Author of the seminal work ‘Inverting the Pyramid‘ and editor of The Blizzard, Jonathan Wilson is one of the most influential voices in British football journalism. He talks to The Set Pieces about his background in the industry, his concerns about the value of sports journalism degrees and why he feels that his most well known book is sometimes misunderstood.
Jonathan, let’s start with the important stuff. Is it true that you were the Sunderland researcher for Championship Manager 2 back in the 1990s?
Yes. I was working for ‘A Love Supreme’, the Sunderland fanzine and the makers of the game approached us looking for a verdict on the squad.
Did you ever abuse your position?
In what sense?
Giving the Sunderland players higher ratings?
The only player I think I might have overrated was Dicky Ord. But if he hadn’t got a serious knee injury…
He’d have been somebody?
Yeah, he was a very very good player. He was young, and the knee injury destroyed him.
Did you pick out any rising stars who went out to be incredible?
No, I was doing the Sunderland team.
Martin Smith got really annoyed at me because I said he couldn’t head. Weirdly, Martin Smith now plays for the five-a-side team that the Blizzard sponsors, so at least that bridge has been unburned.
So how did you go from fanzine writing to journalism?
To be honest, I never really considered becoming a journalist. It just seemed like a bit of a laugh. But when I was at university there was a lad in the year above, a guy called Simon Hooper and he started doing some stuff for Match of the Day magazine. They started giving me freelance work as well and it went from there. I moved to London in 1999, signed up for a three month journalism course and that was a waste of time. I gave myself a fortnight to apply for jobs and then I was going to have to start doing temp work. On the Thursday of the second week, I went for a meal with some friends and one of them brought along her new boyfriend, an internet millionaire. That sort of thing happened a lot in 1999. He pointed me towards OneFootball, which was recruiting. I emailed on the Friday, interviewed on the Monday and started on the Tuesday. I was very fortunate.
The heady days of the dot-com boom. Did you feel like you were on the crest of a new media wave?
No, I was just young and cheap. And then it all went under after the World Cup in 2002. Fortunately the writing had been on the wall for so long, I’d prepared contingencies. I did a year at the the News of the World.
You must have learned a lot there, and very quickly too.
You learn how a newspaper works. You learn what pisses the subs off. You learn how to make copy really tight. You just learn the mechanics and the environment. And you learn about bollockings. You know that it will land on somebody within the next hour and you’re just praying it’s not you. It keeps you sharp. And it paid really well too. And then I became the football correspondent at the Financial Times.
That’s an odd move, isn’t it?
Yep. It elevated me far too quickly. I was in Mali for the Cup of Nations 2002 and the bloke who was doing it for the FT didn’t know how to use email, so I was doing his emailing for him. He went home midway through the tournament. I emailed their editor and offered to carry on and that’s how I got my foot in the door.
What was it like being on the circuit for the first time, covering Premier League games?
Well, it’s terrifying. I wasn’t really equipped for it. I didn’t know the politics, I didn’t know the ins and outs, I’d skipped a whole load of levels. I went from being a nobody to being a correspondent, albeit only for a newspaper that wasn’t really known for football coverage. That was quite an intimidating thing.
Did you find anyone there to help you?
Yeah, some people were very helpful, some less so. Even the people who weren’t helpful, I don’t really blame them. It’s a high pressure job where understandably there’s a desire to protect your own, and it’s quite a closed world at times. If some kid suddenly turns up demanding access of course it’s annoying.
Who were the helpful people?
Kevin McCarra was great. Henry Winter, Steve Tongue and Richard Williams, they were very kind.
Do you try and do that yourself now when you see new faces?
There are so many new faces now that it’s difficult, but you try. Mind you, some kid rabbiting away in your ear when you’re trying to work is really annoying.
You’ve lectured on journalism, haven’t you?
Yeah, and I regret doing that.
I really regret doing the second year. The first year I could excuse by saying I didn’t really know what I was doing. The second year, while a few were very good, I knew that the vast majority of people in that class had no hope of making it and I don’t think that the advice and the education given would help them. In a way, it was a bit of scam.
Do you think that description applies to a lot of sports journalism courses now?
Yep, I absolutely think that.
Because of the tuition fees?
I just think a lot of the lecturers, some are very good, but a lot of them I don’t think have any sort of handle on the reality of what work in the profession is. And I think the profession has changed so much and so quickly that a lot of people are left behind. Also, who’s actually lecturing on those courses? A lot of them are just failed journalists.
I’ll give you a classic example from the journalism course I was on. One of our assignments was to write a piece as though the feature was for a magazine. I was freelancing for the Match of the Day and they had asked me to go to the Wirral where Jason McAteer coached his brother’s Sunday League team. Jason McAteer is a lovely bloke and was quite happy to do it. I went up and spoke to him, spoke to his dad, his brother, others on the team and I wrote the piece. Match of the Day magazine ran it and they were very happy with it. I handed it to my lecturer and was told, “No, this isn’t the sort of thing Match of the Day magazine would publish.” You know, if you’re that wrong, what are you doing?
When did you hit on the idea of Inverting the Pyramid?
It must have been late 2005 when I wrote a big piece for FourFourTwo on the history of tactics. It was huge, 10,000 words and it ran over two issues. I was there with my editor and my agents having lunch, we were talking about other ideas for what I could do. I realised while researching and writing it that it could actually be much bigger and there wasn’t a huge amount of material out there.
