Football historian Jonathan Wilson talks about rising stars, fan culture, managers & more

"Jonathan Wilson belongs alongside David Goldblatt and the daddy of them all, Brian Glanville, in the triumvirate of the greatest British football historians" - The Financial Times

“Potatoes or fish?” and not “what’s the cover charge there, then?”, you’d be surprised to know, is the most pressing question asked in a certain nook of Scotland around New Years. While the rest of the world is hailing blurry taxis, or giving incoherent directions to their Ubers in their choicest assortments of glittering accessories and shiny shoes – the cobblestone houses and boarded-up shop windows of wee Kirkwall creak under the pressure of boots laced with mud and sputum of hundred-strong opposing scrums (literally) fighting over a ball.

The two teams called “Up-the-Gates" (uptowners) and "Doon-the-Gates" (downtowners) are comprised of almost every able-bodied denizen, numbers usually amounting to hundreds. The stadium is the entire town, the goals are historic landmarks set miles apart, and there are certainly no red cards.

If the fishermen Doonies get the ball to their goal, which is the harbour, it’ll be deemed as per local custom, a good year to be fishing. If the Uppies, who are mostly farmers, are to get the ball to theirs, it is believed that the year will bring good crop, particularly potatoes.

The medieval mob game of Kirkwall Ba is said to be the progenitor of football – a far cry from the snood-wearing ferryloupers (outsiders) who throng the modern game with diabolical dexterity and devilry. However, depending on where and whom you’re having your drink with, the origins differ: If you’re sipping Sake in a smoky shack in Kyoto, it’s Kemari that may have inspired football; if it’s a glass of Horchata, you’re hoiking at high-noon in Guadalajara, it was the Mesoamericans who laid the foundations; or if you’re in a pub in Naples, you’d be advised to agree that it was indeed the military game of Calcio, with their tactical lines of four, that deserves the honour.

Award-winning football historian Jonathan Wilson. Coutesy: Facebook.com/jonawils

Award-winning football historian Jonathan Wilson. Coutesy: Facebook.com/jonawils

Yet, no one quite embraced the legendary Bill Shankly’s philosophy like the Mayans did, where the losing captain had his head chopped off – the game was indubitably “a matter of life and death.” It’s fitting then that multi-award winning football historian Jonathan Wilson’s mastery of the eclectic is inspired by equally diverse sources.

Evidence of this particular aptitude is found all across Jonathan Wilson’s articles, which get featured on The Guardian, Financial Times, Sports Illustrated, The Daily Telegraph, but none more so than in his books namely Inverting the Pyramid which has won the Premio Antonio Ghirelli Prize, NSC Football Book of the Year, and the Football Supporters Federation Award for altering the way the game is perceived among the general public.

His latest offering, Angels With Dirty Faces, a book on Argentinian football has raised the bar even higher, and could very well be one of the most extensively-eclectic books on football culture (find out more in the first-half of the interview).

The author speaks to Firstpost in the final part of the two-part series; this time about his sources of inspiration, the lessons in sports journalism, new-age fan culture, misjudgement of managers among other matters.

FP: As an impressionable football journalist hopscotching through Europe, who would you say were your key influences on your football writing?

JW: Brian Glanville – you know, he sort of… invented English football journalism. Well, that’s not quite true, there were probably a couple before him who clearly influenced him! He did more than anybody else to create that landscape. He’s 83 or something now, he’s still seen at games! He’s obviously a massively influential figure.

David Goldblatt, I think, is brilliant. Again, he’s not a football writer, per se, he’s a historian who happens to write about football. His capacity to explain quite difficult and complicated ideas in very understandable, simple language is hugely admirable. His way of seeing football, in a wider context I think is something everybody can learn from.

FP: Oftentimes, journalists get stuck in their daily routine, too tired to pick up a book by the end of it, let alone write it. How much of your success is down to a conscious routine of self-replenishment?

JW: It’s something I’ve tried to do recently, try and read two or three poems a week. I’m an English graduate, I got a Masters in English, and I found that I haven’t been reading enough good English. I believe, the better things you read, the better your writing becomes.

I can’t remember who it was who said this, and it’s not my idea, but what he said was – what you read is the compost that the plant grows from, you read and it sticks inside you and it ferments, and those are the nutrients you draw on for your own writing. TS Eliot, Philip Larkin are my two favourite 20th century poets.

I try and read as much as I can and as many genres as I can. But I also try and read more literary literature. There’s a really good podcast called the Backlisted, which happens once a fortnight, it’s very good for someone like me who has had a background in literature, they remind me of the people whom I haven’t read for a while. There’s JL Carr, he actually wrote a better football novel, he’s someone who is interesting.

To be honest, my inspirations in writing terms aren’t necessarily football people. Bruce Chatwin, who is an awful man, but a brilliant writer. He clearly has relevance to Argentina with his In Patagonia. Chatwin is somebody who stylistically, I admire a lot.

