Jonathan Wilson: Tactical Analysis Boom
INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
When Jonathan Wilson released his history of football tactics, Inverting The Pyramid, he started something. Now, helped by the rise of Twitter and niche writing in general, tactical analysis is a more accessible part of the British football media than ever before. We asked Wilson about the boom…
Jonathan, Inverting the Pyramid charted the history of tactical development and appeared to have been at least partly inspired by Willy Meisl’s 1950s book, Soccer Revolution. Was Willy the first person to write about these matters for an English audience and to address England’s failure to keep up with other nations in a technical sense?
It goes back as far as things like the Dynamo Moscow tour in 1945, where there were these glimpses of evidence that other teams kept the ball better than we did and the feeling that actually that was quite important. It was the beginning of a realisation that we couldn’t just rely on physicality, and courage, and pride – all these ludicrous English terms.
But it was only the defeat to Hungary that really rammed that home. Even the 1950 World Cup, where we were defeated by the USA and just generally played really badly, has been overlooked, I think.
It was sort of a culmination of those things and then suddenly the defeat to Hungary shook England out of its complacency. You then had, over the next decade, a whole load of books and analysis written about what had gone wrong.
I guess you could argue that it started to happen in the decade leading up to 1966, especially after Brazil won the World Cup in 1958, which was helped by the fact that it was held in Sweden, so a lot of English journalists and a lot of people in English football went over to see it. This time it wasn’t on the other side of the world and they could actually go and watch. I think there was a realisation, then, that things had to change.
I think those books of the Fifties were answering a very specific need at the time and I guess you could make an argument that the type of writing that has been coming out over the last 10 years has been asking the question: “Why does English football always fail?”
Since Inverting the Pyramid, there has been a boom in tactical writing in English football media. Did you feel, when you started out to write the book, that we were lacking that core understanding of where and how tactics have developed, and was there an element of soul-searching, from the point of view of an English football writer?
I guess so. I don’t think I was the first to do it, or the cause of the boom, though. I think that was coming anyway and I was fortunate enough to ride the wave. Inverting the Pyramid stemmed from a piece I did for Four Four Two as early as 2005 or 2006, which was probably 10,000 words and ran over two issues. The fact they were prepared to give that much space to a piece on tactics suggests there was a general feeling that this was something interesting and something we don’t know much about.
Four Four Two is pretty mainstream, so they obviously wouldn’t go out on a limb and give you 10,000 words to write about something they thought no one really cared about. They were obviously convinced that there was a general interest in the subject. I think you could see that interest rising from the early-mid part of the last decade and tactical columns in the papers, by people like David Pleat and Stewart Robson, have been growing in sophistication and growing in number over the last 10 years as well.
In the last few years, there has been acceptance that you don’t have to be a manager or a former player to be able to write about tactics. Michael Cox is a great example of that – his reading of games is exceptionally good and newspapers trust that – in fact, when I talk to people in football, they pretty much trust him as well.
Michael Cox is also proof of another way into football writing, having effectively started a blog, in ZonalMarking.net, which has just grown and grown…
He is a great example of the democratisation of football writing. He had a great idea, he executed it really well and because of that and the fact that no one else was doing it, he found a gap in the market. I don’t think it was a cynical thing from his point of view; I don’t think he looked for a gap and thought, “I’ll fill that.” I think his interest just happens to be in an area where there was a gap and because he did it very, very well, loads of people went to the site.
So the site then became well known, the Guardian, ESPN and BetFair realised there was something worthwhile there and he became a mainstream figure.
That all happened very, very quickly because it is only about three years since he started the website. That is how quickly people can rise in journalism, in the age of the internet. The traditional route into journalism, of doing local paper work, learning the ropes and doing the beat by covering a few clubs in one area, before slowly making contact with nationals, is not the main route anymore. You can be catapulted from nowhere to being a mainstream figure.
There is no set strategic route for a budding journalist to take anymore is there?
There are a number of people – and I know I am not the only journalist who feels this way – who are asked again and again and again, by people at university or school, what they need to do to get into sports journalism. I just feel like saying, “Don’t do what I did!”
You are relying on a series of ludicrous coincidences to get that kind of opportunity. So I would say, in terms of a degree, do something that interests you and do it well. Read as much as you can and just hope things fall into place afterwards.
Going back to those tactical features and their growing prominence, it is fair to say that readers are engaged by them and that is something you can tell from the oft-maligned comments sections underneath the articles. Is that self-affirming or infuriating for a writer?
The problem with comments is that you get them from all corners. I don’t think any journalist minds being called up on a point, by somebody saying, “What about this..?” or pointing out when we get factual details wrong. We should be held to account and our argument should be there to be debated with.
The problem is that, a lot of the time, argument is submerged by comments from people who have not read it properly or who aren’t interested in the subject. I mean, if you’re not interested in tactics, why read a tactical piece? And why, having then read it, write a comment saying that tactical pieces are nonsense?
