TrawlerMeets: Jonawils

Posted on March 15, 2012 by

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Jonathan Wilson

The latest in our In Conversation With series finds freelance football writer, decorated author and founder of The Blizzard Jonathan Wilson discussing the nature of football ‘journalism’, how he came to specialise in Eastern Europe, the power of social media and whether he would ever consider moving into the realms of coaching/scouting.

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What are your basic journalistic principles? What is ‘good’ journalism to you?

I’m not even sure that what I do a lot of people would call journalism. Particularly when I was working for the Financial Times and I was on the regular beat, going around Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United all the time, doing England games, people would be very worried about their contacts, they’d be very worried about finding out what the team was going to be for the next day, about getting news lines. And I guess that is important in terms of selling newspapers – it’s vital. But it’s not really something that’s ever overly troubled me. I did it up to as much as I had to do it but I can’t say I really enjoyed that.

I’ve just been very lucky that I very much enjoy travelling, I very much enjoy the history of football and I’ve found a way of combining those two things in a way that makes money, in a way that nobody else really does – or very few other people do – and I’m able to sell that.

To an extent I guess I’m a historian rather than a journalist, or an analyst rather than journalist. I think you certainly see that divide of people that are obsessing over getting the quote, obsessing over getting the new detail. But for me, I’m more interested in just saying something that’s actually true and analysing something properly. They’re two ways of doing journalism. In a way I guess my way of doing it is quite self-indulgent. I just do what I enjoy. I travel around, I watch things, I write about it.

The Blizzard was seemingly born of frustration with “the constraints of the mainstream media”. To what extent does The Blizzard allow you to circumvent these constraints?

Completely, because it allows any writer to write in the way they want to write. I think, while I understand news journalism, while I understand it is important to break stories and to find out who’s moving to where, to break news… I think there is a big problem, that that often that can mean, especially in sport journalism, nothing more than: a man said a thing yesterday.

Because actually in sport there’s not that much news, or not that much news that really matters and a lot of the news we have are controversies that have been whipped up by the media that don’t really exist. There’s a slightly ambiguous line in one press conference that’s then repeated on the back pages the next day then somebody’s asked to respond to that and suddenly this war of words develops that really has very little basis in actual feeling. That was something that very much irritated me.

Or you’d write a piece that you knew was correct, knew was written in good faith, knew was based on good evidence and you’d get editors coming back saying “oh, you haven’t got a quote on it.” Well, does a banal quote from some player we’ll never hear of again really make a story better? I guess in some ways it does, but it’s not particularly what I want to do. I’d rather just do stuff that interests me. And frankly, a man saying a thing about another man that, looked at in a certain light, might sound as if he’s criticising him, I don’t see the point of it.

Do you feel that tactics are now analysed in sufficient depth by the football media? And do you feel there are any areas of football analysis which are still crucially under-represented?

There’s definitely been an increase in the amount of tactical analysis. I think there’s a slight concern with the amount of tactical analysis there is. Not in that there’s too much, but in that people try to separate it from everything else. I’m a great believer that everything’s connected. And I think you see great examples of that with Zambia at the African Cup of Nations and Uruguay at the Copa America. Both those teams were tactically very well drilled, they were tactically very astute, Uruguay particularly because they changed tactics on a regular basis and were able to alter their shape at a click of a finger. Even if you look at, say, South Korea or Australia with Gus Hiddink: the fact that they were able to change from a back three to a back four was clearly one of their great strengths. But the only reason they were able to do that was because they had a great team spirit, the players who were prepared to make sacrifices for the team and because they had utter faith in their coach. If you don’t believe the coach knows what he’s talking about and he tells you to perform a particular role, you’re probably not going to just do it.

I think there’s a danger that we strip tactics away from the emotion of football and I think, actually, the two things have to go hand in hand. Zambia’s a great example of that. You see Hervé Renard in the first half of the final; he actually punches his right back during the game. As he comes over to take the throw in, he clearly thumps him in the chest because he’s so annoyed by how far forward he going. And then at the final whistle he picks up the injured left back, and carries him onto the pitch to join the celebrations. You see the two sides of Renard as a disciplinarian, then as a much more avuncular figure: the great generous hero. And I think without those two sides, the players wouldn’t have done it. It’s not only legitimate to report on both; it’s essential to report on both.

But having said that, we’re coming from a position where, ten years ago, tactics were barely analysed at all. The fact that every paper now does analyse tactics, the fact that there’s a great wealth of websites looking at tactics, the fact that if there’s a game in South America that I want to watch on TV, I can go on websites and I can find out what tactics the two teams played over the past season, that’s hugely useful and a very good thing.

You’re able to refer to a wide variety of footballing cultures (I remember you mentioning the Rwanda national team in a recent article about the return of the back-three). How useful is it to have a broad knowledge of international football?

I think it depends what you’re doing. If all you’re doing is covering, say, Chelsea every week, then knowing what Rwanda are doing is largely irrelevant. What you would need to do if you were coving Chelsea is know what Chelsea’s reserve team is doing, to know who their scouts are looking at, to look at teams who they’re about to play and look at potential signings. I think whatever field you’re working in, be it football journalism or any kind of journalism, obviously the more you know the better. I think this happens in the kind of journalism I do, I think the broader the knowledge the better.

