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In conversation with Jonathan Wilson

Award-winning football writer Jonathan Wilson talks to Maurício Alencar about the cultural phenomenon that is the 90-minute game.

CW: mention of violence

Filing through untouched archives in Ghana, committedly searching for the name of a football manager’s wife for over a decade and a eureka-moment after having drunk a couple of beers- these are but some of the ways to sum up football writer and journalist Jonathan Wilson’s career so far. He has written popular books such as ‘Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics’ and ‘The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper’, but perhaps most significantly of all, Jonathan Wilson founded ‘The Blizzard’, a football quarterly magazine which shares more “obscure” football stories. The Blizzard gives a new space for journalists to reveal unfound perspectives and to uncover every aspect of the game, however arcane that article may be. Articles in the magazine often reminisce about the historical moments of the game, or they might explore and contextualise football against various ongoing world affairs- from Thatcherism to climate change. I would personally say that Jonathan Wilson has been key in spearheading a change in how we go about treating football; that is, in his words, “to study it a bit more seriously”. 

One of the things The Blizzard prides itself on is its “long read” articles. The Blizzard’s writers don’t have to face the constraints of strained 300-word limit articles. I asked Wilson what it was exactly that had caused him to create a magazine that treats all matters of football in depth. He told me that he had been interested in doing a piece on Steve Mokone in 2009, who was the first Black South African to play in Europe. Steve Mokone, as Wilson explained to me, later became a professor of psychology in Canada. Mokone was jailed after he was convicted of throwing acid at his ex-wife – he has always maintained his innocence. This led to letters being sent from South African authorities to the CIA trying to get him out of prison. Jonathan Wilson wanted to be able to write a long article on it. “The problem was newspapers didn’t have space. It’s a story that requires a couple of thousand words to tell it properly,” he tells me. The creation of The Blizzard would allow for Jonathan Wilson to break free from the confinements of mainstream media- a freedom to write at any length. 12 years on from 2009, “long read” articles are more common across different newspapers and media companies. He gave a small, nervous laughter when he realised that this USP of his quarterly magazine is not as powerful as it had once been. 

That was not the only thing that urged Wilson to found The Blizzard: the very idea of the Mokone article was rejected ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. “I was pitching that around to magazines and the story I kept getting back was that ‘no, that story is too negative, our advertisers won’t like this’, which just struck me as being preposterous. Our job as journalists should not be to bow before advertisers.” 

Jonathan Wilson had had enough. In 2010, he was back at Fitzgerald’s pub on Green Terrace in Sunderland. Sunderland thrashed Bolton 4-0 with a Darren Bent hattrick that day, he fondly remembers. “I had a couple of pints,” he recalls as he clenches his fists and prepares to theatrically throw punches into the air, “and I was sort of like ‘what we need, what the writers need- we need to take control! We need to bypass all the middle men, all the managers and all the advertisers! We need to have a magazine that is of the writers, for the writers- and we share the profits, and even if there aren’t any profits- at least we’re doing what we want to do!’” His revolutionary beer-talk quickly turned into genuinely making arrangements with his boyhood friend, who was a designer and publisher, for the creation of the magazine. “The idea was essentially to give a forum for writers to write about topics that were either too obscure or too difficult or they needed a piece of too much length to be done in the media that existed in the time.” 

Jonathan Wilson, an alumnus of Balliol College, began his trade doing sports journalism for The Oxford Student, writing alongside comedian and cricket pundit Andy Zaltsman. After he found that “it became a real slog” to follow the top Premier League clubs every weekend while working for The FT, he turned to more hands-on research. The “boring” reporting of “a bloke talking to a room full of other blokes” at press conferences was replaced with “going through old archives, going through graveyards, going through the card index to find where this guy’s buried or where his son’s buried”. 

Speaking on the nature of his job as a researcher, he tells me, “you’re finding 20 people in Budapest with the same name, you’re emailing them all, you’re ringing them all: ‘are you this one?’, ‘was your mother this woman?’, ‘was she married to him?’. 19 of the 20 say ‘no, sorry’, then you find the right one. That’s what research is- sifting for ages until you find the nugget, and that feeling when you find the nugget is just a glorious moment.”