It would be like reading a film review and then writing underneath it: “I think films are rubbish.”
Don’t read it then – you don’t have to.
So, unfortunately, like a lot of others, I very rarely bother to read the comments now because of all the shit that I can’t be bothered to wade through.
It’s like going into a pub where there are 100 people and 10 of them are your mates, or people who treat you with a level of respect and engage with you, and the other 90 just want to hurl abuse at you. In that case, you don’t go to the pub.
What about feedback from professional footballers and managers – do they ever tell you that you over-think tactical matters, given that it may not be wise for a player to go into the same level of detail?
I remember talking to Ahmed Hassan, the great Egyptian player, about playing in a back three against one striker – or rather trying to talk about it – and just going around in circles for about 10-15 minutes, with him not really being able to understand what I was trying to say (or me not being able to articulate it properly). We never got anywhere and that is actually quite a common experience – you find it quite difficult to find the same register, or the same language, to discuss it in.
You hear talk about people like Brian Clough, or Joe Fagan, whose players always say, “He kept it very simple.” But if you look at Fagan’s diaries, it shows that what he told the players might have been very simple, but he actually had a very sophisticated and complex understanding of football. He had a great ability to break it down and give players one or two line instructions.
Some modern managers, like Andre Villas-Boas or Rafa Benitez, do go into more detail and do have dossiers and whatever, which I suppose started with Don Revie. But the gift of people like Clough and Fagan was to create an overall strategy (which pretty much came to be because of the players they had), work on it with them a little bit and then make tiny little tweaks here and there each game. So it seemed simple to the players but actually they had put together something much more complex.
If you’re a coach, I think there is a danger of over-complicating things. I’ve captained football sides and hockey sides and I may have a very clear idea in my mind of what I want the team to do, but I don’t explain that to the whole team: firstly because they are just bored by it and, secondly, because you don’t want them, with the ball at their feet, trying to think of the plan. You just want the players to do the things that they do.
I’m talking about the pathetically low level that I play at, where you don’t normally know who the other team are. But you might notice halfway through the first half that their left-back is really fast, so you just tell your right-winger to drop off a bit and get in his way. There is no need to explain the tactic to everybody, you just tell him that and it will happen.
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Kenny Millar: Football Manager Stole My Life
INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
Last summer, three Football Manager obsessives decided to write a book about the game that has captivated a generation of football fans. We asked one of them how the idea for a book came about, what stories they uncovered and which players agreed to be interviewed about their virtual attributes…
Kenny, to begin with, tell us how the three authors of Football Manager Stole My Life - Neil White, Iain Macintosh and yourself - came together to write the book?
I knew Neil White because we are both football writers up in Scotland. He owns BackPage Press, the publisher behind Graham Hunter’s book on Barcelona and a few others, and he came to me with the idea. He asked if I would help out and then he put it out on Twitter that we were working on this book, which is when Iain Macintosh replied saying, “Damn, I wish I had done something like that.”
He had pitched a similar idea to a publisher a few years ago and was knocked back, so when we saw his tweet we asked him on board. That turned out to be a masterstroke because he was great.
Did you think it would be a success?
From a business-sense point of view, it was a no-brainer really because you have an audience of 20 million people. More than that, it was a game that we grew up playing at the same sort of time and Iain was head over heels hooked on it.
So it seemed crazy that you have got all these books celebrating different cult items and there was a 20-million-strong group of Football Manager players out there that we could write one for. It was people who had played the game writing for other people that play it, so the reader was among friends.
How much research time was wasted by you regaling each other with tales of your best Football Manager games?
Well, Neil invited Iain up to Edinburgh, where I was living at the time, and we went out for dinner, where Neil basically just broke down the chapters – he was very much the brains of the operation. He asked me to go off and find 20-30 legends from the history of the game, he left the really zany, offbeat stuff to Iain and he had the bits of football fan fiction at the end.
I think we must have spoken about the book for about five minutes before it very quickly descended into us basically saying, “Oh, you signed him?!” and talking about each other’s Football Manager games. It was hilarious and, although it was a very, very informal meeting, I think we knew that we were onto a winner with the book.
My favourite player on the game when I was growing up was Tommy Svindal Larsen (above). Please tell me that he made the book…
Tommy Svindal was key to the book. He was someone that we managed to crowbar into the book after the initial deadline because I tracked him to a coffee morning in Norway that he went to.
I had three or four contacts for him that hadn’t worked until I eventually got hold of him really late in the day and he is actually running his own football club now, in the bottom tier of Norwegian football.
If you liked Tommy Svindal Larsen on the game, it is worth buying the book for that section alone because he is growing a football club from the grass roots up, playing in this purist Barcelona way. He really was an impressive guy to talk to.
Well, he did have 20 for Creativity, didn’t he?
He did have something like that, aye! But he was such an engaging guy and he knew all about the game, so it was an easy conversation to have with people like him, who knew what I was talking about. Having said that, even in a real life sense, he is a really interesting guy and he is worth tracking down for a feature in his own right because he is a deep-thinking, proper football man.