There wasn’t a lot of tactical writing out there at the time, was there? With the obvious exception of Ron Atkinson’s tactics corner in The Guardian.
Andy Gray had done a book which was all right, but it hadn’t gone into the cultural, the social or socio-economic forces that shaped tactics. I realised that this was possible and I suggested it to my editor. He told me that he had commissioned a history of tactics several years earlier from Peter Ball, the old Times journalist, and he had died while writing it. The bloke who did the diagrams died before finishing them as well.
Did that fill you with confidence?
Ha! I was a young and arrogant man in those days!
You had fun writing it didn’t you?
Yeah, it was brilliant. I got to the point where I stopped caring about the money and was like, right I’ve got to go to Argentina, I’ve got to go to Brazil, I’ve got to go to Ukraine. I’d never been to Argentina before and I’m hugely glad that I did, it’s a country I absolutely love. I had a huge amount of help from people all over the place – particularly Argentina, Brazil and Russia.
Did you ever think, “A history of tactics…is anyone actually going to buy this?
I didn’t care by the end. I’ve never been as excited by anything I’ve ever done. The last two or three months I was waking up at five in the morning and being sick. I was so nervous about not fucking it up.
Did you know how big it was going to be?
No. It’s weird. It’s now a set text on the Norwegian FA’s coaching course. I go over and give lectures and you’re sitting there and you see Egil Olsen staring back at you. Egil Olsen was interviewed for the book and then I’m there lecturing him. So that kind of thing was very strange. Sales figures take so long to come out. I think the moment that I realised that I’d got it right was when I was sitting on a plane and I overheard two journalists sitting behind me talking about it and they didn’t realise I was sitting in front of them. That was a very pleasing moment.
How does it feel to have set a trend for a generation of bloggers?
Very frustrating to be honest, because people keep on misquoting or misunderstanding me. People seem to believe that I think tactics are the only thing worth talking about and that’s not the case at all. I think tactics were underrepresented in the British media, I think in the blogosphere now they’re massively overrepresented. I don’t think you can separate it out, it’s not that tactics exists outside of motivation, ability, physicality, fitness. All those things intertwine. Tactics might be the skeleton but it’s pretty useless unless you’ve got blood and muscle, organs and skin.
Do you think it has gone too far the other way? For example Tim Sherwood’s strengths have been diminished because he’s not seen as being tactically shrewd.
Yeah I don’t think Sherwood an idiot by any means. He never talks about tactics, and in that respect he’s from the traditional English school of Harry Redknapp and Brian Clough. People who clearly knew what they were doing up to a point, but maybe weren’t the most sophisticated. Clough was always very scathing when people talked about tactics in public. I’m not certain whether he felt the public weren’t really interested or that he didn’t want to alienate his audience. But Clough was incredibly tactically astute, and the way he put teams together, certainly in the 70s was incredibly clever. The mockery of Sherwood isn’t just because of his apparent tactical naivety, which is probably overstated anyway, it’s also because he says ridiculous things in press conferences, and does things like checking his own pulse after a goal.
Do you think there is a blend of attributes that a football manager needs?
No, I think there’s many ways to skin a cat. There’s all kinds of ways to do it, I don’t think Fergie was particularly tactically astute, and when United did do things tactically in the latter stages of his time, it was because of Carlos Queiroz. But Fergie’s clearly one of the greatest managers ever. Clough again didn’t do anything particularly difficult tactically, but he’s one of the greatest managers ever.
Is that one of the things that makes football great? That there is no perfect formula?
Yeah, certainly. You see that with a lot of statistical analyses of football. You know they had 67% of possession but they lost 2-0 because they didn’t do anything with it. People cite the 67% figure as if that was a guarantor that they were the better team, but you can play without the ball as well as with the ball. Both are legitimate.
That’s one of the things that frustrates me with the perception of modern football. People who refuse to see a value in defending and think that the only legitimate football is attacking football. The U20 World Cup in Colombia in 2011: England got criticised for drawing all three group games nil-nil and going through. What people didn’t realise is that England had gone through so many players because clubs had withdrawn them. Then they had injuries on top of that. They played in extreme heat and humidity. They had to play a really good Argentina side. Goalless draws were really good results. One of the coaches was saying, “Look, I’d love to play attacking football but do people really want to lose every game 3-1?”
How is The Blizzard going after four years?
It’s going well. The subscriber base continues to slowly grow, we’ve made changes to the website which has had a positive impact in terms of sales. We’re learning all the time how to drive traffic, how to monetise the traffic, all those things. You have to figure out how to make money or people will stop writing. I’ve learned as an editor that getting the pieces right is very important, the mix of seriousness and analysis, the mix of the obscure and the slightly more mainstream. The process by which the magazine is put together is a lot slicker than what it was, in terms of copy editing, subbing, proofing and selling it on the page. What did take several weeks now takes several days.
Our remit was never just to make money. Money has to be part of it because it’s not a charity and we’re not volunteers, but we wanted to provide an outlet for quality football journalism that for whatever reason couldn’t be found in mainstream media. In that sense The Blizzard has two aims. One of them is to produce content that we’re proud of that would not otherwise see the light of day and the other is to make the money to be able to do that. At the moment, we’re succeeding.
You can follow Jonathan Wilson on Twitter (@jonawils)
You can check out The Blizzard’s gorgeous new website here.