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'The Outsider': We Chat With Jonathan Wilson About His Latest Book

A year ago, we spoke with Sunderland fan and respected journalist and author Jonathan Wilson. Back then, Jonathan was about to publish his biography of the late Brian Clough. Following that roaring success, Jonathan is back again for another Yuletide publication - this time looking at the history of the goalkeeper. Chris Weatherspoon caught up with Jonathan last Friday, just as 'The Outsider' was being released nationwide.

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We're here to have a little chat about your new book, The Outsider. Where did your motivation for writing 'A History of the Goalkeeper' come from?

Jonathan Wilson: When I got to the end of writing Inverting The Pyramid, I realised I'd focused on ten players but not the other one - maybe I should have gone into more depth on the goalkeeper there. I actually think the goalkeeper is quite significant tactically. We talk of 4-4-2, or 4-3-3, or 4-2-3-1, and you don't talk about the 'keeper; but actually you can't play 'Total Football', you can't play with a high offside line and press high up the pitch unless your goalkeeper is comfortable with coming out of his box and with the ball at his feet to start attacks.

You really see that with, for instance, when England were going backwards and forwards between Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence. Clemence was a goalkeeper who at Liverpool would come out of his box and was used to the back four playing very high. Shilton preferred to stay further back. So I could have talked about things like that [in Inverting The Pyramid] and I regret slightly that I didn't.

But then I thought that if I'm going to do a book on goalkeepers, I don't want to just talk about tactics - that's only part of it. I also want to talk about the whole psychology of the goalkeeper and also the history too. I think people don't realise that it's actually only 100 years since goalkeepers started wearing a different coloured shirt - it was only in 1912 when that law changed. The first forty-nine years of football, the 'keeper dressed like everyone else.

I think the whole culture of the goalkeeper is probably more interesting than in any other individual position, just because they are so different.

Yeah, it was in the blurb of The Outsider that the book covers "the sometimes dangerous intellectual and literary preoccupations" of the goalkeeper. So how much of the book is about that specific psychology behind a role that is very much unique on a football pitch?

JW: Quite a significant amount. I've been working in football journalism professionally for thirteen years now and my impression - and one that most journalists I've spoken to agree with - is that goalkeepers are more interesting. They give better interviews.

There could be a number of reasons for that. With the nature of the position, they have more time to think. Whereas a right-back will be dashing around the park, running up and down the flank, he doesn't have that time during a game to himself to think about things. The goalkeeper, part of his role is to actually stand there and to analyse what is happening. So maybe that's why.

But I also think there's something about the type of person who goes into goalkeeping. They are deep thinkers, they are individuals. They don't just go with the mainstream, they do something a bit different. Going back to my own days at school, there were only ever a couple of lads who actually wanted to go in goal, whereas the rest wanted to play outfield. The ones who wanted to play in goal - why?! Partly, it was just to be different. They had the courage to recognise that 'what I enjoy, isn't what everyone else enjoys, and I want to do this to show that.'

I think that does make them more interesting. Then when you start to compile the history and look back through great goalkeepers of the past, they appear to have more interesting stories to tell. They seem as though this real sense of tragedy follows them around.

Particularly with the early goalkeepers - I guess this is where the danger [of the position] comes in. A lot of them were seriously injured, some were even killed during games. Sunderland fans will likely know about Jim Thorpe who was killed in the thirties, he suffered injuries during a game and died soon afterwards for those injuries. It really did take bravery.

And even the ones who didn't get injured, the pressure they were under - particularly those early 'keepers - a lot of them became alcoholics, depressives, a lot of them died incredibly young. I think there is this sense of courage and tragedy that follows goalkeepers around.

One of the things you've mention is culture. Just through the nature of your job as a journalist, you travel far and wide covering football. Is the book made up of that? Does it draw from a global perspective?

JW: Yeah, definitely. When I started the book I recognised that I already know about the English goalkeeper, I know that we like the safe, secure type of 'keeper. People like Harry Hibbs back in the twenties and then more recently your Banks, Shilton, Seaman and so on. Solid 'keepers, not particularly flamboyant.

Russia, I was well aware of the tradition there. Yashin and so on. I think Nabokov talks about it - again, it's quoted on the blurb of the book - he had the sense of the goalkeeper as being the Russian position. That was the glamourous position in the Russia he grew up in, and that was why he became a goalkeeper.

So I thought, yeah I know those two schools of goalkeeping. But then as I travelled and started talking to people about the book, you realise that pretty much every country in the world has a unique school of goalkeeper. Certainly the former Yugoslavia does, Argentina does. Actually, in terms of those you'd think as historic hotbeds of the game, it's only really Scotland and Brazil who don't have this sense of the special position of the goalkeeper. Yet, even then, they have a tradition of not being very good at it!

I think for both nations, in the past twenty years or so, that really has changed. In Brazil, Taffarel went to Parma, and now there are a number of Brazilians at top clubs. There's been a general decline in Scottish football, and yet - I know he doesn't have a club right now - but we at Sunderland know how good Craig Gordon was. Allan McGregor. They do have good 'keepers. Indeed, goalkeeper is probably the position they worry about at the least now, given their other problems.

So yeah, I do talk about the different traditions. For example, in Cameroon, it's fascinating. There is no great African tradition of goalkeeping, yet suddenly you get - in the 1970s - Thomas Nkono and Joseph Antoine-Bell. The two best African goalkeepers there have been, who both grew up in the same country, at the same time. So I spoke to both of them. I did a lot of work in Brazil and Argentina, so it really is a global book.

Moving on, you're also editor of The Blizzard, with Issue Seven having recently been released. How is that project going? Are you surprised with the way people having embraced it?