Were there any players who were completely unaware of their status as Football Manager legends or who were a little offended by the idea that people knew them more for their virtual ability than their real life achievements?
It is a difficult conversation to have with somebody that starts with, “You were good on a computer game 20 years ago!”
However, the very first player that I tried to get hold of was a Scottish boy called Alex Notman, who was at Manchester United and Norwich. I had a phone number, an email address and I sent him a private message on Facebook, but he just wasn’t interested.
Another two spring to mind that snubbed us. Mads Timm, another Manchester United youngster, was up for doing an interview, but as soon as he heard what it was about, he upped and disappeared! Then there was a Belarussian called Maxim Tsigalko, who is a very private guy – he retired early through injury and just doesn’t do interviews, which I could understand.
There was an Icelandic player called Andri Sigƥórsson (below right), who is the all-time best player on Football Manager, and now runs a bakery in Iceland. We sent emails, Facebook messages, got local journalists on the case, but he just wasn’t up for doing it, at all. I had a root around and I haven’t seen him give any other interviews on the subject and I even stalked his brother (who plays for Ajax) on Twitter, but that didn’t amount to anything either.
In general, the response was great – I think I contacted about 40 people and we must have used 30-something of them in the book, so the vast majority of players were right up for it. A lot of them had played the game themselves, so it was an easy sell for most of them.
Tell us a bit about the people who played the game so much, they lost large swathes of their lives to it?
I’ve seen book reviews where it has been called Football Manager Ruined My Life by mistake, which is obviously a Freudian slip on their part.
There was one guy who had split up from at least one wife and one other woman because of it. The last line of his contribution was along the lines of, “It all worked out well in the end. It just goes to show the right woman is out there for you.” There was something beautiful and, at the same time, tragic about that line.
There were 35 divorce cases but on the whole there was nothing too bad and the positive stories outweighed the negatives. One Football Manager addict just randomly got into following Sevilla off the back of playing as them on the game and he actually talked his way into a job as a translator at Sevilla… without speaking a word of Spanish! Then there were stories from guys serving in the army, in Afghanistan and places like that, who said that Football Manager would keep them going.
However, there was one guy whose friends at university staged an intervention, where they held him down and broke the disc in front of him! Three of them held in down on the bed – and he’s just a wee guy, so he must have put a lot into his protest – and they snapped it in front of his face. Thankfully, they took a picture of the intervention, which is in the book.
Were you surprised that people were able to put the game down and pick up the book?
I’ve had a few people say that the only thing wrong with the book was that it forced them to stop playing to read it. I told them we deliberately made it a light read so they can skim through it while the game is loading!
I am cold turkey myself. I tried playing the game when I started writing the book and it very quickly became apparent that the book would never get written if I didn’t abandon the game.
When I was at my worst, I would micro-manage; I would take charge of the reserves and Under-19s teams as well, just to make sure they were playing the same formation as my first team and so that I could bring through the kids. So I could identify with a lot of people in the book, but I never got to the stage of one person in the book, who would shake the bedroom doorknob before and after games, pretending it was an opposition manager’s hand. I never wore a suit for the Cup Final, either, which was another classic. There was even a dad who lined up his daughter’s teddy bears and gave them a press conference, but my favourite story is the guy whose team was playing away in Ukraine, so he opened all the windows and put on a big jacket!
You can buy Football Manager Stole My Life here, and follow Kenny Millar on Twitter @Kenny_Millar
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Palace And The Play-Offs: A History
WORDS: BRYAN DAVIES
Ahead of tomorrow’s Championship Play-Off final, a lifelong Crystal Palace supporter looks back on the Eagles’ incredible relationship with the Play-Offs, the unforgettable games, the disappointments, the euphoria of success and the emotions thrown up by this increasingly intense end-of-season contest…
Image: Tom Brogan (via Flickr)
The Football League Play-Offs are a curious beast. For some, it’s a second chance. For others, an unexpected bonus at the end of a slog of a season. For all, it’s an intoxicating blend of excitement, unbearable nerves and raw passion.
Monday’s Championship showpiece at Wembley pits Crystal Palace against Watford, bringing the Eagles a fifth appearance in the final as they gun for a fourth promotion to the Big League via the Play-Offs. Palace fans know more about the Championship Play-Offs than most, having appeared in them seven times to date. As Bryan Davies explains, it’s never dull…
1996 & 1997
Having won promotion to the First Division in 1989 with victory over Blackburn Rovers (in the days of two-legged finals and magnificent Brian Moore commentary and pre-cliche pitch invasions), my first active Play-Off memories come from 1996. Facing Charlton Athletic in the semi-finals, the away leg clashed with a christening, meaning some pals and I were forced to endure the game on television. Frightened by a calamitous start and early concession inspired by our giant Norwegian oaf Leif Andersen, we turned the match off. Then on. Then off again. It was off for a while, before one of our cohort had a non-specific “good feeling” – we equalised as soon as the picture flickered back into view. Cult hero Carl Veart won the match with a scruffy header about an inch off the floor, before an early Ray Houghton goal made the second leg a comfortable evening’s viewing from the Players Lounge where, (not very) excitingly, I had my photo taken with Bryan Robson and Richard Rufus, who was magnanimous in defeat.
