London Festival of Football Writing

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In May 2017, an exciting new football writing festival is coming to London. From Tuesday 16th – Saturday 20th, enjoy five nights of football fun with the likes of Jonathan Wilson, Philippe Auclair, Michael Cox and Anna Kessel. I spoke to Kieran The Organiser (consider his rap name coined) to get the full low-down.

Q1. What are the origins of the festival? Is it being run in association with the Manchester Football Writing Festival?

In late 2016, I was running a bookstall for my work at a tedious academic conference and on the bus back home, I drifted in and out of tiredness-induced reverie.  In true cartoon lightbulb fashion, an idea pinged into my brain – a festival of football writing with some writers and authors I want to see in a nice bookshop that also sells cold, delicious beer.  I was basically dreaming after being ground down to a husk by 12+ hours at the stuffy, drab, dry conference venue.  I slept on it for a couple of days and it remained a great idea. And thus London Festival of Football Writing was born!

It’s not affiliated with Manchester Football Writing Festival but the amazing year-on-year growth of the festival has been an inspiration, showing that there is room for reasonably niche festivals on the literary circus.  The MFWF has also been very generous in reaching out, offering solidarity and advice.

Q2. Do you have a specific aim or focus for this festival?

If I’m honest, the aim for this inaugural festival is just to see if it can be done. At the moment, I’m undertaking this without any sponsorship or financial backing but I would be looking to build on this to make next year’s festival bigger and better.

The overarching focus has changed somewhat since I first started putting things together but it still showcases a variety of very fine authors and journalists and that is, above all, the most important thing.

Q3. It’s an amazing line-up of events. Was it difficult to bring together big names like Jonathan Wilson, Philippe Auclair, Rory Smith, Michael Cox and Anna Kessel?

Each and every one of the authors have made putting this together relatively painless.  Anthony Clavane, Philippe Auclair and Anna Kessel in particular have been so generous with their time, offering invaluable advice, encouragement and contacts.

I was also touched by the enthusiasm of Barney Ronay, David Goldblatt, Amy Lawrence, Alex Bellos, Heidi Blake and Ronald Reng, who couldn’t make it for this year’s festival.

Q4. Can you pick one of the events that you’re particularly looking forward to?

I couldn’t possibly do that!  I’m genuinely excited about all of them.  If you pushed me, I’d be tempted to say Anthony Clavane – he’s one of my absolute favourite writers and his recent book, looking at the erosion of working class identity through the prism of sport is arguably his best yet.

Q5. Waterstones Tottenham Court Road is a great location for the festival. It feels like Waterstones are doing more and more to promote sports books. Do you think this is a particularly rich period for football literature?

Waterstones Tottenham Court Road is possibly my favourite bookshop in London, even though it’s only been open for less than 18 months. It’s got bags of character and its events programme is unparalleled in its variety and the big names it pulls in.  The event space is so atmospheric too, a real rarity.

The fact that Waterstones has its own dedicated sports books Twitter page (@wstonessport) is probably more down to the passion of the person in the company who manages it.

I would say the last ten years has seen football writing flourish, and you could probably trace it back to the release of Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid and the advent of blogs.  Now, it is a genre where literary, cerebral books on football fit nicely alongside the big-name biographies and publications like The Blizzard, Nutmeg and Mundial are pushing it into different directions, offering the opportunity for unpublished writers to get their work in print where previously that door would have been firmly shut.

Q6. The literary world tends to exclude or marginalise sports writing. Do you think that’s why the genre needs its own separate festivals like this?

Yes, I think there is an embedded elitism from the literary establishment regarding football writing and maybe that won’t change.  Despite the millions going to football each week, football writing may always be a niche interest.  You’ll always have the big-name biographies published for Christmas and maybe one or two books that cross over into the mainstream.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem though – there’s definitely an appetite for intelligent football writing and people are savvy enough to seek these oout outside of the mainstream, through independent publishers, social media, blogs and word-of-mouth.

The success of Manchester Football Writing Festival and, hopefully, London Festival of Football Writing, is a celebration of this and it shows how comfortable the genre is existing separately on its own terms.

Q7. Finally, give us your best 140-character pitch for football fans who are thinking about attending.

LFFW brings together some of the best names in football writing for five nights of analysis, humour and insight on the beautiful game!