Wilson shared with me an example of the lengths he goes to in search of his discoveries. “Imre Hirschl, who is a bloke I had been chasing for like 15 years,” Wilson reveals to me, “was born in Apostag, which is just 60 miles south of Budapest in 1900- even to find that took 14 years, because he had lied about his background. He is hugely influential in Argentinian football, and in Uruguay’s World Cup win in 1950. But because he bulls***ted about his background, it was very hard to find any information. He appears in Hungarian papers only twice- once when he got married in 1923 and once in 1928 when he showed journalists around his salami factory- that was his job, he was a salami salesman. He wasn’t a football coach, which is why he lied about it to the Argentinians- to get a job. I didn’t know who his first wife was. I knew he had married in 1923, so I had the name Erzebet, but by searching through various records, eventually a mate of mine based in Budapest rang me one night. I had just come back to the hotel, around 10 o’clock, just about to go to bed, phone goes and my mate goes “ah, I think I found her. I think I got her maiden name.” For years I had on my laptop these passenger manifests from ships going from Cherbourg to Genoa to Santos in Sao Paulo. I knew that was the route Hungarians took. I thought, just before I go to bed I’ll have a skim through these [manifests] and see if I can find Erzebet Bayer anywhere. So I looked through the passenger manifest that Hirschl was on going to Santos, and she’s not there. And then literally the next one I opened: passenger 1 – Bayer, Erzebet. For more than a decade, I’d carried this around with me. In 2 minutes, I’d gone from not knowing who she was to having the proof that in 1931 she had taken this boat and gone to Buenos Aires. Those are the moments you live for.” 

Right as we think we are losing touch with the overly-commercialised game, Wilson’s fairytale-like stories in his books or articles are a breath of fresh air; learning about the roots of the game provide us with some structure and reasoning for why football is so universally adored. However, Wilson’s own love affair with football has altered in some small ways in recent times. With every top-flight match being televised due to the pandemic, “something quite strange has happened”. He compares his relationship to what goes on in the Indian Premier League. He explains, “So often, it will come to mid to late afternoon and I’ll be flagging a bit. So, I’ll turn on the telly because it’s nice to have something in the corner of the room even if I’m still doing work. The IPL is perfect for that. I love it, I think it’s brilliant, and I have very little idea of what’s going on in it…  I’m watching it and I don’t really think of league positions. I’m just sort of thinking: ‘oh look, there’s Jofra Archer bowling to David Warner! Oh, he’s got him out again! Brilliant!’” Comparing a day-long game of wooden sticks to relatively short football matches sounded troubling to me at first. What it seemed Wilson was getting at was that he was virtually uninterested in having to know every detail of every action that occurs in cricket. Football must continue to be the sport of ‘unmissable live action’, I told myself, it cannot be that football becomes anything like the day-long game of wooden sticks and balls being chucked around… He continues, “I’ll put on tomorrow’s 6 o’clock football game and I will vaguely pay attention. I don’t really know what a win for either side would mean for [the football] Premier League positions because you don’t need to know that. It’s not like when you had 8 games happening on a Saturday, and at 5:30 you got a league table and that actually meant something- the league table will have changed by tomorrow. And so, I’ve started to view the Premier League in the way I view the IPL, in this sort of dilettante-ish way, which is a very odd thing.” 

Wilson is very likely not to be the only football fan that feels this growing background sense of disillusionment, particularly with no fans inside any stadium. Match-going fans will certainly be missing that 3:00pm match day experience. The pandemic has really hit hard on fans, it goes without saying. On the flip side, while it is true that some Premier League clubs have certainly struggled, they might just have found that real punch which could help bring in greater revenue in the long term, according to Wilson. “My suspicion is that this is probably how we’re going, I don’t really see who in the league benefits by not having all the games on TV… The people who lose out are people in the lower leagues,” predicts the award-winning writer.

Jonathan Wilson’s worries for the future of football go beyond the problems of TV rights in England. He also told me he is worried about FIFA’s ambitious plans to reform club football at continental and international levels. This was a problem that was close to me. At the end of each year, I face some of my Brazilian friends and bicker about how credible or important winning the Club World Cup is from an objective standpoint. So, when I asked Wilson whether he believed any future Club World Cup could work, he regrettably answered “it needed to be introduced in a proper form 50 years ago”. He explains his reasoning in greater detail, “Good football is two evenly matched teams. A Club World Cup will have a huge number of mismatches. There’s no real way round that without artificially enhancing the big African clubs, or the big Asian clubs, or the big Oceania clubs, or the big South American clubs.” 