I missed the final as I was on the traditional family holiday to Pontins in Suffolk (a much derided genre of holiday, but they were wonderful times – games of hoy, Donkey Derby, dancing to Black Lace songs, a day at Pleasurewood Hills… absolute dream). With perhaps naive optimism I settled down in my chalet for ITV’s coverage of the final against Leicester City. Leicester were the better side but it was a drab match – 1-1 after 90 minutes and still after 119. With penalties looming, Foxes boss Martin O’Neill replaced 5’10″ goalkeeper Kevin Poole with 6’8″ Zeljko Kalac. A bold move. Was he a penalty specialist, or perhaps O’Neill was banking on his daunting presence spooking Palace’s spot-kickers? It mattered not. Distracted by the substitution, Palace left squeaky cliche-bot Steve Claridge free on the edge of the box to famously shin home. A stunning conclusion. Kalac didn’t touch the ball, so I didn’t get to find out if he had a good touch for a big man. Heartbroken, I went out and played some seriously angry tennis, smashing the ball like Rafael Nadal gone nuclear. I hated football.
A year later and we were back at Wembley for the Play-Off final, and this time I was in attendance for the match with Sheffield United. After a bipolar season we’d finished sixth, and then took care of Wolves in a seesawing semi, winning 4-3 on aggregate. Memories of the final are sketchy. It was dull and it was boiling, and while it was magical to be at Wembley, the old place was looking and feeling tired. As the game entered the final 10 minutes at 0-0, the noise from the Palace end grew and grew and grew into something spine-tinglingly epic. In the last minute, a cleared corner found our inspirational skipper David Hopkin, who had scored plenty of vital goals that season. He took a touch, opened his body (not literally, Jamie) and looked to curl one… Boom. It was a sublime goal, and a sensational climax. We knew exactly how Leicester had felt the year before.
The culmination of a breathtaking narrative. After Iain Dowie’s December arrival and the birth of bouncebackability, Palace surged up the table from a lowly starting point to within touching distance of the end of season jamboree. Typically, despite Palace’s form, they somewhat stumbled into the Play-Offs. A meek defeat at a Highfield Road seemingly half-full of Palace fans (myself and friends in the home section ourselves) looked to have ended the dream, before a 90th minute Brian Deane equaliser for West Ham United at Wigan Athletic paved the way for Palace to finish sixth. By now the cover of the additional Palace fans was well and truly blown, and we were sensibly and politely escorted into the away end to celebrate with our brethren.
The semi-final against Sunderland was immense. Palace won the home leg 3-2 on a balmy Friday night in south London. Selhurst Park was absolutely rocking; I’ve never experienced a home atmosphere like it. My circuitous weekend took me home from university, back to university, back home, and then up to Sunderland for the Monday return. Five grown men sharing a Mini for hours was not a comfortable experience, especially as there wasn’t really a middle seat – more an ergonomically displeasing bump. Palace were excellent, but somehow 2-0 down at half-time. Things got worse when Julian Gray was sent off for a second yellow card. Game over. Or not. Darren Powell, a man dogged by injury, entered Palace folklore with a headed goal in stoppage time.
Extra time was ghastly to watch, my stomach twisted in all kinds of knots. The 10 men of Palace bravely held on to force penalties, reminiscent of England’s performance against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. Penalties. At the other end. Fans linked arms in solidarity. Sunderland went first: John Oster missed; Andrew Johnson scored; Tommy Smith scored; Dougie Freedman scored; Phil Babb scored; Neil Shipperley scored; Carl Robinson scored; Tony Popovic scored; Gary Breen scored; Shaun Derry – to win – missed; Jason McAteer missed; Wayne Routledge – to win – missed; Jeff Whitley missed; Michael Hughes – to win – scored. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Oh yes. Pandemonium in the away end, and some incredibly tender, passionate cuddles with complete strangers, as is the norm in such situations. What emotion and what belief. Somehow, we’d done it.
West Ham at the Millennium Stadium in the final. A glorious venue in a glorious city. The media and the bookies were convinced a West Ham win was a formality, as seemingly were the thousands of east Londoners clogging up the M4 in tacky limousines. Even though Palace were underdogs and I endured excruciating nerves, I sort of knew we would do it. I guess Palace felt a bit indestructible at that time, given what had gone before. Palace duly did do it, thanks to a Shipperley rocket from a couple of inches, some resolute defending and astute Dowie tactics, employing Derry on the left of midfield in place of the suspended Gray. The Hammers trudged home, cursing Deane for bothering at Wigan. Joyous red-and-blue scenes ensued, as did a cracking night out at a student bash in Cardiff. Great days.
