Go into any bookshop – if you can find one these days – or browse the pages of Amazon and the like and you will be bombarded by an array of football books. You’ll encounter plenty of cash-in dross of course, but increasingly that is being outweighed by football literature of real depth and quality, such as The Blizzard.
There’s no question that over the last decade or so, we have been in the throes of a golden age for football books and at the forefront of it all is the incredibly prolific Jonathan Wilson, author of a string of sparkling tomes that cover the history of tactics, the England team, football in Argentina and Eastern Europe, a Brian Clough biography and the story of goalkeeping amongst others, as well as being the brain behind the excellent quarterly ‘The Blizzard’, of which more later.
By Dave Bowler
Wilson, among others, has brought real intelligence and forensic analysis to football writing, a real step forward from the past when football writing was largely, if not exclusively, restricted to relatively shallow ghosted autobiographies or collections of match reports to cover tournaments or seasons. The genius of Brian Glanville or Geoffrey Green and the acerbic iconoclasm of Danny Blanchflower aside, football’s library tend to pale when placed alongside the work done on the summer game by the likes of Cardus, Fingleton, Arlott, Swanton, Mailey et al.
It was always assumed that because of the slower, unfolding nature of cricket matches, it offered up more opportunity for reflection, for delving into personalities and therefore provided the chance for writers to stretch out in a way that the more hectic nature of football precluded them from doing. So just how have we seen this step change over recent times, what triggered that move towards this deluge of footballing literature that has characterised the 21st century
“I think you’re right, football writing was perhaps viewed as the poor relation to cricket writing 30 or 40 years ago but over the last 20 years, I think that’s changed.
“I think that’s partly because of a change in the audience and in the perception of the game. The gentrification of football through the ’90s and then beyond has been well documented and that certainly helped create a market for a more literary form of writing about the game and newspapers and publishers have picked up on that.
“Generally, the market for sports books has boomed over the last 20 years and football has been a big part of that growth. Of course there were good football books before 1990, but there have been far more since and they have found a receptive market, so once that success is generated, it becomes self-perpetuating and there’s a hunger for more of them.
“There are other changes too. If you go into the average football press box now and look at the people who are working there, you’ll see a lot of well educated people and they are the ones who possibly wouldn’t have gone into football journalism in the 1970s or ’80s. Of course, there was great writing previously, people like Brian Glanville for instance, but I think there’s a greater volume of it now and more appetite for reading it.”
What is startling in comparison with the days of 30 or 40 years ago is the appetite for reading about football from foreign fields, and not just about the games and the stars, but more specifically about the cultures that fostered the game and which it reflects in different lands. Wilson has contributed mightily to that with such works as ‘Behind The Curtain: Football In Eastern Europe’ and the newly minted ‘Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History Of Argentina’. They are fascinating works on lands and games that you and I might never see, but they play right into the heart of the ever increasing globalisation of our own individual worlds, even if we never leave our own front rooms.
“There is a much more global appreciation of the game now which has gone hand in hand with the availability of foreign football on TV. I remember how incredibly exotic it seemed in the early ’90s when Channel 4 started showing Serie A on a Sunday afternoon because Paul Gascoigne had moved to Lazio and there was suddenly a market for it. Yet now, if you have the right TV packages, you can watch football from a dozen different countries every weekend.
“Perhaps we’ve lost a little of the romanticism of the game because of that. If you go back to the World Cup in 1986, Josimar suddenly appeared from nowhere, this Brazilian right-back who used to bomb forward and smash shots from 35 yards that always seemed to fly into the top corner. He was only there because of an injury to Edson but nobody knew anything of him.
“Nowadays, we know so much that we can’t have that same kind of excitement about a new player emerging that way. If the equivalent of Edson got injured a fortnight before a World Cup, we’d know, ‘Oh, this kid Josimar will come in, he’s got a reputation for charging forward and shooting on sight’. There would be pieces about him in the press and he wouldn’t be a surprise any longer. Generally it’s a good thing that we are less parochial, more sophisticated perhaps, better informed, but a bit of the magic does go.
