names Heard Long Ago, which explores Hungarian football’s Golden Age and its subsequent impact on the modern game.

He acknowledges how fortunate he is to be in a position where he can write books about topics he enjoys, but this wasn’t for a lack of hard work earlier in his journalistic career doing what he describes as “grunt work”. “By not doing stuff I didn’t really want to do, like doing round-ups of ice hockey or something, I then got in a position where I want to be.”

Although he recalls writing match reports from an early age, his first serious venture into football journalism came when he started writing for a Sunderland fanzine at the age of 15. From there he went on to write for Match of the Day magazine, then aimed at young adults, to make some money while at university.

“I thought ‘This seems like quite an easy way of making a bit of cash ofnthe side’, and in those days, you get 150, 200 quid for a piece and as a student in the 90s that was a fucking fortune, that was your beer for a term! Well, maybe that’s not quite true…”

Wilson studied English Literature at Oxford and was sport editor of the student newspaper, although he says he did not take it altogether seriously back then. He was unable to achieve the first he needed to do a Master’s at Oxford, which he describes as “the first thing I cared about that I’d fucked up in my life”.

His decision to do a Master’s at Durham offered the chance to be closer to his family in the north-east. Despite not seeing eye-to-eye with one tutor and never setting foot in Klute, he recounts how he had a fundamentally good time in Durham. The Howlands Farm site which was Wilson’s postgraduate college no longer exists – it became Ustinov College and relocated to Sheraton Park – but he has fond memories of meeting all sorts of characters in the city’s pubs.

The year he spent in Durham also coincided with the 1998-99 season in which his beloved Sunderland achieved promotion from Division One with a record points total – he is quick to point out that Reading have since surpassed that in the Championship – and when we speak in December the Black Cats are stuttering in League One. Phil Parkinson seems to have turned things around since then, but Wilson says he is not overly surprised by the club’s plight in recent years.

You can’t expect a football journalist to become an expert in Qatari politics and labour law and human rights issues overnight

“We’d always be bottom or second-bottom of the table. And then we’d sack our manager, which obviously would cost money. And then we’d go out in January and sign three or four players, who we’d have to pay big wages to, because why else would they go to a team that looks like it’s going down? And then we’d survive, and then the manager would realise he had an enormous squad on inflated wages and he had to get rid of half a dozen of them, and then we’d start the next season and, by Christmas, we’d be in exactly the same position again.”

It was partly thanks to friends he made in Durham that he got his first break in sports journalism, undeterred by Alan Shearer snubbing him in the first press conference he attended. Having completed a short journalism course in London after university, he caught wind of sports websites that were recruiting through the boyfriend of one of his friends at Durham.

He then quickly got a job working for – which he describes as “the first pan-European, global football site” – and rode the wave of the dot-com boom of the early 2000s before that came crashing down after the 2002 World Cup. He has since written for the likes of The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and FourFourTwo magazine, and his lifelong desire to write books wasn’t realised until several years later when another old Durham friend put him in contact with an agent.

As someone who has literally written the book on football in Argentina and Hungary and who has covered the sport in many more nations besides, where has been his favourite place to watch football?

“Watching football in Hungary now is shit. The level is so low and the fan engagement is so low. Argentina – the atmosphere’s incredible given the poverty of the football. It’s still the 11th most watched league in the world, which given the standard is astonishing, given the stadiums are by and large falling apart and are pretty uncomfortable, given there’s significant danger in some stadiums. To still get the crowds they get is mind-boggling, it doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Wilson’s brand of football writing, often at the intersection of sport, politics and history, is far removed from the kind of clickbait which many sports sites rely on. He acknowledges, however, that there is a time and a place for transfer stories. Given the news in October last year that staff at popular US website Deadspin had been told to ‘stick to sports’ in their articles – Wilson calls it “lunacy” – should sports journalists always be looking to cover the bigger issues?

“It’s not every football writer’s role,” he explains. “When you’re at a World Cup or something, it is unbelievably intense. There’s no time to do the political stuff. There is if you’re sent there with that brief, and some journalists hopefully will be. But that’s not going to be my remit, I assume it’s not going to be my remit [for the 2022 World Cup] in Qatar.

“To expect a football journalist to become overnight an expert in Qatari politics and labour law and human rights issues, you can’t do it. And you shouldn’t do it, because you’d be doing it badly and you potentially deflect from the journalist whose job it is to be very good at it.”

Even so, Wilson tells the story of how he and two other colleagues uncovered a story about the brutal repression of protestors in the wake of Gabon’s elections while covering the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. It led to him securing an interview with the Prime Minister in which he confronted him with the proof that at least 27 people had been killed by mercenaries. He uses a football analogy to explain why sports journalists can do that but shouldn’t always be expected to.

“Your right-back might be able to play left-wing with six months of training – don’t just chuck him into a game and ask him to do it. If he’s got his role then he’ll do that to the best of his abilities, and if he finds himself on the left wing in a crossing position, he’ll try and put a cross in. But that’s not where you actually want him all the time.”

Whether you’re doing English or Spanish or physics — go and learn a load of stuff and that will give you a framework in which to structure what you think about football

He is sceptical of sports journalism degrees, and recalls how one of his articles published in Match of the Day magazine as a young freelancer was deemed not good enough by the tutors on his course. When asked what advice he would give sports journalists now, he says they should look to learn as much as possible about other subjects.

“Go out and find out about other stuff. It doesn’t actually matter what you find out about. Whether you’re doing English or Spanish or physics or whatever – go read a load of stuff, go and learn a load of stuff, go and do stuff that you enjoy, and what you learn doing that will give you a framework in which to structure what you think about football.

“If you do physics, I’m presuming you have to do some quite complicated statistical stuff, which is really useful in modern football. Or you’ll recognise something happening in football which is analogous with an archetype of literature – use that. Having a language or two languages is incredibly valuable in terms of talking to other players and other journalists and reading newspapers from abroad.

“All that stuff is much more valuable to someone who wants to be a football journalist now than understanding how football journalism develops in the 1890s or whatever.”

Image: Jonathan Wilson

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