Jonathan Wilson is to many, an essential part of football. No weekend is complete without reading his latest Guardian article or listening to him impossibly shoehorn in an innumerable number of references to Sunderland in his recent, excellent Greatest Games podcast series. Wilson’s historical books have had a profound influence on football writing in the UK and in the 2000’s along with David Goldblatt and Simon Kuper, he changed completely the perception of how football can be written about. His latest book The Names Heard Long Ago, was deeply moving account of half a century of Hungarian football and of a country almost in constant turmoil but from which has sprung some incandescent innovation.
This interview took place in the halcyon days of late-January, when Man City were still only presumed and not officially dodgy, toilet paper wasn’t worth the same as sapphire and football actually existed. Jonathan was very generous with his time and we discussed all manner of things from the concept of European Super League to influence of Hungary on pretty much every major footballing country to a church in Leipzig that has Bach themed church service.
You wrote an article recently about The Club World Cup, which was very good. I’m not sure whether I’m excited about that or not – it’s just something that will happen in the future. But it’s interesting because you seem convinced that there will be a European Super League.
I can’t see how we avoid it. I was in a bookshop in West Hampstead with an American Journalist about six years ago, and he said that in football there’ll be a franchise system within twenty years. At the time I was like ‘what are you talking about? That’s not what football is, it’s organic and that’s the beauty of it.’ What interests me is the rivalries and rivalries do not come from a franchise system, they come from clubs representing their city or region or a particular social class in their city or even a religious group in their city. It has this function as a symbol of identity. I don’t think a franchise system does this – well, it can possibly, but it’s so much harder.
But in the time since then, so less than a decade, we’ve seen the most extraordinary acceleration away from that. And you realize that the most basic assumptions you had about the game have been cut from underneath you. Speaking as someone who grew up in Sunderland watching Sunderland matches, you naturally assume that the local fans or the match going fans are the ones that matter the most. And actually maybe that’s not true. They’re a tiny fraction of the club’s fan base and it’s a small part of where clubs make their money from. And the more you think about the more you realize that the kid from Beijing or wherever, whose sat up late to watch his beloved Manchester United every week of his life, and he’s saved a little bit each week from his job to fund his once-in-a-lifetime trip to watch Man Utd vs. Bournemouth, maybe we shouldn’t scorn that. But it’s a hard thing to get your head around.
I used to get worked up because I’m from Sunderland and that’s my home, it’s where I was raised. So my relationship to the club is obviously profound. If Sunderland were remarkably to win something, I struggle to accept that that meant as much to a lad in Bangalore who watched the Netflix series and decided Sunderland were his team. But that’s quite a dangerous argument and it’s a very nativist argument at heart. And in the current political climate maybe I shouldn’t be thinking like that.
Football has become as popular as it is in Asia or America within its current pyramid structure, so if we were to radically change that structure and go towards a closed league, would its popularity remain the same?
That’s a fair question and we don’t know the answer to that, although Americans don’t seem to mind closed leagues. But if you look at [Gianni, FIFA President] Infantino’s plans for a pan-African league, which on face value seems like a great idea to get more money into African football, keep players there longer and raise the standard of the local leagues for fans. Then you start to think of it practically because I’m assuming in a franchise system there won’t be two teams from Cairo, two teams from Tunis or two teams from Casablanca. But are you really going to choose between Al Ahly or Zamalek? You would kill one of those clubs and that’s a really dangerous thing for FIFA to be doing. And it makes you think about these extreme measures, and what’s the real impetuous there, are FIFA doing this because they wants what’s best for African football or do they want one or two big African teams that can compete in their revamped Club World Cup? And if their willing to do that in Africa and once you start franchising, where does that stop? If you go towards this global league, do you have two teams from Manchester? You’re not going to want two teams from Buenos Ares or two from Rio, you’re gunna have one from each. You’re going to kill Boca or River? That’s madness. We’re not there yet and there are still many stages to go but we’re much closer to this global franchised league than we were 5-10 years ago.
You released The Names Heard Long Ago last year, which was just a wonderful book. Despite being on a relatively obscure historical topic, it felt like your most personal or emotional work.