For event listings, tickets and more info, visit the London Festival of Football Writing website

The Outsider: A History Of The Goalkeeper

The Outsider: A History Of The Goalkeeper

By Jonathan Wilson

Orion, 2013

‘He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender’ – unfortunately, history hasn’t always shared Vladimir Nabokov’s romantic vision of the goalkeeper. Until the Twentieth Century, he was an ‘unspoken other’ – goalkeepers only started wearing different shirts in 1909 – and according to football writer Jonathan Wilson he ‘is doomed always to be an outsider’. Distrust and disregard have long surrounded a role burdened with the ultimate, decisive responsibility and ‘all its potential for greatness’. Powered by this paradox, The Outsider relates a fascinating narrative arc from ridicule to recognition, from alienation to reintegration.

Each chapter is a case study analysing a different topic, whether that be geographical (Russia, Africa, South America, Britain, USA) or stylistic (‘The Sweeper-Keeper’, ‘Land of the Giants’, ‘The Fear of Penalties’), or both. But at the heart of each country and each technical phase, Wilson demonstrates, are the same core goalkeeping debates – reactive shot-stopping vs proactive sweeping, reflexes vs anticipation, calm solidity vs risky extravagance, strength vs agility, aggression vs composure, ‘the stoics who quietly absorbed the punishment, and the extroverts’. The Outsider is a celebration of the variety of skillsets that have graced the goal, even if it concludes with the progression towards a more rounded approach in the new generation led by Iker Casillas, Manuel Neuer and Hugo Llloris; ‘it’s rare now to find goalkeepers who don’t both command their box and feel comfortable with the ball at their feet as well as having a basic competence at saving shots’.

The many goalkeeper profiles in the book present some interesting common denominators, including a beginning as an outfield player and a background in athletic, dextrous sports such as handball (Peter Schmeichel), volleyball (Buffon, Taffarel) or basketball (Brad Friedel). And, of course, there are also more obvious core parallels, such as confidence, bravery and mental toughness, or as Serbian keeper Milutin Šoškić puts it, ‘a goalkeeper must be hard with feelings’. Wilson is an impressive curator and historian but where both he and his book excel is in the realm of investigative journalism. The chapters where he goes in search of his own answers are particularly compelling, as he interviews the great Cameroonian rivals Thomas Nkono and Joseph-Antoine Bell, for example, or America’s coaching guru Šoškić and Steau Bucharest’s shoot-out hero Helmut Ducadam.

This is sports writing for the stout of heart and mind. In Wilson’s highly capable hands, a history of goalkeeping becomes a history of football and even, at times, a small-scale modern world history. The keeper is placed at the centre of concentric circles of ‘perception’: football, culture, geography, politics, history, philosophy, literature. Be prepared for Nietzsche and discussions of ‘the dissonance between the apparent simplicity of the signifier and the complexity and layered meaning of the signified’. But this scholarly approach, as Wilson explains, is a fitting tribute to a role that has often been linked with the artistic temperament – ‘individuals, not necessarily intellectuals, but at the very least people who think for themselves’.

It’s hard to find fault with such a comprehensive study. Perhaps the slightly odd positioning of a chapter on Lev Yashin and the Soviet tradition in between chapters tracing the largely British pre- and inter-war history? For the most part, though, Wilson knits together theme and chronology nicely by picking out stand-out figures (Van Der Sar, Buffon etc.) and then retracing their national histories. Occasionally, however, this approach does throw up puzzling results, such as the equal coverage for IFFHS’ second best goalkeeper of all time, Dino Zoff, and virtually unknown Ghanian Robert Mensah. The lack of technical detail regarding the Italian great is noticeable, but The Outsider sticks to its storytelling guns throughout, sometimes prioritising eccentric anecdotes over conventional (and much-repeated) biography. As Wilson explains in the prologue, this is ‘not an encyclopaedia of goalkeeping’.

And that’s the only minor drawback; for all its tremendous scope, The Outsider remains a selective study, where lengthy discussions of book and film plots and historical anecdotes do occasionally crowd out insight. The psychological angle in particular feels frustratingly underdeveloped, or at least unassembled. Except for scattered references to goalkeepers with ‘a shadow across his soul’, the issue only really comes into focus during the final chapters covering Buffon’s depression and Oliver Kahn’s mid-life crisis. Goalkeepers yo-yo between the very extremes of life; as Wilson puts it, ‘No sportsman, surely, so regularly confronts the arbitrariness of the fates.’ As well as those forever haunted by high-profile mistakes, we’re told of many great goalkeepers who recovered from early setbacks: Yashin, Gilmar, Frank Swift and Gordon Banks to name but a few. But how? Perhaps, despite Wilson’s sterling efforts, the goalkeeper will always remain that ‘man of mystery’.

Buy it here