How I wrote the Football Book of the Year...

Award-winning author, Jonathan Wilson, on how to write a best-seller...

These pieces are horrible to write.

It’s not just that I’m not getting paid for it – to be fair, it is mainly because I’m not getting paid for it – it’s that it’s virtually impossible to say anything after winning an award without sounding like a git.

The line between smug and surly is so fine as to be almost imperceptible. I’m only doing it because Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year last week, started life as an article in FourFourTwo magazine. And because's editor asked so nicely I’d have felt guilty not doing so. I’ve just read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s superb history of Hollywood in the seventies. Amid a torrent of fascinating detail, perhaps the most striking thing – at least for a non-specialist – is how haphazard the whole process of film-making is.

Nobody ever seems to know what’s going to be any good, and nobody ever seems to make what they started out to make. People like to believe that somebody, somewhere, had a vision and pursued it to its beautiful conclusion, but the truth is that the vast majority of films are cobbled together after a string of compromises and leaps of inspiration.

The finished article

Inverting the Pyramid didn’t have such a troubled genesis as Jaws, which so troubled Steven Spielberg that he considered breaking his own arm to get out of having to direct it (see, there I am, like a git, comparing my book to one of the biggest films of all time, when what I should be doing is wondering whether he could have got Michael Caine to stamp on his arm as he placed it over a gap between the slats in a dressing-room bench), but it wasn’t exactly a smooth passage.

After finishing Behind the Curtain, which got good reviews but less than spectacular sales, I was chatting to my editor and my agent and a couple of other people at the publishers about what I could write next.

I hadn’t quite got round to suggesting a history of monkey-tennis, but I wasn’t far off, when somebody mentioned that they’d enjoyed the sections of Behind the Curtain that had dealt with tactics – that is, the bit on the Hungary side of the early fifties and the stuff about Valeriy Lobanovskyi. My editor, it turned out, had once commissioned the former Times journalist Peter Ball to write a history of tactics, but he died before finishing it, and so was already keen on the idea.

As somebody who’s far more adept with brain than body, I’d always had a vague interest in tactics, and had pioneered my college team’s highly successful switch to 3-5-2 (at that pathetically low level, a pair of fit wing-backs such as we had drove the opposition wingers back onto their full-backs, leaving you with three-on-two at the back and three-on two in midfield).  So, thinking that rehashing the Hungary and Lobanovskyi stuff, adding a touch of Total Football, a dash of catenaccio and a nod to Alf Ramsey couldn’t be that taxing, I agreed to look into writing a proposal.

Realising that this was a lot of effort for no guaranteed return, I got in touch with FourFourTwo, who agreed to take a big history of tactics running over two issues. That covered the basic research required for the proposal, so all seemed well until I sat down to write the thing. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so bored, which is never a good sign.

It was one of those pieces where I’d have to set myself rewards: write 200 words and then you can watch the next five goals on Superkev’s Hot 100. No dinner till you’ve written another 400. I presume external circumstances were to blame, because the article reads fine now, but that piece really was ground out, word by painful word.

"One more sentence... then jaffa cakes. Hmm"

So I left it a while, and then came to turn that into a proposal. Something happened. Suddenly, I started to see connections, themes emerging, areas that needed research.

I finished the proposal in under a day, and I knew there was something worthwhile there. The deal was signed with the publishers and I started scratching about with writing it. Then Sunderland got promoted under Roy Keane, and I was offered another deal to bash out Sunderland: A Club Transformed. I would have had three months, but I didn’t want to tempt fate by starting before the promotion was secured, so I only had two.

I worked 20 hours a day on that, and it nearly destroyed me. Exhausted, I took a couple of weeks off and climbed Kilimanjaro, which left about seven months to write the tactics book. And then came the meeting that changed it utterly. I can’t remember what event it was, but I bumped into Marcela Mora y Araujo, the Argentinian journalist. “Oh, you’ve got to interview Bilardo,” she said when she heard what I was doing, and I knew that if I was going to do the book properly, she was probably right.

And if I was going to Argentina, I thought, I might as well go to Brazil as well.  The book suddenly became far more serious, because having decided to spend three weeks in South America researching it, it meant the research elsewhere had to be increased. And the more I researched, the more I found.

How, I wondered, had nobody spotted that Queen’s Park’s adoption of the passing game in 1872 was directly related to the change in the Scottish offside law in 1866? Why did so few people realise that catenaccio predates Helenio Herrera? And why did nobody care who’d invented the 4-2-3-1?

"Right lads, we're going to bamboozle 'em with a bit of catenaccio..."

Then, in Brazil, I came upon the figure of Dori Kruschner, the man who imported the W-M in 1937, was mocked and dismissed, died in 1941, and then was proved to have been a visionary.

He stands now as a mythic figure, an alien from a strange land who imparted magical knowledge, and yet nobody knew who he was. All that was known was that he was from central Europe, and was probably Jewish.

So I asked a mate in Budapest to dig a little, and he, like the Brazilian historians I’d spoken to, turned up nothing. Until, that is, he suggested Kruschner might actually be spelled Kurschner.

It revealed Kurschner had won five caps for Hungary before the First World War and, startlingly, had played under and then succeeded the great Jimmy Hogan at MTK. So suddenly Hogan was revealed not merely as the father of football in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Hungary, but also the grandfather of Brazilian football. It was at that point that I realised the book might actually be of some significance, might actually be the best thing I’ll ever write. That’s a great feeling, but it’s also stressful, and there were mornings when I woke and dry-heaved with the tension.

Whether the book actually achieves what it might have done I don’t know. Certainly now I can see gaps and things I’d write differently given a second go, but I think it turned out OK. And so, more importantly, did the judges. Is that enough? Can I stop now?

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