(We’ve conveniently skipped over the semi-final disappointments of 2006 and 2008). So, Palace in pretty so-so form, against arch-rivals Brighton & Hove Albion, a side in terrific shape. It didn’t look great. That said, and despite all indicators, I had a slightly troublesome inner confidence about the tie.
A cagey first leg (0-0) left us with a Monday evening in May at the excellent but asymmetric Amex. 2,000 Palace fans in amazing voice; 28,000 Brighton followers provided with incredibly naff clap banners. Everything to play for. Palace were superb – excellent defensively, they passed the ball with élan and had an outstanding threat on the break. Wilfried Zaha was sublime and took his two goals expertly. The celebrations were perhaps as intense as anything I’ve ever experienced: an underdog victory in such a significant game, at your biggest rivals, inspired by an academy graduate – it doesn’t get much better than that. It was the perfect away performance, and Ian Holloway – often unfairly caricatured and criticised for his apparently limited tactical knowledge – got his gameplan spot on for the full 180 minutes. Two clean sheets were impressive for a side that had been struggling at the back. Holloway lead the dressing room celebrations, and the team was in the final once again – a first trip to Wembley 2.0.
The financial rewards for winning Monday’s final are staggering, and as much as I’m looking forward to the game, I’m also a bit petrified. Palace are run fantastically well these days, so a Watford win is by no means a disaster, but of course I’m desperate for a Palace victory. My confidence wavers from day to day, such are the fine margins between the sides. Whatever your thoughts on the ethics of Watford’s transfer policy, the two sides are well matched – sides who pass the ball and are potent offensively, particularly on the counter (you’ve all seen Watford’s third against Leicester, right?). It should be an attractive game for neutrals, in the best traditions of classics like Charlton 4-4 Sunderland (7-6 on penalties) and Swansea City 4-2 Reading.
Both sides are managed by men used to big occassions. Helpfully for Palace, Holloway has experience of both winning and losing Championship Play-Off finals at Wembley, so they should be perfectly prepared. Also helpfully for the Eagles, only one side has Zaha…
A huge Wembley occasion is a fitting finale for an exceptional Palace career. A player who thrives in big-match environments, a Zaha-inspired Palace victory would be the ultimate leaving present to top off the wonderful gift of his goals and performance at Brighton.
Win or lose, it will be emotional to see Zaha don the red and blue one final time. He loves Palace, and the fans, and we love him. Palace have nurtured him since he was a boy, and both sides will part with fond memories. Watching Zaha develop and thrive has been a complete joy, and he leaves – as most players do – with Palace forever in his heart. The second leg highlighted what Zaha is all about – directness, extraordinary trickery, sharp passing and defensive discipline allied with strength and growing maturity. His two superb goals highlighted his ever-improving finishing ability, and gave a flash of the future as he may well migrate to more central positions as he expands his game further.
Armchair critics point to a perceived lack of goals and assists, but Zaha will never be a player you can fairly judge with stats (the goals he has scored have been absolute crackers, mind). A rare breed in the often robotic world of modern football, he is a player who is most effective off the cuff; a player who will amaze you with the things he can do with a ball; a player who provides elements of fantasy – the sort of player who makes young boys and girls fall in love with football. With dedication to match stellar talent, he will only improve and flourish in the Premier League. If he is given an early opportunity at Manchester United I’m convinced he’ll take it and very quickly become a regular for club and country. Zaha could be the difference on Monday, and it would be an appropriate end to a wonderful season of domestic and international success for himself and his fellow academy graduates, who between them have won full international caps, the FA Cup (with the winning goal to boot), the League Cup, the Europa League and the Africa Cup of Nations.
Thank you, and good luck, Wilf.
Bryan Davies has also written a fine One Love feature for TheInsideLeft about supporting Crystal Palace and selected the best five young talents to emerge from Selhurst Park in My Five: Palace Youth Products
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Jonathan Wilson: The Rise of Long-Form
INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
With journals such as The Blizzard making waves on the football media scene, long-form writing about the game is enjoying great popularity. We asked the man behind that very periodical, Jonathan Wilson, how a media form restricting us to 140 characters has aided the growth of feature-length writing…
Is there an irony that long-form football writing is enjoying a boon at the same time that the most popular media format for spreading football news restricts its users to 140 characters?
I guess on the surface there is an irony but I think it is very readily explicable. Twitter is a fantastic medium for spreading news, spreading stories and, from a freelancer’s point of view, it makes life a lot easier because huge numbers of people now, rather than feeling committed to a particular paper, follow Twitter feeds. They know who they like, they follow them and they will click through the links – that is their way of getting news and, to be honest, it’s my predominant way of getting news now. I very rarely actually buy a paper, although I do look at the Guardian website two or three times a day. So, increasingly now, people follow a writer or organization they like and that’s how they consume their news.
