Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Football Is Really Fantastic - The Blizzard Issue One (ed Jonathan Wilson)

Football writing in the UK has a bad name. It's always traditionally been looked down on by their counterparts in features sections and in the newsroom, perhaps partly due to the hurried nature of having to compile match reports and the interviewees not necessarily being the smartest or most fascinating people. Even in the Premier League era, when football's become fashionable and a wealth of intelligent blogs about the game ranging through nostalgia, tactics and football's finances have exploded online, it can't quite shake off the stigma. Even FourFourTwo's stuck with the need to make money by having its main features on the biggest stars of the day and needing to sell advertising space.

Which is where The Blizzard comes in. It's a simple idea this. There's a wealth of great football writers out there, so why not gather as many of them as possible in one place, untainted by the need to pander maximising hits, or to fans who simply want to read the latest club approved platitudes from players. I first became aware of it through Paul Tomkins' tweeting of his potential involvement in the project. Tomkins has achieved a certain level of fame amongst Liverpool fans with his in depth reviews of the first few seasons of the club under Rafa Benitez, which included in depth tactical analysis and application of stats to analyse different facets of the game. He has his fair share of critics, but I've always enjoyed his writing which tends to be thoroughly researched and backed up with as many facts as possible. It was soon followed by other writers I follow on Twitter mentioning their involvement, the higher end of football journalists such as Sid Lowe, the blogger Swiss Ramble and especially editor Jonathan Wilson. Wilson, again, would command respect if he'd never written anything but Inverting the Pyramid, a book which manages to breathe life into the potentially deathly dry subject of prevalent footballing tactics.

So when they offered a test issue as a PDF the decision to sample it was a no brainer. And it hooked me from the first article, Uli Hesse's study of the German club St Pauli. Whilst we all think there's something special about our own clubs (hell, we Liverpool fans will continually let everyone else know exactly what's so special about our club) this articulated precisely the reasons for the passion of the fans, why the story of the club was so compelling. Sold, subject to the first signs of encroaching technological Luddism of my preference for a print version.

Unfortunately the original publication of Issue One coincided with the twin embuggerances of a shortage of cash and the brief biannual sabbatical I take from football to keep me sane. It's largely down to my preference not to get sucked into the riot of speculation, planted stories and wishful thinking that tends to make up the fervid transfer speculation that fills summertime sports sections. I was much quicker when a limited reprint run was announced, snapping up a copy immediately.

Wilson's stated aim of high quality football writing was reflected in the perfect bound book with a pleasingly textured cover which dropped through my letterbox. It's a reassuringly hefty 196 pages long, a mere eight of which are dedicated to advertising and five of those are for the magazine itself plus related merchandise. It comes in eleven sections, each prefaced by an apt cartoon and a tantalising quote from an article in the section. Simply out of interest I initially chose not to work my way through the book but picked out the article which initally caught my eye, Rob Smyth's look at Manchester United's 2-3 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League Quarter Finals. It simply caught my eyes as it contained one of my favourite football moments, Fernando Redondo's backheel past Henning Berg which led to a simple tap-in for Raul. I recall the men in our office talking of nothing else the next day. And it's a terrific piece which puts the match back into context, reminding that United were the overwhelming favourites and Madrid millions of miles (and Euros) from the Galactico force they'd become over the next few years. It shows how what was initially perceived as a good result for United, a 0-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu in which they had good chances to win, was actually nothing of the sort. Instead it donated self confidence back to Madrid, making them believe that they could compete with Ferguson's 'we're gonna score one more than you' European champions. And it explains concisely how an insane tactical gamble by Del Bosque paid off thanks to Casillas, McManaman, Roberto Carlos, Raul's finishing and probably the performance of Redondo's career. Smyth finishes by explaining why it's such an important match in European history, and particularly in terms of United's style. And, as with Smyth's day job at the Guardian, he brings across just how thrilling that second leg match was. It's a stunning piece of writing which proves the value of a long term perspective over the hastily compiled match reports of the day and quietly explains just why the match is *even better* than you thought.

I sucked the marrow from the bones of the rest of the book over the next week. I returned to the conventional style of back to front, including a re-read of Smyth's article. Wonderfully the book largely avoids the default Anglocentric viewpoint of much British footballing journalism, covering Israel, Spain, Argentina, Sweden and India amongst others. If part of the remit is to be expansive in terms of coverage, it's admirably fulfilled. By the next World Cup they may even have done enough to render a certain BBC pundit's shrugging lack of knowledge of the likes of Algeria even more redundant than it already seemed to be. Certainly the likes of Wilson would be able to articulately explain what to look for in games without dumbing down in the way the inarticulate ex-pros who tend to comprise British pundits can't.