There is something quite fitting in that people across the world can have a conversation about football. Yet, the fact that conversation veers towards chat over European football is somewhat discomforting. While still remaining on this topic of a utopian world where a Club World Cup could really work, which would probably mean a world in which fans did not have to support a club in Europe in order to watch top-quality football, I asked him what he felt about Twitter’s impact on the footballing world. Twitter is a platform which connects the non-match-going fan to a club in another continent (Europe more often than not), and that fan has the equal right to express their opinion as the match-going fan who follows their club over land and sea. “I find it [a] really difficult [subject],” he contemplates for a while. “As a Sunderland fan, I grew up two miles from Roker Park, and every other Saturday of my adolescence I went to Roker Park. It was a huge part of my relationship with my dad and with the city. The only reason I go back to Sunderland now is to go to matches. At 1:30, I walk into the King’s Arms on a match day and I know [my mates] will be standing in that corner by the bar. Sunderland, the football club, seems integral to my identity in a way, for better or for worse, in a way that I emotionally find it hard to comprehend how a Manchester United fan in Beijing, for instance, can have that same connection. But then I listen to what I say, and I realise that these are really troubling arguments. It’s a very blood and bones argument, and I’m on the wrong side of that argument. The idea that this is some kind of exclusive club that only people born within 5-10 miles of Roker Park or who have a parent who support that club, that only they can be Sunderland fans is manifestly ludicrous and against almost everything else I stand for.” 

Wilson ponders on this matter for a while in our discussion. The question of what is truly wrong with supporting a football club on the other side of the globe remains. He reflects, “And then you extrapolate that and you think, well, say you are a Manchester United fan in Beijing, and for some reason age 5 you’ve decided that you are a Manchester United fan. Every time you’ve bought a shirt, it’s been a Manchester United shirt. You save up a little bit of money every week. Eventually, when you are 20 or 25, you have enough money for the trip of a lifetime to fly from Beijing to Manchester to go to Manchester United against Burnley, and this is going to be one of the great weekends of your life. People don’t have a right to say that he’s not a fan just because they happened to not have been born in Stretford. So, these are the tensions of globalisation. And what I find with football is that emotionally I’m on the other side of it to what I am on everything else. I guess that’s why I find football to be such a useful prism to view the world through.” 

Despite Wilson’s deeply truthful, sage and wisdomatic words, a discussion still remained on whether it is right for FIFA to inject money into certain clubs in order for football to become more international in some way at club level- a world in which the croaked, cockney-voiced man’s rule-of-thumb ‘support your local’ could feasibly be adhered to for all fans across the world. The problem of enhancing clubs within continents worsens some already-existent problems at a domestic scale, as Wilson warns me. After he tells me about the time he studied the rivalry between Asante Kotoko from Ghana and TP Muzembe from DR Congo, having searched through the archives first-hand (which were protected by a “bewildered kid in overalls”) from their African Champions Cup final meetings in the late 60s, Jonathan Wilson momentarily dreams that “the idea we could get something like that again is really appealing”.  And yet, unfortunately, Wilson comes to a painful conclusion: “If you just pump a million of pounds into TP Muzembe, for instance, they already win the league in DR Congo every season, and they’re just going to win it more easily because the gap between them and the rest is just going to grow. So who does that benefit? It doesn’t benefit the people who watch football in DR Congo. One of the things that makes football so appealing is these big rivalries. The economics of football means that the Club World Cup as it stands fulfils no function.” 

We had discussed a lot, but perhaps we still hadn’t found a reason as to why we should “study” football. I gave Jonathan Wilson a hefty task towards the end of our interview. “Define football,” I commanded. I had been keen to hear how someone who had really studied football on a global scale, someone who had gone through tiresome journeys to get the facts right, someone who really knew the ins and outs of the thing I loved most to summarise what that thing actually is. Growing up in a time where football had just begun to be properly thought about in an interesting way, as through Simon Kuper’s book Football Against the Enemy, Pete Davies’s book All Played Out, and Nick Hornby’s autobiographical essay/novel Fever Pitch, Wilson went one step beyond and chose to study football with real intent. He had gone through all those years of experience as a leading football writer to finally face this one gruelling question. So, after a couple of seconds’ silence, Jonathan Wilson answered: “Football is the most universal cultural mode. There’s pretty much nowhere in the world you can go to now where football hasn’t touched. There’s no reason other than snobbism not to study it in the way you would study theatre or music or literature.” 

Image courtesy of Jonathan Wilson.

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