Football Against The Enemy
“But that greater knowledge of the world game is reflected in football literature now. Simon Kuper’s ‘Football Against The Enemy’ was ground-breaking in terms of opening the way for writing on foreign football, it was a great book. Yet if you read it today, things that I remember as being mind blowing back when it first came out, nowadays we would know as a matter of course.
But it was a milestone book and Simon deserves huge credit for it. It’s the same with some of the early histories of foreign leagues, they look very basic compared with what is going on now, but they were very necessary building blocks that we have moved on from since then.”
The other great leap forward in football writing is the way in which tactics have, if not replaced personalities, at least assumed similar importance alongside them in the lists of publications. Jonathan is right at the centre of that trend with his excellent history on the evolution of tactics, ‘Inverting The Pyramid’, a book which might be ripe for updating in the post-Euro 2016 era of 19% possession.
As with the interest in foreign football, Wilson sees this as a development of the post-Italia ’90 world, itself a watershed moment in football literature which unleashed the likes of Pete Davies’ ‘All Played Out’, Ian Hamilton’s ‘Gazza Agonistes’ and, of course, the ubiquitous ‘Fever Pitch’ in its wake.
“Books and articles on tactics are very much a thing that has come through more recently, there was little of that in the 1970s and ’80s. Again, the way we consume football is different and I think that was the problem the BBC had for a while with ‘Match of the Day’ one they’ve since resolved – when they were very basic because they were looking to address a mainstream audience and not put people off by getting too technical.
“By then, football fans were used to the much more in depth and sophisticated analysis they were getting from the likes of Andy Gray and then Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher on Sky. Once they started explaining certain concepts to people, once you had an hour long post-match inquest on games, supporters could see it in action themselves and that changed the nature of the discourse. Once a part of the fanbase became more educated, they naturally wanted to read more about it in those terms too.
“I think it’s a part of the change in television and the coverage of the games. That’s had a lot of negative effects on the game as we know, but there are positives too, simply in the detail it can afford to go into now.
“In the ’80s when there were four channels, I’d watch any sport that was on, largely as a substitute fix for football, just because it was sport, not because I cared about them. I’d watch show jumping, swimming, anything. But now, there is so much football available, why would I watch swimming any more? I can watch more football, in greater depth, I don’t need those other sports. Because of that, your knowledge becomes narrower but deeper.”
That shift in focus across the cultural spectrum has impacted on literature too, meaning that there are people out there willing to dig into articles and books about subjects that were once considered too esoteric to be worried with. Even so, there are still frustrations for the serious writer, frustrations that led to Wilson creating ‘The Blizzard’, a football quarterly, just over six years ago.
“It all began because I was very frustrated that a piece I’d written, I couldn’t place anywhere, and I was bitching and moaning about that. It was about Steve Mokone, the first black South African to play in Europe, and this was just before the South African World Cup in 2010. Newspapers said they didn’t have room, and it was a long story and in those days they were reluctant to give you the long form space, which has begun to change since then. Magazines complained it was a bit negative, the advertisers only wanted positive stuff about South Africa before the World Cup.
“I just felt that was a complete perversion of what journalism should be as I understood it, which is about telling important stories. The idea that an advertiser could say that it didn’t present the right image seemed so at odds with a story about a man who despite apartheid had had a professional career. In some ways, it’s a triumphant story, and then a tragic story because of what happened to him subsequently, so in the round, it’s simply a great human story. Why would advertisers have an issue with that?
“The more I moaned about it, the more other journalists raised their own similar stories. It also happened to coincide with my dad being very ill so I spent a lot of time back home in Sunderland. I was in Fitzgerald’s pub in Sunderland before a game against Bolton, banging on about this and a mate pointed out that his job is designing and publishing, so let’s do it. If journalists really care and are willing to take a risk and put out a story without any guarantee of money, if we are willing to become independent of advertisers, let’s give it a go.
