It came out of the blue. A message from a Twitter user plugging Heristage, ‘the only French-language site dedicated to English football’. The message directed me to a long and superbly detailed analysis (in French but at this link) of Sunderland AFC’s ‘Bank of England’ era, that period of the 1950s that older supporters identify as the trigger for our decline.
Heristage turned out to be the work of Rémi Carlu*, a young, half-French/half-English lover of the game as played here, the country of his mother. He’s currently studying back in the UK and happily agreed to explain himself. Rémi doesn’t support Sunderland – he favours Chelsea (mmm…) – but cares enough about his chosen project to have researched us thoroughly; he also thinks, I’m afraid, that we should accept relegation in return for rebuild …
But all his views are fascinating, all the more so coming from a semi-outsider. I commend this to you as a great read …
Salut! Sunderland: Tell us first of all about your passion for English football. Where does it comes from, and why England and not, say, Spain, Italy – not to mention Ligue 1?
Rémi Carlu: Well, the important step was when I became a Chelsea fan, because I started following not only one football club, but also the entire league and soon all English professional divisions. From the beginning, I’ve been impressed by and amazed at the passion within English football, which has no comparisons with other continental football; that’s why it’s the only one I’m watching attentively. It’s fair to say though that the English culture has always been special to me because of my English origins: my mother was born and lived in England before moving to France at a young age. I’m not too sure really; football may have been unconsciously a way of tracking back my origins and affirm my difference, which every young guy want to do I guess.
What is certain now is that English football is my main passion in life, and that it won’t change.
How about a shot at the Sunderland v Leicester ‘Guess the Score’ – there’s a prize so have a go at https://safc.blog/2016/11/sunderland-vs-leicester-city-guess-the-score-beatable-champions/
And the idea of a blog in French about English football seems strange. Explain how it came about?
I talked just before about the cultural aspect of English football which fascinated me from the start. Football isn’t only a game of 90 minutes here; there is all this historical, cultural, almost divine aspect to it.
So firstly, I read a lot about Chelsea, its culture and history, and one thing leading to another, I started reading historical things about other football clubs.
It really captivated me and when you’ve got a passion, you want to talk about it, to share it. So that’s why I decided to create a website, Heristage, entirely focused on the history of English football because I thought it would interest people that maybe don’t have the courage, the time or the abilities in English to read articles and books.
I could have done it in English but I put a great emphasis on the way a piece is written, and I would have felt limited at some point in English. Furthermore, I think it’s a good thing to enable the abundant English football fans in France to have access to its history in an easier way, because big media don’t talk about the history of English football, except though little and irregular articles.
Yes sure! I launched it in August, and as you can guess it was a bit difficult to find an audience at the start. It’s obviously getting better though hard work, but it highly depends on the topic of the article. My piece on Arsenal 1989 title is really popular, while my chronicle on Harry Potts & Burnley logically struggles to find an audience.
But I totally accept that I and I know I’ll have to keep working hard before a large audience get interested in the history of English football. There is a saying from Gilbert Cesbron that I like and that summarises my approach: “There are two types of journalists: those who are interested in what people are interested in, and those that interest people in what they are interested in – and those are the greats.”
Your article on Sunderland concentrates on the infamous Bank of England era. Explain how you went about your researches
Well, obviously, I’m reading lots of football books, and I came across the Bank of England club tag in Jonathan Wilson’s biography of Brian Clough. For my website, I decided not only to focus on the modern so-called ‘big’ football clubs but about all English clubs, as each one of them has known a golden age at some point, and I decided to write about that Bank of England era because I really wanted to know more about a policy that seems so modern: spend lots of money to build a team.
So then, as for every article – though there aren’t lots of online pieces about this topic – I just made research, read as much as possible, gathered information and tried to put as much as I could into my article, because I wanted it to be almost exhaustive. The rivalry between Shackleton and Ford was an interesting topic to dig in, and it became the governing principle of my article.
And you liberally quote Len Shackleton (see that fabulous YouTube clip above – Ed): is that taken from his autobiography (with Colin Malam) or diverse sources?
Those quotes are coming from various sources, as explained at the bottom of the article in the bibliography section. Thus, most of them are coming from several books, especially from Clown Prince of Soccer?: The Len Shackleton Story.
You describe what happened to Sunderland from the 1950s onwards as the sad destiny of club with such a rich tradition. How do you see us today?