There’s a danger of just skipping from one thing to the next, of not really understanding anything in any depth, and I hope I avoid that. You’ve got to get the balance right between breadth and depth. As I said before, to an extent it’s self-indulgent. I enjoy going to Africa for the Cup of Nations, I enjoyed going to Argentina last year for the Copa America, and I’m going to Brazil tomorrow. Travelling interests me, and if I was stuck in one place for any protracted period I’d get very bored.

What explains your fascination with Eastern European football?

I think there are two things really. When I was seven, it was the first time I went on holiday outside of Britain. And I went to Slovenia (well they obviously called it Yugoslavia then) and I think we went back (with my parents) five times before the war. I wouldn’t claim to have had a great understanding of Yugoslavia, but at least I had an idea that there was this other world out there that did things in different way. Even as a kid you pick things up. Every café in those days had a picture of Marshal Tito on the wall, so obviously you ask who he is and you start to get an idea of the ‘cult of the leader’.

Then in November 1992 we had a school exchange to Russia, which was just at the time when Gorbachev was handing over to Yeltsin, which obviously was a fascinating time in Russian culture. I think in being there, you get far greater idea of the fact that they’re not just names on a newspaper page, or names on TV, you actually had a sense on how this impacts upon people.

Those two things, I guess, gave me an interest in Eastern Europe. I think actually anybody who grew up with an interest in the wider world of football in the late eighties, when you had the great [Valeriy] Lobanovskyi sides, when you had that fantastic Red Star [Belgrade] side, when you had Steaua Bucharest winning the European cup in ’86 – the first Eastern European winners of the European cup – I think there’s a natural interest in these teams, who did play in very clear way, distinct from teams in Western Europe. And again, I’m not suggesting as a 10 or 15-year-old I really appreciated that in any depth, but just an awareness of, ‘this is a different ways of doing things, this is quite interesting,’ means you start to probe it.

That’s the background, but in practical terms, I got to Worldfootball.com, which went out of business after the 2002 world cup.  That was my first job in journalism and I started there in April 2000. It was a start-up website, which tried to cover football globally, and because I was very junior, and never worked there before, I tended to get given stories from the less mainstream countries. And because I was prepared to battle through the politics and the bureaucracy of Eastern Europe, I regularly got stories from Romania, Serbia, Russia and Ukraine. And so, if you build up interests, you build up knowledge, you start to develop contacts and make friends there, you suddenly realise you have a knowledge that other people don’t have. So when the website went out of business in 2002, when I was freelancing and looking to sell stories, that was something I had that other people didn’t have. When an English team played a team from Eastern Europe, I had a journalist I could call up and find out what was going on, I could sell that to an English paper and it was a very easy way of creating a niche for myself because not many other people were doing that, in fact I don’t think there was anybody doing it from Eastern Europe at the time. Also, the economy works very well on it, that, if I’m paying someone in Eastern Europe to help me out, the amount I have to pay them, which they consider a decent amount of money, is sufficiently small that I can still make a decent profit on it. Whereas if you’re doing that for, say, Germany, France, Spain or Italy, the amount you have to pay the journalist in that country is a lot higher.

Your excellent book “Inverting the Pyramid” is a kind of intellectual history of football tactics. Your focus is generally on remarkable, innovative individuals. But you also imply that there are broader cultural explanations for some tactical developments. How compelling do you think these kinds of sociological explanations can be?

I think they are [compelling] up to a point. You’ve got to be slightly careful, it’s very easy to become over deterministic and say ‘Italian football is very defensive, Brazilian football is full of flair’. It’s clearly much more complex than that. But equally, the interesting stuff is not actually national characteristics: it’s movements you can trace, not just in football, but also outside of football, happening at that time.

I think the way Herbert Chapman set about addressing football at Huddersfield in the early twenties, and Arsenal in the late twenties, the way he did things clearly comes from a similar mindset of that which created modernism in literature, architecture and art at the same period. At the end of the First World War, there was this great rejection of what went before, a great sense that the previous values had failed and there was no need to give them the automatic respect that they had been given in the years leading up to the War. There’s a real radicalism there, a willingness to interrogate what had been taken for granted. To use Ezra Pound’s phrase: there is a willingness to ‘make it new’.

And I also think that, particularly in Britain, that process is accelerated or is heightened by the fact that great swathes of the officer class have been wiped out and so people from the working class – although great swathes of the working class were wiped about as well – suddenly there was the possibility for them to be promoted into positions that they would never have been able to get to before the war. And certainly someone like Chapman, I suspect, would have struggled to get a job as high profile as Arsenal in the years before the war. But because of a turmoil in society, because this great chunk of the previous managers has been taken away, that opportunity is there.