It did and that was partly because the people in the book nobody has ever heard of them, and some of them are unheard of in Hungary. So you realize that you have a responsibility because you are presenting these people to the word for the first time and if you get it wrong, you’re really doing them a disservice. And what happens to so many of them is so horrific, there’s a really sense of tragedy about it and then you see the horrific parallels to the modern word. I’m loathe to draw parallels and there’s a danger in them being too precise but the dangers of intolerance like with Mussolini deporting the Jews in the 1930’s – I interviewed Evelyn Conrad and her talking about getting home from school and the letter arrives form the school and her being this star pupil, she was 89 when I spoke to her and she was still practicing law and she only got the degree when she was 72. She was a TV journalist but she ditched that and decided to be a lawyer, just an incredible woman. Her describing getting the letter saying she’d been kicked out of school and you compare that to Trump’s treatment of Muslim’s or the hostile environment in this country. Last night I helped a very good German friend apply for citizenship – and it just shouldn’t be happening in Britain. Obviously I’m not suggesting Theresa May is the reincarnation of Mussolini but people who are suddenly told this home is not your home anymore is a horrific thing.
Definitely, I’ve been reading The Windrush Betrayal, Amelia Gentleman’s book about the hostile environment and it’s so horrendous.
It’s a very similar thing, it’s not as overt as saying we’re kicking you out because your black in their case, or Jewish in the case of Italy in the 30’s or Germany even worse in the 30’s. But it’s not that far removed. Another thing and I’m definitely not saying there’s an equation here – but Britain gives people two weeks before you get physically deported, Mussolini gave you six months. There’s no league table there, it doesn’t really matter how long it is its all bad but six months at least gives you some time to get your affairs in order but two weeks is so inhumane.
What’s the research process like for a book like this? How much time did you spend in Hungary? I’m guessing you are not fluent in Hungarian.
(Laughs) Oh no I’m not. This book was a little different because I’d picked up little bits over a decade or so and every time I heard something that fitted I’d put in a file. When I got the deal from the publisher’s, it was to do The Barcelona Legacy and the Hungary book. So I got four researcher’s in Budapest, three of whom I know already and one was recommended. They worked really well as a group, one of them was a Geordie who married a Hungarian lass and speaks very good Hungarian and it was him I went to the graveyard with [at the start of the book]. There was another bloke who had published some of my other books in Hungarian who’s a sort of old football nerd and has published a load of football histories. He’s sort of pioneering in Hungarian football publishing in getting books released about the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and he has a Facebook group of football historians, so he was able to introduce me to loads of people. There was a guy who used to be a journalist but now works for the FA and has access to a lots of files, which was useful. And then there was a translator, she didn’t really know anything about football but was totally bi-lingual in Hungarian and English. She was very energetic in tracing things down and it was very useful to have a non-football person involved because she would ask questions that a football person wouldn’t and that was good because its useful to have someone point that a certain thing is not normal or natural but a football thing. So I sent them running and while I was writing The Barcelona Legacy, I was getting bits of material sent in from Hungary and I went over there for eight research trips of a week or so each. Thankfully now loads of stuff is digitized, especially going through newspapers and that’s something that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago. Now I just signed up to the national newspaper archive, search through the archive, copy and paste it into google translate and if it looks interesting you can then send it to a translator. There was a year of solid research and then about six months of writing but obviously you’re are writing while researching and researching while you’re writing.
What’s the reception been like in Hungary, has it been translated yet?
Yeah but it hasn’t been published and that will be out pretty soon. Certainly the people who read the English version seem very happy with it but obviously it will reach a much larger audience when it’s in Hungarian. That Facebook group, a couple of people from that have read bits of it and made suggestions. There was an Austrian historian who emailed me with seven corrections. It was nice of him and it’s always very consoling when you get stuff like because this guy clearly knows what he is talking about and you look at his corrections and think; ‘that doesn’t fucking matter, that’s fine.’ I said somebody had become Austrian President rather than Chancellor but it’s like change two words and your fine. And if you write 120,000 words you will make little mistakes that and I’m glad are pretty small scale and I’ve corrected them for the paperback.
Have there been equivalent histories written in Hungarian about this period?
