Few people know for certain who the Secret Footballer is, but there’s no question that his columns and books have made compelling reading for several years. What started life as a regular feature in The Guardian has now expanded into something of a publishing mini-empire. The Secret Footballer: Access All Areas is the fourth book in the series and there is a website and several spin-off identities including secret Wags, secret journalists and secret physios. We spoke to him over email.
This new book is a bit of a departure from your previous work, isn’t it? The columns have always been explanatory, even a little scholarly, but this is pretty brutal. Why the change of style?
Retirement. Retirement lends itself to two things. Firstly, you can wreak revenge on everyone who has pissed you off, which is entertaining. Secondly, you can throw a lot of humour into the mix because you want people to see how far football can drag you down. And when football isn’t there, the pressure and the weight of the world isn’t there either, and the humour begins to show itself more readily. The A to Z of Premier League football clubs does the humorous bit and the rest of the book does the brutal, nasty side of things. That was my plan when I started writing, anyway. To be honest, I think there are traces of both in each section.
You had a dig at Manish Bhasin, formerly of the ‘Football League Show’. He seems so nice! If you had to assemble a ‘panel of the damned’ for the worst football coverage ever, who would you pick? I’m looking for a presenter, a commentator and two studio pundits.
Did I? I love Manish, he is a lovely fella. Presenters are too easy to have a pop at because they fall into a world, a TV world, in which everyone is just trying to stay relevant. It’s so fake. It’s worse than football. You can smell the desperate stench of staying in the “biz” for as long as possible all around you, whether you’re talking to a runner, producer, editor or presenter. No wonder TV is so shit these days. If you’re pushing me – and this is not to say that I dislike these people, it is simply that I find myself disagreeing very often with what they say – Martin Keown and Robbie Savage. And a presenter … Mark Chapman. Probably a nice guy but, every now and again, it’s like: “Yeah, you’re a Manchester United fan. We fucking get it!” Commentator? Never cared for Jonathan Pearce’s voice but that’s not his fault!
Do you worry about upsetting former colleagues? And if not, why not?
The first thing to say is that there is occasionally a level of misunderstanding by some people over what “The Secret Footballer” stands for. I set it up because I was absolutely sick of reading so much drivel about football. There was so much guesswork from fans and blatant lying by clubs and players. I thought to myself that what we really need is somebody who understands most facets of this game and can actually explain each element. I tried to do that. Some people think it is a “naming and shaming” exercise, which is isn’t. In fact, I think the very first tweet I put out said as much. That said, if I’m writing about an anecdote and realise halfway through that it will implicate somebody who I know if the story ever gets out, I generally drink about 12 Coronas, finish the piece and submit it. But I think you have made a telling distinction in the question that cuts right to the heart of a very famous football quote that every single person in this game can recite – “There are no friends in football, only acquaintances.” If you live by that particular sword – and most of us do – then there is every chance that, one day, you’ll die by it, too. Especially me.
There is a website dedicated to unmasking you and one name is in heavy circulation on the internet. That name can also be linked to many of the stories in the new book. Are you concerned that you might not be so secret anymore?
I couldn’t honestly care, I lose no sleep over that side of it. I really mean that. Anyone who reads my books can deduce that I am a person who has lived my life and continues to live my life with a certain “c’est la vie” attitude. That part of The Secret Footballer is fun for some people, I understand that. Yet, ultimately, when TSF is no more, people won’t have anything left with which to unmask me other than what is already out there – only the words that I have given them. The body of work that I will leave behind, I hope, will encourage people to say: “Wow, that was good, that wasn’t like anything we’d ever read about football before … I wonder who it was?” In that order. That’s how I like to imagine it. God, I sound like a right arty wanker! Haha.
Would it be such an issue if you weren’t secret? Would it cause you problems?
I honestly believe that I would never work in football again. How could you trust someone who has uncovered all of what I have? Football is very insular and if people even have a slight whiff that you might be saying things to the outside world that you should not be saying, then you will be completely ostracised. And, believe me, rumours go around the world of football in a day or two. If something happens on Monday, everyone in the game knows who it was, what is was and what happened by the time they turn up for training on Tuesday morning. Nobody would ever touch me again with a bargepole. I’m no Edward Snowden but Edward could probably still get a job in football.
Your writing is honest and intelligent. It’s an antidote to the sanitised and dreary footballer autobiographies that line the bookshelves at this time of year. Aren’t you tempted to take the credit?
I don’t know whether the two are linked but I will say this. As a player, I could have earned twice as much money, been a far bigger name and had my own branding of sorts if I hadn’t been so selfless on the pitch. If you were able to speak to any of the players who I played with, the managers and scouts, etc, they’d all tell you that. I wanted to be successful, sure, but I wanted to win first and look good second. Trust me, there are hundreds of players who go about that in reverse.
Maybe that is a trait that I have to this day and it bares its soul in most of the other things that I do, too. The people who know me are all aware of what I am capable of. Those people are a very good bunch who I trust and who can open doors discreetly by saying: “This is TSF, he did this. You should talk to him about that.” What difference does it make if one million people who I don’t know find out that it was me? What do I get from that other than an ego trip of about an hour on social media?
But there is another reason for The Secret Footballer brand, the anonymity. It proved a very interesting social point in terms of how people perceive celebrity footballers. It goes something like this … my story is more interesting than that of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Steven Gerrard, etc, all put together. Those guys cannot tell you anything interesting about their careers and, for the most part, you’ve already seen it and read about it way before they get to write a book because it’s so public. And those guys can’t tell you about what goes on off the pitch, not really.
Take Rooney’s book: that was sold on the back of the fact that he once fell out with David Moyes. That’s it. That is the sum total of that last book. So, it is the name that sells those books. Their brand, if you like. If I released a book in my own name, nobody would buy it. I’m not a household name. But a Secret Footballer could play for any team, so there is no bias attached from day one. Manchester City fans won’t buy Rooney’s book but fans from clubs across the country will buy mine.
Plus “the secret” angle appeals to the readers’ sense of the unknown and, when I came up with this concept, that was a very on-trend genre – Banksy, Cityboy, The Secret Estate Agent. The last-named was miles better than it sounds and very big at the time, about how the world’s richest people bought the world’s biggest mansions. People loved that stuff. To me, it was a no-brainer. Plus if I ever write a book in my own name and unveil myself, well, that has to be good for a player who would ordinarily have had his book pulped after the first edition. Double-dipping, I think they call it, though that means something else in football circles …
Where does The Secret Footballer go from here?
I said that I wouldn’t write any more books and, no sooner had I said it, than I was inundated with offers from publishers and collaborative works from journalists and, interestingly, some players, too. I also had a very interesting offer from a TV production company that I’m looking at seriously. And the ubiquitous offers for licensing the brand on to merchandise have also reared their head, though I’m less enthusiastic about that. The TSF brand is really strong but, just as in my playing career, I find that I’m getting itchy feet to do other things. That said, I was in a train station the other day, looking at the books and their chart positions. I counted 18 books about psychology in the top 30 and three in the top five, including the No.1. It occurred to me that I’ve used psychology an awful lot in my books to make a point because it’s one of my favourite subjects and I have a Premier League psychologist in the Secret stable. To me, that is another no-brainer. There are so many ideas around TSF but I’m also looking at completely different things that I’ve always wanted to do but which football has always prevented me from doing. To be honest, you’ve caught me at a real crossroads in my life and, as yet, I haven’t actually decided what to do. A big part of me wants to leave this country altogether. I don’t like where we’re all heading right now.