Certainly the management and administration of football had been totally dominated by public schools up until the First World War, and that suddenly was not the case – this was significant for somebody who didn’t have that public school background.  A bright guy, he’d been educated because of the first education act of 1870, which is crucial in that whole societal change in those years, from 1890 onwards. So he was clearly a bright guy, an ambitious guy, who has been educated up to the age of 14, which at the time was more than the generations before. He has the opportunity –because there are vacancies there – to get a good managerial role, and then he can bring his radicalism. He doesn’t have that automatic respect for authority that perhaps he would have had if he had been educated in public schools and brought up in that system, and so he can challenge what’s already there. And rather than thinking ‘there is a way of playing football and that is right’ which has been laid down, since 1875, through to the First World War, he just says: ‘how do I win games?’ And the way to win games, he decided, was to play extra men in midfield, to play an extra centre-back and to play counter attacking football, to play what people at the time thought was very negative football. You can argue that that was modernist football in the same way that you see the same radicalism in other spheres.

How do you respond to the suggestion that football isn’t a worthwhile object of analysis and comment?

It’s interesting. If you say, ‘is football worth studying as a journalist compared to, say, war journalism’ then clearly it’s not, there is no way of getting round that. Some things are very important, and football is not one of them. If you were a photographer, and you could go and shoot a football match or you can go and shoot a combat zone and show atrocities, it’s much more important to shoot a combat zone and show atrocities than to show two players challenging for a corner. Clearly that’s true.

Having said that, if we accept that literature or art or any sphere of culture is worthy of analysis, if we believe that that can give us a greater insight into what it is to be human, into how a society functions, then I don’t see any reason why football shouldn’t be considered at least equal of any other sphere of culture. And I say at least equal, because it is the aspect of culture in which most people in the world engage. Football is really the one universal. I don’t think there’s anything else that engages so many people, whether playing or watching. So, if you say art is worth studying, then, manifestly, football is worth studying.  But I’m not saying it’s more worth studying than government or war, or things that are blatantly more important.

How have digital and technological advancements changed your job as a journalist?

The variety of the internet has changed journalism radically in two ways. From a research point of view, it’s much, much easier to research things. Certainly researching the Clough book, I really realised that. I can check a score from 1964 within two or three seconds of wondering, “I wonder what that score was?” I can find it out. Whereas, 20 years ago, you would have to go to the library, get out the newspapers from that day and look it up, or go to Rothmans and look it up. So it speeded things up in that regard.

What was really obvious to me when I researching the Clough book was how many mistakes there were in books right up through up to 2000, very simple factual errors, that nowadays you wouldn’t get away with because you can just research it so easily, check it so easily that there’s no excuse for making that kind of mistakes. I’m not saying I’ve made no mistakes, but certainly far, far fewer.

In terms of checking newspapers from abroad, clearly that’s much easier than it’s ever been before. There’s a whole wealth of information out there that is accessible that wasn’t before. I think the main difference in terms of research is that there’s a lot more information that you can get very easily and there’s no real excuses for not doing that research.

The other side is that there’s now a far broader range of publications that me as a journalist can sell to. They probably don’t pay as much as the old print journalism would, which I guess is to do with scale: there are more of them and therefore that brings the price down. Also, the way you write is slightly different, in that there’s no point me going into great detail describing a goal in a piece I know is going to be on the internet because I can just link through to the goal on YouTube. And again, YouTube’s made a huge difference. If you want to see what a goal looked like, you can look it up and see it rather then hump through huge video archives. You find things all the time. I was looking yesterday at the 1984 Cup of Nations final. I don’t know where you’d even start to find a video of that! But it’s just there, so you can watch it.

As a freelancer, things like Twitter have been hugely advantageous because it really strips the power away from the major brands and can make the writer a brand. If I post a link to a piece I’ve written, it doesn’t really matter if it’s for The Guardian or for a tiny newspaper in Azerbaijan or somewhere, there’s still an equal chance of people following me on Twitter clicking on it, whichever website it’s on. So I think it becomes much easier for freelancers to promote themselves as brands in their own right rather than a newspaper promoting itself. I guess maybe brand loyalty to newspapers is dying because of things like Twitter. There’s now less need to buy The Guardian and read everything, you can pick and choose, read the writers you want to read or read about the subjects you want. (Twitter becomes almost like a bespoke newspaper).

With such a practical knowledge of the game, have you ever considered getting into football on a coaching level?

Not really, no. There’s a huge difference between theory and practice, and that’s not to say that people like me and Michael Cox are doing something that’s not worthwhile, but being to convey that to players, being able to react during a game… there’s a difference between being a film critic and being a film director. They’re two linked jobs, but they’re not the same job.

If somebody wants to come along and give me a consultancy to work with a Premier League team and pay me hundreds of thousands of pounds, I’m not going to say no. But, actually the thing I enjoy is travelling around, talking to people and writing about it and I’m not sure I even want to go into coaching and management. I’m not particularly sure I’d be that good at it because it’s one thing to describe what’s happening and draw diagrams, another thing to think it up in advance and convey it to players.

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Jonathan Wilson writes for The Guardian and Sports Illustrated amongst others, and his excellent books can be found on Amazon.

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