Sort of, it’s a pretty new field because the Communists very much discouraged people not look back before 1945. So it’s only really the last ten years that people have begun to look into that period. And understandably the focus was always on the 50’s and the Communist state wanted people to focus on that because they could claim that was a communist success even though half the team ends up defecting. Looking back to 1938 when Hungary should have won the World Cup really but did it under a pretty awful right-wing government and that didn’t really suit anybody’s agenda. I don’t think there’s been a book that covers that whole period from 1916 to 1956 but there’s a book called The First Golden Age by Péter Szegedi but that only came out two years ago or so. But tracing it through from Jimmy Hogan, I don’t that’s been done before. Hogan’s arrival in Budapest seems to be a complete mystery to everybody, how did he get out of Austria? But then I found an interview in an Hungarian paper from 1933, which it appears no one else had noticed because it explains it all.
When you think of the influence Hungary had over world football, why is it that none of them came to England?
They just wouldn’t have been accepted.
Do you mean that in a xenophobic way or a footballing context or both?
Both. There was just a sense of ‘what have we got to learn from outsiders? We invented the game, it’s our game.’ People would have thought it was just mad for somebody turning up and telling the English how to play and their ideas would have just been laughed at. You said you were 27? Well Jozef Vengloš is just before you were born but he was the Czechoslovakia manager at the 1990 World Cup and became Aston Villa coach afterwards and Czechoslovakia had been really good at that World Cup. He turns up after that, with the circumstances as advantageous as they could probably be but because he was called ‘Dr.’ and he had this sort of fussy, academic manner he was laughed out of town. Jozef Vengloš is a well-respected coach but even in 1990 we thought foreigners were funny and couldn’t teach us anything about football. So in 1930, when English football was genuinely good, they just wouldn’t have been listened to. [Bella] Guttman nearly got the Clapton Orient job in I think 1931 but he couldn’t get a work permit, so maybe that was an issue as well.
Do you think there’s a Sliding Doors moment where somebody did come and we didn’t live through 80 years of incompetence?
(Laughs) I mean, they could have given [Jimmy] Hogan a job earlier. But then, maybe Hogan’s football just didn’t work in England at the time. Football is a funny thing and a lot of stuff goes on, so what’s right in one circumstance might not be right in another. So if you’ve got a load of very fit, very aggressive players playing on a muddy pitch with a heavy ball – maybe playing passing, possession football isn’t that useful. You look at how often good foreign teams came to England and ended up being physically overpowered. The various Austrian teams from the 1930’s who were clearly technically better than England and they put up a good fight but they would get beat 4-3 and just be overpowered. That’s why the Hungary defeat in 1953 was such a sort of hammer blow because when we had been beaten before it was always abroad so we could say it was too hot or the pitch was too dry. But this was Wembley in November. It was English conditions, the conditions in which football was designed to be played. But even when you say that, it was Wembley which is not used very often, so it’s a nice, smooth passing surface. The classic ‘could Puskas have done it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke?’ Maybe not, but Stoke could not have done it on a nice sunny day in Budapest, I’m almost certain of that.
The 6-3 game is on YouTube and when you watch and see how utterly awful we are, you think how can we as footballing culture have any conception of us a top team when we proved to be so bad so long ago.
Yeah, that’s a totally fair point. You can see the willful blindness that six months later they went to Budapest, did the same thing again and got beat 7-1. The shocking thing about the 6-3 is that England are really lucky to only lose by 3, that could have been 8, 9, 10 nil. England have six or seven chances on the game and score with three of them, Hungary had thirty odd chances. In the second half, Hungary were keeping the ball, they could have racked up a bigger score but they sort of stopped. In 1948, England had gone to Turin and beaten a very good Italy team 4-0, teams can have a bad afternoon, I don’t know if England were bad that afternoon [against Hungary] it’s hard to tell. But winning 4-0 in Turin is arguably England’s greatest ever result, the War obviously intervened but Italy had won the previous two World Cups and to go to Turn and absolutely smash them – you can understand why England thought ‘yeah, we’re alright at this.’