What that means is that this previously quiet minority who write long-form suddenly have a way of exchanging information about their work – and it’s not just long-form, it’s all kinds of niches. The internet, generally, encourages niches and Twitter facilitates that process. I think, increasingly, all media is becoming more and more specific.
The Blizzard is arguably the leading example of long-form football writing. Do you take pride in the following the journal has developed?
I guess so, but I never really doubted there was an audience – I was always pretty sure there was.
Having said that, I fully understood why mainstream newspapers and magazines couldn’t do a lot of long-form stuff, because they work on much bigger budgets than The Blizzard works on.
The Blizzard was a gamble for everybody involved and the fact that writers were prepared to write essentially for free (or for no guarantee of money) allowed us to do it. If people had asked to be paid a set amount, we couldn’t have done it.
I think it has been a hugely positive thing and I think it’s great that people who want to write in that style, to that length, can do it.
It was the night that Sunderland beat Bolton 4-0, in 2010. We had a run of 108 days where we didn’t win a game, during one of our familiar mid-season slumps under Steve Bruce – in fact, we didn’t win a game with a yellow ball that season. Anyway, that was the game where the white ball came out again and we won.
I was back in the North East at the time because my dad was very ill and I spent just under three months up there. I was going along to the Sunderland games, as a fan and not as a journalist, and I remember feeling frustrated about not being able to place a particular piece about Steve Mokone, who was the first black South African to play professionally in Europe.
His story is just incredible – he ended up in jail in the US for throwing acid in the face of his ex-wife shortly after their divorce. There was a suggestion he was framed by the CIA and the South African security force because he was very pro-ANC. He was a very bright man; he was a professor of psychiatry, but he also spent seven or eight years in jail and he was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time I was looking to write the piece. Yet, before the World Cup in South Africa, I couldn’t find anybody who would take this story. I was hugely frustrated because it just seemed like a natural story to run at that time, but it was seen as being either too complex, or too dark, and nobody wanted it. I was raging about this.
I remember talking to Gab Marcotti, among others, around that time (although I’m not suggesting he was a co-conspirator) and he seemed open to the idea of a writers’ collective. Once I’d spoken to him and a few others, I started to plan it in my head and saying to myself, “This is what we need to do. We need to seize back power for the workers!”
So, on the night of Sunderland’s 4-0 win over Bolton, I was in Fitzgerald’s, in the Chart Room, on the back table, talking about it. A mate of mine from school suddenly said, “You know what I do for a living, don’t you?”
I said, “Yeah, yeah – you’re a publisher… oh, hang on!”
So we had a few more pints, watched the game, came back, had a few more pints and sort of thrashed out the idea.
Then, the next morning, I thought it still made sense and that it hadn’t just been the booze talking. I knew it was a good idea, but I also knew that it would take a lot of effort and a big commitment from him as well, in terms of diverting the energies of his company into something from which there was no guarantee of a profit. Over the course of the next year we did a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and eventually launched in March 2011.
Have you been surprised by the sheer amount of stories to come out of football and has running The Blizzard opened your eyes to just how diverse those stories are?
Er, yes and no. Generally, I think that almost anything can be interesting if it is well enough written. It frustrates me when people say, “I’d never read this book because I’m not interested in that.” How do you know if you haven’t read it?
I have no great interest in music, but I read Geoff Dyer’s book, But Beautiful because he is recommended as being a great writer and it is considered by many to be his best book. It’s about the beginnings of jazz, Mingus and people like that, and it’s a fantastic book. It actually blew me away because of the quality of the writing.
If it had been a technical jazz book, it would have been of little use to me because my knowledge isn’t good enough, but people with talent, trying to make the most of that talent and do something revolutionary are just fascinating and it was a great book.
That is true of anything. If you have got people striving to do something, that in itself is interesting. Of course, you could fall into the trap of just going, “Here’s a footballer who turned pro and here’s his background. Here’s another footballer who turned pro and here’s his background.” You want to avoid that, but there are enough different styles of piece on football that I doubt we are ever going to run out, to be honest. The world is big enough and there have been enough footballers.
Often, football is just an excuse to write about something else and I think one of the things we get wrong in the mainstream media (and I include myself in this) is that we don’t write enough about football and we write about the periphery. Equally, football can be a way of putting context on, for example, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, or what communism actually meant in practice. We have a piece coming up in Issue Nine with Lev Yashin’s widow and the thing that is striking about that is the day-to-day inhumanity of it all – the fact that every little gesture or favour that could have been done, wasn’t done. I think it’s very easy not to appreciate that; it’s very easy to look at communism as an economic ideal that failed and not actually realise the day-to-day human cost.
An interview like that exposes those things, but if you just spoke to a random old Russian woman, who would read it? It’s Lev Yashin’s widow and it gives you a context on it.
One or two other long-form friendly football journals have sprung up in the past couple of years. How long has this mini boom for long-form been in the offing?