The real highlights of the book for me were the interviews. Anthony Clavane's David Peace's interview as part of the Leeds section is wonderfully unafraid to be literate, quite unlike anything in mainstream football writing. But it's the other two interviews which are real highlights of the book. One is with a figure familiar to Premier League fans, the other more obscure but equally as interesting. David Winner's interview with Bergkamp has the breathtakingly simple premise of letting a genius with the ball explain simply the how and why of his decisions on the pitch. What's striking is how even now Bergkamp displays a razor sharp mind and memory for detail. It's remarkable for how Bergkamp makes his most revered moments of skill sound so simple, things that almost anyone could do if they had the vision to do them. And then you remember the speed at which he did these things. Essentially it's an extended reminder that the most crucial attribute for a footballer is speed and clarity of thought and, peripherally, an indictment of British football and coaching. The other interview is from the Guardian's Spanish football expert Sid Lowe, who's in-depth knowledge of his subject renders the notion that the only clubs that matter in Spain are Barca and white half of Madrid an absolute farce. His subject is Juanma Lillo, the youngest ever coach in La Liga and ostensibly an itinerant coach. More pertinently, he's the big hidden influence on the Barcelona side currently making a good case for being the best side ever, inventing their 4-2-3-1 formation and being cited by Pep Guardiola as a big influence along with Cruyff. It's captivating stuff which manages to capture the complexities of one of football's more innovative and unusual minds, covering such matters on the sicknes of society and why it's bad when it comes to constructing a football team, why there's no such thing as attack and defence, and why in football the match should matter more than the result (inadvertently, or perhaps advertantly, providing a fine critique of Jose Mourinho's methods though he's never named). It fully justifies Lowe's build up of an innovative coach and thinker who loves a dialectic debate and owns over 10,000 volumes including complete runs of the world's foremost football magazines. As with any interview, the interviewer's role shouldn't be underestimated and Lowe's intelligent and informed enough to ask questions that provoke Lillo into clarifications of thought and further insights into his philosophy. It's not only educational, it's thought provoking and makes you wish that we had football coaches in this country that were even half as articulate. Instead we have the likes of Sam Allardyce regarded as an innovative thinker (which, for the UK, he actually seems to be to some degree). Lowe doesn't fail to note the irony of Lillo currently being unemployed partly thanks to the pupil becoming the master, Guardiola's side beating his Almeira 8-0. I ended hoping that Lillo would find employment again soon, in the hope his sides would be as fascinating as the man and his philosophy.

Elsewhere there's fine variety of article. There are a host of lesser known but fascinating stories, ranging from lesser known stories such as that of the first Israeli football team, through the jawdropping tale of Alexandre Villaplane, France's first World Cup captain who pretty much defines the term 'psychopathic bastard' and puts the tabloid howls about the misbehaviour of Premier League footballers in context, Jock Stein's short spell at Leeds, London's Romanian Sunday league teams through to the story of Vassilis Hatzipanagis, possibly the greatest footballer you've never heard of and certainly the finest never to be capped. There's editor Wilson himself, explaining how Victorio Spinetto injected a certain ruthlessness into the Argentine football mentality. There's a report on the almost unreported over here African Nations Championship and the story of the Danish triumph in Euro 92, amusing and amazing in equal measure in light of the preparations teams make for matches these days. And there are some fascinating think pieces from Simon Kuper and Kieron O'Connor on the possibility of the Premier League boom being nowhere near bursting and the financial legacy of the 2010 World Cup respectively.

This might all make it sound a high minded, serious endeavour, but the cover of a dog balancing a ball on its nose should tell you otherwise. I admit to writing up match reports from my football computer games as a youngster, but McIntosh takes it to a level of art with The Ballad of Bobby Manager, an account of his Football Manager game as West Ham. There's a comic brilliance in his portrayal of West Ham's owners and chief executive Karren Brady, the latter's portrayal as a Bond-esque villain in particular promises some wonderful future comedy. I can only applaud McIntosh for living the dream and getting paid to write about playing Football manager all day. If they ever want the tale of how I beat Chelsea in the Champions League Final with two goals in injury time of extra time, or the tale of Fredy Guarin's swerving 40 yard thunderbolt away at Birmingham earning a Liverpool team reduced to ten men for over 80 minutes a crucial win to edge the title race, or even my turning of Fabien Brandy into a 50 goal a season monster at Crewe, then I'm always available. We'll gloss over the joint Football Manager game where my mate Phil was unbeaten for 36 games before my Liverpool team whupped his lot 5-0 at Anfield to ruin his unbeaten season though.

The only slight disappointment is probably the final article, a series of pen portraits of Scottish players from before the Second World War. The flaw's not necessarily with the article itself, which is as educational about forgotten heroes as anything else in the collection (though by nature, not as in depth as some). It's something of a lightweight article to finish on though, like finishing on a comma rather than a full stop.

The Blizzard may well be catering to a niche market, one that takes its love of football beyond simply watching their team and demands more intelligent coverage. But that's something you can do with modern technology and economic models - catering from a niche is easier to do than it's ever been. I'll freely admit though, that I'm part of the niche it caters to and intend to subscribe come payday. It's intelligent, passionate and funny about a subject that shouldn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, but somehow matters above everything to so many. And it's well worth the investment of your time and money.

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