The other thing that is think is fascinating about 1953 is that is really interesting year in the sense you have the Stanley Matthews final, and that sort of rarefies in everyone’s mind that wing-play is what it’s all about. It’s all about Stanley Matthews wobbling very slowly down the wing and cutting it back for Stan Mortenson – that’s what football is. This game had real seismic importance, not just because it was Matthews finally winning something, the fact it was a dramatic game and the most famous player on the pitch turned it completely in the final 20 minutes. But that game was three weeks before the coronation and lots of people got TV’s to watch it and a lot of them got them a month earlier to watch the cup final as well. And there’s a fascinating letter from Neville Cardus, he goes that day to Lords which is only three or four miles from Wembley and he goes to watch MCC vs. Yorkshire. There’s a bit of rain, it doesn’t start on time and eventually the teams come out and they play an hour before tea and then after play for another half hour before deciding it’s too dark. And after watching this dreary half hour of cricket, he writes a letter to The Times saying this was the day football replaced cricket as the national sport. That he’d got on the tube home and all these people were coming from Wembley absolutely buzzing about this great game they’d seen and this was the day that our game [cricket] lost. That’s a culturally fascinating moment that you can pinpoint exactly when football replaces cricket and it happens to be at the start of televisual age. And the fact that is a very old fashioned form of football that wins out that day and that cements in people’s minds that this how football has to be played. And then six months later, England try to play with Matthews as an elderly winger and you see the folly of wing-play when a passing midfield is obviously way more effective.
You spoke of this idea on the Greatest Games podcast, that the 1953 Cup Final was the first time that a certain person would have seen a football match. Which seems like a mad idea that this one day in 1953 would be the first time somebody would see thing that is watched by more people than anything – more than film or TV or music.
Yeah I hadn’t thought of that, that’s completely true and I think it’s easy to forget how recent a phenomenon TV is. I was reading the Howard Goodall’s History of Music, I don’t know much about music and that’s why I’m reading it, to educate myself. He makes the point it’s really only in the last hundred years that people have been able to listen to music when they felt like it – that you could actually collect your favourite music. There would be people who were hugely passionate about music, who would hear the bit of music they like best in the world and they’d hear it maybe six times in their life. That’s a bizarre thing to think.
Yeah definitely – we think of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach and people like this as cultural things that have always been there but in reality most normal people wouldn’t have heard them until well into the 20th century.
Yeah absolutely, one of the reasons I’m going to Leipzig [to research an article] is that’s where Bach is from and the church where he was employed for a while have ‘Bach themed’ service every Sunday. And on the weekend when we leave the EU, that’s feels like an appropriate place to be. But if you didn’t happen to be part of that congregation, you could have quite easily lived in Leipzig at the time and never heard any Bach – which is a very very odd thing.
Are there any periods of football history that you have in your sights, that you want to write about? A biography of Bielsa maybe?
I’d quite like to do a biography of Don Revie as a sort of companion to the [Brian] Clough biography [Nobody Ever Says Thank You, published 2012]. I think Revie someone is completely misremembered and a fascinating man. In some ways he’s a much more sympathetic figure than Clough.
He’s completely defined by Clough and not necessarily by what he achieved at Leeds.
Yeah that’s a very good point. It’s a funny thing, you watch that interview from 1974 and the modern take on that is to say Clough destroyed him. If you watch it, Clough is obviously pissed and Revie is very patiently making some very good points but because Clough is very charismatic he just cuts over him and Revie never gets a chance. The fact he and Clough grew up five miles apart in Middlesbrough and Clough came from – not a wealthy family by any means but a much wealthier one than Revie. Revie lost his parent very young and Leeds became his family. He was obviously very bright in a footballing sense – he watched the 1953 Hungary game and decided he was going to play as a deep-lying forward as had [Nándor] Hidegkuti and he won Footballer of the Year on 1956 with Man City. Then you have all the superstition, this fascinating mix of somebody who wanted to explore every variable to make sure his team didn’t lose and that would mean doing massive amounts of research, especially for the time. Then the superstition, like changing Leeds’s badge because it had a peacock on it and he thought birds were unlucky. He had a lucky suit which he worse constantly, he made his wife wear the same coat for every game when they were winning. Every time there was an away game, the team would get dropped at the hotel, he would walk to the nearest pedestrian crossing and touch it because he thought that brought good luck. So he had the scientific form and then superstitious form and then in the end, he probably started fixing games. So the paranoia of losing evolved from reasonable scientific research to unreasonable superstition to totally unacceptable cheating.