JW: When we set it all up we didn't really have any expectations. We were, in many ways, very naïve. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing as we weren't doing it for money, we were doing it because we thought it was a worthwhile thing to do. We had no idea what kind of readership numbers or circulation we'd need to make it viable. We never really placed a figure on it.

In terms of the money we're bringing in, it isn't a fortune - but it's enough to keep it going and make it worthwhile for everyone. The numbers involved are very encouraging. It's great to know that many people want that kind of journalism.

When we do events around the country, that's the most immediate contact we have with our readers. We did the event in Sunderland at the Glass Centre which was brilliant. We got 180 at our event in Leeds last week. The fact you can get that many people in a room, all wanting to talk about football in that kind of way, it's great we have managed to bring people with that way of looking at football together in some way. Hopefully we can keep developing that and keep building that.

So is The Blizzard definitely around for the duration then?

JW: Well, when we set it up we said: let's give it three years and see where we are. We were thinking there was the possibility that maybe we would lose money because of it. But we're not losing money, we're making money. Not vast amounts, but enough to make it worth the time we are putting in. That means the writers, of course, but also everyone involved in the process - the sub-editors, the copy editors and so on.

I think it is pretty well set now. Are we going to be around forever? I don't know. But we're certainly here for the next few years at least, and we will see how it goes. If people suddenly stop reading then obviously that will change. At the moment, though, we're seeing steady growth and as long as that goes on I don't see why we shouldn't keep it going.

Of course, you're a Sunderland fan, like ourselves here at Roker Report. What are your thoughts on the current situation? Martin O'Neill is seemingly under pressure at the moment - do you think that is merited?

JW: I honestly can't ever remember a situation like this at Sunderland. I've only seen us four times live this season - the Arsenal, West Ham and Fulham away games, and I was up for West Brom the other weekend.

People are saying 'Is O'Neill being left behind by modern tactics?' Well, maybe a little a bit. But, you know, we're not playing in the Champions League against Barcelona, we don't need to be at the cutting edge of modern tactics. He hasn't been left behind that far. He's not playing a W-M. His ideas haven't gone out of fashion overnight. Alright, he might not be playing in a way that is going to win us the Champions League, but I don't think anyone really expects that. If they are, they're mental!

The way he plays should be perfectly good enough to get comfortably into mid-table, which is realistically where we ought to be given the expenditure and the fan base and everything else. If we get there and consolidate there, maybe then we look to make things more sophisticated. But I don't see why he isn't good enough to keep us safe in mid-table. I'm quite happy with him as a manager.

I look at his summer signings and he strengthened exactly the areas that needed strengthening. Maybe he could have brought in another full-back, but he brought in a centre forward - he needed one. He's got a centre forward who can hold the ball up, he's looked good, scored a few goals. Not just that, his movement is good.

He brought in Adam Johnson. Okay, his form has been erratic over the past two or three years, but we know he's a gifted player. He's local. He's what we need in terms of a bit more creativity in that area out wide. It takes pressure off McClean, who hasn't had a good season so far. Cuéllar, strengthening the middle of the backline, that made sense. Obviously he's worked with him before and he likes him. I think Cuéllar has done perfectly well.

So I can't blame [O'Neill] for his summer signings. He picks pretty much the same team I'd pick. I don't understand why it isn't working. I don't understand why we aren't getting results.

This sounds like a crap excuse, but I really do think having that Reading game postponed at the start of the season really messed us up. We started with a good result at Arsenal on the opening day. A draw at Swansea? That's fine, good result. Draw at West Ham? Same. Draw at home against Liverpool? Yeah alright, given the way they'd been playing, you might want three points there. But a draw against Liverpool isn't disastrous.

If we'd had those draws with a home win over Reading, it would just look that bit better. There'd be less pressure. More confidence. You can kind of see that has happened with West Brom. They had some easier games first up, won them, then they started to play well because they had more belief and more confidence. Maybe the defeats they've just had against Swansea and Stoke are the regressions to the mean.

We've never had that boost. We've not had those easier games to get the wins on the board. Then, when we do get the easier games, such as QPR at home, it's Harry Redknapp's first game as manager! They've got a new sense of impetus, it's made harder for us.

If we'd played Norwich in the first four weeks of the season I'm certain we'd have beaten them. But we didn't, we played them when they were on a decent run. We just keep playing teams at the wrong time.

The thing I still take heart from is if you compare with last season. For example, away at Arsenal last season against away at Arsenal this season. In that sense, Sunderland are exactly level with last season. So it isn't that bad yet. We played pretty well second half against West Brom, second half against Norwich.

The key things now are the Reading and Southampton games coming up. If we don't win them, that's when we're in trouble.

One final question: it seems that you manage to write at least one book a year. This year we have The Outsider, last year it was your Brian Clough autobiography, then before that it was The Anatomy of England. Are there any upcoming projects we should look out for?

JW: Yeah well, without being cynical, there was a need to capitalise on the success of Inverting The Pyramid. It meant publishers were interested in me, so I could get the go-ahead on some contracts while my style was still in the ascendancy.

Over the next three or four years I'll be doing - like I did with England - a history of Liverpool in ten matches, a history of Manchester United in ten matches. Then between those two I'll be doing a book on Argentinian football which will be part history, part cultural investigation.

We'd like to thank Jonathan again for joining us, and wish him all the best in his future work. 'The Outsider' is available from all good bookstores now, or can be purchased on Amazon and plenty of other online retailers. To keep up with Jonathan's busy writing schedule, you can find him on Twitter - @jonawils

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