I see you as a massive football club with a rich history and an important fan base, which is for me the most important thing as it constitute a club identity and soul. And that epitomises exactly why I love English football: never limit a football club to its current result, but rather assess its historical and cultural wealth. So for Sunderland, short term perspectives aren’t exciting for sure, but hopefully you’ll recover from that lethargic state soon and start building a coherent project.
Can you envisage a revival that goes beyond simply avoiding relegation each season, that is to say Sunderland once again becoming a fixture among the top six-eight clubs, or must we resign ourselves toi more of the same?
Well, even if modern football seems to make opportunities difficult for lower clubs to rise, football stays football and you can’t predict the future trends. I just think everything is possible, or in fact I hope everything is still possible, because it’s the reason why football is so unique!
For a few seasons now, you’ve been battling to stay up, which led to a lot of managers being sacked and the squad being changed a lot a year to another. But to establish yourself a as good football club, you need stability!
So that’s why for Sunderland, I think the best thing for you would be to get relegated. If the disaster happens, then things would change. I think it could be an opportunity to clean up the squad and make sure you’ve a committed bunch of players to climb the hierarchy again. I think also that while being relegated, you should definitely keep David Moyes who’s a great manager and give him the time he need to build his squad. Then, I think a brighter and ambitious future for the club would be possible.
But unfortunately if you stay up, then I think next year, and the year after won’t be different to this one or the one before: just match-up job to maintain the club in the Premier League. It’s a matter of short and long term perspectives.
Who, in whichever country, are you favourite clubs and is there one club of which that you regard yourself a true fan?
Yes sure, I consider myself as a Chelsea fan since 2006 as explained above. Actually, the story is a bit atypical: in February 2006, I wasn’t at the time interested in football at all. But on the 10th, I was looking for a good programme on TV and came across the penalties in the final of the African Cup of Nations between Ivory Coast and Egypt. I decided to watch it. Ivory Coast lost as their captain called Didier Drogba missed his penalty, and his sadness saddened me too. So I just googled him, started following his progress and rapidly fell in love with Chelsea and English football.
Do you see many English games other than on TV? Describe your match-going activities
Yes sure, I’m watching as many games as I can really. Firstly, I’m only watching English football, except on rare occasions. Last year while I was in France, I was used to watching three games on the Saturday, two on the Sunday plus some during the week. I used to stream lower league football as well, from Championship to National League!
I’m in England this year and I’m watching a bit less TV football to tell the truth as I’m working a lot for Heristage, but I still easily watch three games a week. And of course I have got the possibility to go to football stadiums now which is much better than anything else!
Name the players you regard as the best to have played in England, with examples of homegrown and imports
That’s a tricky question really, because I haven’t seen enough old matches to be able to shape my judgement.
The other problem is the fact that in football books, every player of a winning team is describe by the author as a great player, and if you can guess the hierarchy between the importance of players within a team, it’s difficult to establish a hierarchy between players of various teams and various eras.
That’s one of the reason why I’m mostly focused on the importance of managers as it’s easier to shape your own judgement on their work. To try to answer your question, I’ve got obviously to say Sir Stanley Matthews and Sir Tom Finney, Sir Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Moore, George Best, Kenny Dalglish, Paul Gascoigne and surely another dozen!
In terms of Premier League football, I’m sure your readers will be able to say.
Any wider thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city and region, Davod Moyes etc?
Well, I’ve never been there unfortunately. Maybe I’ll get the opportunity to come this year! I just know that the North East is a region of great football heritage, and that your fans are really committed.
I do rate David Moyes as well, I was in fact really happy to see a club as important as Sunderland appoint him last year, because he clearly is the type of manager that can build a long-term project.
The only thing is to give him time, some money – unfortunately, it’s compulsory nowadays – and a sound squad.
Will we stay up again this season?
Firstly, as I said, I think it would have advantages to go down, and such a big club would then be able to get promoted quickly. And secondly, I think you will, with Hull and Swansea.
Remi Carlu lui-même:
I’m 20 and I’m French (as you’ve guessed) originally from the north of France where I go back during holidays. I’m studying human sciences (politics, economics, sociology, law, history) at Science Po Strasbourg in France, just near the German border, but since September I’ve been on a study overseas year in politics at Leeds University, which I really enjoy. I already spent a year in London three years ago, which I really appreciated too as I was living with an English family. Professionally, I want to become a journalist, specialised about English football obviously.
Otherwise, I’m passionate about politics, economics, football and basketball. But don’t worry because from all of those, English football is my main hobby and gains on most of my time! Thanks a lot for being interested in my project and asking those questions. Good luck to you in your own projects.
Interview: Monsieur Salut