There are three of these – one for England, one for Manchester United, and another for Liverpool – and they’re really under-appreciated. Admittedly, the form points them towards the partisan and, consequently, they were unlikely to ever have the broad appeal of other Jonathan Wilson books, but that doesn’t make them any less readable or interesting.
The England edition begins in 1929 and ends in 2007 and, in between, hinges around ten games of historical significance. The usual waypoints are here – the 1953 defeat to Hungary, the defeat of Argentina on the way to glory in 1966, and the semi-final exit to West Germany in 1990 – but they are not treated in isolation.
The ten individual chapters are not simply mechanical accounts of their respective games and neither are they just a rehash of the immediate context which most will already be familiar with. Instead, each fixture has been selected for its story telling purposes and used as a pivot for a broader discussion about the state of the English game.
The Wembley defeat to Hungary in 1953, for instance, shows the usual appreciation for Puskas et al and contains plenty of detail from the game itself. Wilson faithfully analyses the goals scored and, essentially, does what he does. But the additional layers are really fascinating: why were England so behind the curve at that point in their history, how was it that they had remained so resistant to the evolution occurring around them?
Albeit in condensed form, the chapters often provide compelling detail about England’s opponents, too. The Hungarian team’s rise against an unsettling political backdrop is as engaging as the English stasis which it eventually exposes, and the technical route which took them to that crescendo provides a greater understanding of just how influential that side continues to be. No, Jurgen Klopp did not invent the false 9 role.
Later, the treatment of Argentina’s Antonio Rattin is no less illuminating: his dismissal in 1966 remains famous, but the various complexes and issues which instructed it are less so. But that’s here too. These are stories of games, not just matches in isolation, and those tales are as frequently cultural as they are sporting. It’s certainly intriguing to note that, while England’s problems have always been attributed solely to the Football Association, Wilsons’s research also uncovers many instances in which journalists echoe their naivety. Really, these are tales of their time.
Most importantly though, they are also fresh accounts. The closer the book gets to the present day – it ends with England’s defeat to Croatia in 2007 – the more scarce the original detail becomes. That’s not a criticism, it’s inevitable. Nevertheless, Wilson also manages to offer a different perspective on games and periods which have already been digested many times over. Was Euro’96 such a ringing endorsement of Terry Venables? Was Steve McClaren so hopeless, or was he partly the victim of conspiring factors?
You may not agree with all the conclusions reached, but you will find them original and interesting.