There was Perfect Pitch, which only ran to four issues. Simon Kuper and Marcela Mora y Araujo were editors and that was excellent – if you look back at those, they were really high quality. They just didn’t have the marketing structure because without Twitter and the internet setup we have now, it was very hard to push it. They were only selling through bookshops and that’s very difficult – to get somebody to keep coming back every three months and buy something. The Blizzard is in Waterstones but only a small amount of our sales come from there and most come from people ordering through the website.
Without Twitter to remind people and without widespread use of websites I guess it was very difficult. The other advantage we have is that those people who can’t afford or don’t want to afford the hard copy can get The Blizzard in digital formats, which wasn’t an option in the Nineties.
So is the internet good or bad for publishing then?
I don’t think publishing, or the media generally, has quite worked out what to do with it yet. You keep hearing the arguments of how much e-books should cost and it seems to me that most of them are crazily overpriced. You hear people saying, “You’re selling the writer’s ideas, the writer’s words.”
You are, but printing on paper costs money, whereas digital formats cost nowt! So, initially we went into it with the mentality that we would do a print version for people who want the product, who want the tactility of it, to put it on the shelf and make it look nice. We advise people to pay £12 for it because we think that is logical and fair, but the minimum you can pay for it is £6, although we make next to no profit on it at that price.
After that, every digital copy we sell is a bonus. Obviously, if everybody paid a penny for it, the whole thing would collapse and it would be ludicrous, but we hope people do respect it enough to say, “Okay, there is quality content in here and it is worth us paying something.” But, equally, there is a value to letting people price it themselves.
Is that structure working?
Definitely. It’s slow growth, but it is growing. Year on year, we are selling more, although it goes up and down with each month. So, if we are doing that when economic times are tough, then I think that’s a hugely good thing.
What is the future for football writing in light of falling newspaper circulation and publishing profits?
It’s something I discussed in the Editor’s Note to Issue Seven of The Blizzard. You hear thing about newspaper sales going down, year on year, and people being laid off. Obviously some newspapers are going through a tough time at the moment with redundancies, independent bookshops are closing all the time and publishers are struggling.
As a result of all this, people are talking about the “death of written media” and I guess, in its traditional form, that’s true. But I think, if anything, the appetite for words, analysis and stories is greater than it has ever been – people just perceive it in a different way.
We are going through a revolution and nobody quite knows how it’s going to end up. While traditional media has every reason to be terrified and people with jobs on newspapers have every reason to feel worried, there are also people starting up new websites all the time and trying to work out how to monetise them.
I think people are working out how you can put in pay walls and how you can bundle things up and charge people for them. If the quality is there, I think The Blizzard suggests that people will pay for it – this isn’t something that can just be knocked up by a kid in a room with a wire feed, which is what a lot of websites are.
So the suggestion is that people are working it out and, let’s not forget, we are in incredibly tough economic times. So, if and when we come out of that and the advertising market picks up, maybe it won’t look that bad after all.
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Paine Proffitt: Football Art
INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
Paine Proffitt’s artwork has graced the programme and fanzine covers of several British clubs, so you might be surprised to hear that the man behind these traditional images of the beautiful game is American. We took the opportunity to talk to him about the connection between football and art…
Your illustrations have a particular style to them. What are your creative influences and why do you think it works so well with football imagery?
The vintage posters and programmes have probably been the biggest influence on my work. I love the old-fashioned imagery of the players in their classic kits, the colours, the brown leather boots and ball, the history and old-fashioned feel of it all. There seemed to be a style, strength and no-nonsense attitude of the “the old days” that I really like.
I also like the history and memories of the game, which I try to get into the paintings. While the vintage influence and the paintings are set in a certain era (say, the 1920s or 30s) there’s a timelessness that I think comes through and I also hope to capture some of this, even in my more “modern” paintings.
But there is something so beautiful about an old programme or a stylized vintage poster or a classic piece of memorabilia that I find inspirational and hope to incorporate into a painting. I also try to take inspiration and influence from elsewhere – old books; fashion magazines and posters; other art and artists; football memorabilia; programmes and cigarette cards; music and photos; anything I can find really that gets me excited.
Football has always naturally worked well with artwork – there is something about the colours, the style, the passion, the movement and grace of the game and the emotional impact of football that can come together beautifully on the canvas.
Your images echo a bygone era. Do you think there is something romantic about the sportsmen and the sporting events of the amateur and early professional era?
A lot of my work does have a vintage feel to it. I do think there is a romance to the old days which I’m drawn to. For a lot of supporters, the game is wrapped up with our memories, our childhood, our family relationships, the history of the club and who we are as people.
I do think there’s something magical and wrapped-in-legend about the old days – the players, the teams, the old grounds, the crowds – there’s something very wonderful about it all. And the imagery is incredible, with the old terraces and big strong players in heavy collared shirts, wool socks and brown boots, on muddy pitches, in front of flat-capped supporters – there is definitely a romance to it all.