“A year later it came out and we’ve been around almost six years now. I’m hugely grateful to the other journalists who took the risk and to the bank who did likewise and sales have ticked along ever since. They’re not startling, we won’t make a fortune off it, but it’s enough to keep going and hopefully it will grow to a point where we can reach more and more people and can continue to improve it.”
Still going strong with issue 22 ready to come out early next month, ‘The Blizzard’ has established a powerful reputation for the depth and breadth of its contents, covering all kinds of footballing bases and including one of the greatest sentences ever written about the game, a quote from Ajax manager David Endt when musing upon the likes of Dennis Bergkamp: – ‘The seconds of the greats last longer than those of normal people’. It’s worth a subscription for that line alone.
“The aim of The Blizzard has always been to be eclectic. We’re well aware that it’s rare for someone to pick up an issue and like everything in it, cover to cover. We don’t want a specific focus, we want to mix it up and have some stuff on English football, something on history, something on more fringe elements such as football in Kazakhstan or Morocco, light-hearted stuff, technical pieces, interviews, things that are quite academic, trying to reflect the multiplicity of football.
“There’s a million ways of looking at the game and so if you couldn’t care less about tactics, we’ll have something else, if you want to get into the real detail about a famous game, we have that too.”
The Blizzard operates into two market places. You can either buy it as a physical product or a digital download, based on a pay what you like philosophy. One of its great strengths, and a reason to support it, is the way in which it completely bucks the conventional digital wisdom that brevity is king. Nonsense.
“The digital age confuses me because people say it demands short, snappy pieces. But surely, being online means the length is irrelevant, you don’t have to fit into a newspaper or a magazine format. You’re not confined by a page, you’re confined by how long a story needs to be.
“Sure, if you are trying to read something on your phone on a busy train, maybe short and snappy is what you want. But a lot of people still like to read sitting back in the armchair in the evening with a glass of wine. Why aren’t we supposed to cater for those people as well, people who are probably more committed to reading things anyway?
“And if you are on a long plane journey, it’s great to pass that time by reading something longer form on a Kindle or an iPad. I’ve always thought that the great strength of digital is that it should give you freedom, not more restrictions. What that means is that if you’re doing a very simple news story, sure, tell it in 150 words, it’s enough. But if you’re doing something that’s more feature based, then let it breathe, give it the number of words it needs and deserves, whether that’s 1,500, 5,000, 10,000 whatever it is.
“At the same time, one of the things I was very keen on was that we should be a physical product as well as an ebook. Partly, I felt that our credibility would be enhanced by being a printed book. Over the previous ten years, so many websites have been set up, all very promising, all great ideas, but none had ever really worked out a way of monetising themselves or selling what they had. They all faded and died. And to this day, nobody knows how to monetise websites, they bring in nothing. If The Guardian can’t do it, who can?
“Partly to convince people we were serious, I wanted a paperback version, because otherwise we would be just another website amongst a million. Nobody had launched a paper magazine on football for ages, much less as a paperback book, so let’s buck that trend.
“We talked a lot about paper quality, the costings, the more I realised that actually, the modern world gives you the opportunity to be a luxury product that people want on their coffee table, that feels nice, and you can also cater for people who can’t afford that or don’t want it, but just want the words and you can give them that in digital form. You can hit both ends of the market, let’s not be confined by previous thinking.
“The worst thing we could have done would have been to do it on cheap paper stock and try to cut costs that way because it would have defeated the idea of producing something people want to keep and have on the bookshelves. One of the nice things when we launched was the number of people saying they loved the smell of it!
“Blizzard has proved that you can do it. Ok, it’s a profit-share organisation, at the year end, all the money gets shared out to the authors, it’s a zero balance operation. But if you’re creative and think of ways around problems, you can find solutions.”
You can find out more at www.theblizzard.co.uk