Jonathan Coe, the novelist, I’ve read all of his books apart from his most recent one. He is someone really under-rated in Britain. He’s more highly-regarded in France than he is in Britain. But, he’s really, really good. The great thing about him is that he’s very readable.

It’s an under-rated skill, you know, in making your work readable. Make people want to read the next paragraph and then the next page. There are obviously cheap ways of doing that, have your little tricks or whatever – but he does it simply by having a great plot and a flow of writing. His writing is a lot clever than what he’s given credit for.

FP: How does one strike a balance between research and writing?

JW: I’ve freelanced when I was younger – I had a lot of control over my time. When you’re writing a book, it’s very helpful. As soon as you’ve got a contracted job at a newspaper, you’re on call most of the time.

I don’t have a family, which makes it easier for me, I think. I think you have a family? So, you obviously have more calls on your time, and other responsibilities. I’m somebody who naturally enjoys work. If I retired tomorrow, I’d probably write books for fun. I’m very lucky that I do a job, which is what exactly I’d be doing if it wasn’t my job, and then get paid for it.

You’ve got to be very aware of people’s circumstances – and everyone has to find a right balance between doing something they enjoy, doing something that makes money, and then balancing that with all the responsibilities they have.

FP: Could you name three young players in the Premier League who could burst onto the scene – names that we may have not heard of?

JW: I’m slightly disappointed that James Ward-Prowse of Southampton hasn’t gone on to do more. I’m looking forward to how he kicks on.

People speak very highly of Harry Winks of Tottenham, Pochettino definitely being one of them.

Joel Asoro – who is this Swedish kid – is someone who is very highly spoken of in Sunderland. He is a centre-forward, who has got loads of goals for the reserves. He’s this sort of big, quick and strong player. I haven’t seen huge amounts of him, but people whose judgement I respect say he’s pretty good. So, Asoro, Winks and Ward-Prowse.

FP: In your opinion, who would be some of most the tactically astute managers in European football?

JW: Depends on what you mean by tactically astute. There are managers who have a philosophy – they devise a way of playing, so it’s a broad-brushed approach. Then, there are managers who can change things around the pitch and effect the match. Guardiola fascinates me, you never know what you’re going to get with him! Every game, there’s a chance that something surprising happens. His mind is fascinating.

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp. Reuters

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp. Reuters

I think what Jurgen Klopp is doing with Liverpool is fascinating, just because of the pace and the energy – the thrilling side of football. At the same time, I’ve got enormous amount of respect for Tony Pulis. He does his own thing, and is effective with it. I believe it’s easy to get snobbish about this and to think that only the managers at the top end of the game are worth talking about and are worth watching.

And obviously, if you give them better players, it makes it easier for them to be more experimental and adventurous. But I think the Tony Pulis brand of managers should be respected as well. You could talk about Thomas Tuchel as well. But you know, the Premier League is quite good at the moment. The great thing about the Premier League at the minute is that we have six exciting top-level managers (and okay, one of them, Jose Mourinho is struggling a bit). But, I think this is the golden age of the Premier League, it’s going to get worse. I don’t we will ever have as many exciting managers that we have got in here.

FP: Fan culture has changed certainly with the advent of social media, offering ready opinions with very little introspection. What’s your take on it?

JW: It’s something that happens with fans all over the world, but there’s a huge amount of blinkeredness. It’s something we talk about quite a lot, journalists – probably just the ones we come across – that some of the fans who aren’t English, come across as slightly insane - the ones we meet!

Now, you write something about, you know, Zlatan playing very badly on Saturday or whatever, and you suddenly get this deluge of people on Twitter, criticising you for having dared criticise a Manchester United player! Then, you get a sense that Manchester United fans who don’t come from Britain – hang on, I’m saying Manchester United, but it could be any club – so, they feel the need, sort of, to show what a great supporter they are, by taking their club’s side and never allowing criticism being passed. It’s really not an Indian thing – it’s American, it’s Japanese, Nigerian, e.t.c. - but you do get a sense that the fans that aren’t from the country feeling that they need to prove their support rather more.

Support whoever you want, but have an open mind accepting criticism when your team doesn’t play well, on occasions your team does things that are bad, that are wrong. And you saw it, with you know, Luis Suarez and the whole racism thing with Liverpool – people from all over the world are slagging you off for criticising Suarez for something that is clearly despicable.

You know, it happens with Real Madrid and Barcelona as well – I’ve seen Sid Lowe tweeting this every now and again – he gets people lecturing him on Spanish Civil War and how significant it is to modern Spanish football. People who you know have never been to Spain – and Sid’s got a PhD in Roman Catholic Church and the Rise of Fascism in Spain in the 1930s.  I’m sorry, but nobody knows more about Spanish Civil War than him! He’s lived in Spain for God knows how long!

So, be open-minded, don’t just think you have to defend your team at all costs, and admit that your team maybe wrong sometimes.

Jonathan Wilson is one of the most respected historians of the beautiful game and has written eight critically-acclaimed football books. His newest book, Angels with Dirty Faces, is available in stores. He tweets @jonawils.


Updated Date: Jan 10, 2017 12:18 PM

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