I also love the history that comes through in those images of a lost age, not only the history of the game but also what it means to the supporters. That continues today, all the old men wearing their flat caps in the crowd at a football match have stories of the old days, their heroes and their memories when they were a boy watching the match, and that goes for the dads and kids now as well – they’re making those memories now and will come back to them in the years to come.
I think there’s something about the classic imagery of the game (for me it’s the 1920s-1960s) that easily taps to the romance and magic of football, our collective memories and what the game means to us.
Football continues to take up more cultural space, but have you been surprised by the amount of art and illustration it has begun to inspire in recent years?
We are definitely in a strong period of football art at the moment. There are a lot of excellent artists and artworks that have emerged in recent times. I’m not sure if it has always been there or if a recent generation of football artists have come to light because of social media and technology, but it’s definitely very noticeable that there has been a strong wave of football artists coming through and shining.
It has been great to see all the new work and artists inspired by football – it makes for an exciting time at the moment. One thing I have noticed is that a lot of the new artists and illustrators using football as their subject are digital artists – there is a strong graphic element to their work which seems to dominate. I have also noticed that a strong majority of the new football artwork emerging is focused on celebrity. It seems to be about certain players and becomes about the fame, celebrity-worship and almost a comment on the cult of personality of this age that we’re living in. We have always had football heroes and club legends being the focus of attention (from the early days of programmes and cigarette cards), but in this day and age it has been taken to the extreme and it seems like they are dominating the modern football art scene as well.
What was your first football art assignment and how were you approached?
I first started doing my paintings for myself (after working as a frustrated illustrator) and after a while I started to approach fine art galleries to exhibit them, with mixed results. Looking back on the work, I cringe at how bad it was, but slowly the artwork started to get better and I started to get the odd piece in a gallery.
So painting for myself and galleries was my first call but I began to change my style a bit and started approaching football clubs, seeing if the clubs or the matchday programmes would be interested in the artwork. It really was a case of naively saying, “Hello, this is what I do, here is where you can see samples of my work, can I work with you?”
One of the clubs I approached was West Bromwich Albion, and the programme editor gave me my first real break – he asked if I would be interested in doing the covers for the programme.
Your work has also been used regularly on programmes and fanzines for Arsenal, Aberdeen and Port Vale. Do you try to reflect the culture and histories of the club in question in your artwork?
Yes, definitely. With West Brom, the programme editor and I talked about a theme that would run through the season’s programmes. We ended up doing “The Book of Albion”, which looked at football as a modern day religion and how it tied into supporters’ lives, families and histories.
I understood the concept right away, and the theme ran on the covers and throughout the inside of the programme, using religion and a heavy dose of Black Country influence, connecting with the West Bromwich area. A secondary theme was the club’s connection to the supporters, which incorporated a lot of the incredible Albion history, culture and background and how it connects with the locals. I ask a lot of questions and try to get as much local and insider knowledge as possible and the editors at both West Brom and Aberdeen (for their respective programmes) have been invaluable with giving me information. Sometimes they will say, “No, it’s not like that here …here we’d say this …” or, “It’s better if you say that.”
At the other clubs that I have worked with, the brief has been a bit more open and free, but I still try to get as much of the club’s history, background, local culture and supporter references in as possible. For example, with Aberdeen, I have spent a lot of the season learning about the monumental moments, the club’s legends, the songs and sayings, how the supporters feel, etc, and putting that back into the artwork. It’s very important to make the artwork and the programme covers feel like it belongs to the supporters, that it speaks to them and that it understands what is important to the fans.
The Dons supporters have been amazingly friendly and helpful – they have given me all sorts of information, and I have taken that to heart and tried to give that back to them in the artwork. The programme is a vital connection between the fans and the club and it needs to be personal to them both. By working closely with the clubs and following them through the seasons, I have grown quite attached to them. For better or worse, I have got a very soft spot for West Brom and Aberdeen now.
Who is your team, then?
I support Port Vale Football Club. It’s my local club and the one that feels like “home” to me, although it took me a long time to find it. I’m an American and came to live in Stoke-on-Trent a little over a decade ago, so I hadn’t grown up with football or followed a club since I was a little boy.
When I first moved here, I could see the floodlights of Vale Park from my house but I never went to a match. Instead, I tried a few of the bigger clubs and, while I fell in love with football, the fit didn’t feel right. After a few years I took a job as a steward at Port Vale and the club got inside my blood.
Sometimes it feels like a club finds you. The club were going through some very bad, long-running tough times but I knew that this was my club and I have followed them ever since. And while I liked my co-workers and loved the club, I didn’t enjoy the stewarding so I gave that up and have been in the crowd ever since. After years of hardship, heartache and misery of all sorts, Port Vale are having a miracle season and are looking at promotion to League One. It is so nice to have a positive feel around the club for a change and have something good happening this year. God knows the club and supporters deserve it.
You can see more of Paine’s work by visiting his website here and following him on Twitter @PaineProffitt
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