It is often said that 95% of what happens in football takes place behind closed doors and, believe me, the truth is far stranger than fiction. You might see us for 90 minutes on a Saturday and form many of your opinions about football purely on that fleeting appearance. You might watch analysts drone on about tactics without realising what they are saying is predesigned to fit a narrative and barely scratches the surface. Perhaps you’ve read about the infamous Christmas parties in the tabloids and wonder if they are as crazy as they would have you believe. Maybe you simply don’t understand how young, seemingly healthy athletes, who appear to have it all, can be depressed […] The only way you would ever find out the answers to many of those questions is to read a book that was written in total anonymity by a player who has played at the highest level […] Many of these stories I shouldn’t be telling you. But I will.
Football fans worldwide are currently obsessed with the no-holds-barred blogs (and now book) written anonymously by a top-tier footballer. They’re simultaneously devouring the text for its insights and scouring it for clues to his identity. Much like Top Gear’s The Stig, whose identity was unknown until he broke cover and wrote a memoir, pop culture references and merchandise have popped up around The Secret Footballer phenomenon. These include t-shirts that bear the confession ‘I am The Secret Footballer’. I’ll not deny that I want one of those.
As someone who works in football, albeit it in a much smaller, much less accomplished capacity than this player, I read I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting The Lid On The Beautiful Game with a mix of fan awe and sort-of-insider nodding. This player, whoever he is, leaves nothing out, with his frankly told tales proving humble and gripping. Paul Johnson, his editor at the Guardian, explains his initial thoughts when the footballer first approached him with the idea for the column:
[…] would he write honestly, what would he hold back, could he sustain themes, could he write at all? All those thoughts disappeared the moment the first piece arrived—and he has got better and better ever since. This book was his idea. It is all his own words, his own experiences, his own thoughts, his own emotions. He is a remarkable man.
Whoever The Secret Footballer is, he didn’t come to football via the traditional route (and that’s perhaps what enables him to write so incisively about it). He came from a loving working-class family. He read the classics on holidays as a child. He grew up kicking a football on a council estate in hand-me-down shoes. And he was unprepared for a time when he’d have money or when fans would be calling his name. Early on, for example, he turned around at hearing his name and the calls immediately changed to ‘wanker’. He’d forgotten that he’d made it to a level where his name was plastered on the back of his shirt.
What makes The Secret Footballer’s work so interesting is that he gives equal and unflinching weight to both the good and the bad of a footballing career—the highs of adulation, the lows of depression, and the fierce team and coaching staff dynamics in between. While teams mostly appear cohesive from the outside, there are power struggles playing out on the inside. These include initiations for new, young players, with more senior players kicking balls hard at them in an effort to get them to miscontrol it. No one’s safe from such treatment. On his first day at Manchester United, footballing legend Dwight York (best known in Australia as the marquee player for Sydney in the A-League’s inaugural season) received a rocketed ball from Roy Keane. ‘Welcome to United,’ Keane said. ‘Cantona [another legend of the game] used to kill them’.
You don’t always have to like your manager, The Secret Footballer points out, but you do need to respect them. He outlines the hypocrisy of a manager who fined him for going out for a drink with friends on a Tuesday night while he was injured. It didn’t contravene the rule of no drinking within 48 hours of a match, but the manager’s reasoning was that drinking would hamper his rehab. Fair call. The clincher, though, was that the manager then asked if The Secret Footballer ‘gotten a hold of anything’, despite the fact that he had a long-term girlfriend: ‘He turned out to be more disappointed that I had no story to tell than with what he was fined me for in the first place. That day we both lost respect for each other but for very different reasons.’
Apart from the awesomely simple, incredibly powerful cover art that both maintains the footballer’s anonymity and gives a nod to the tradition of protest and writing on undershirts, the book contains some interesting moments and more interesting trivia. The Secret Footballer is famous within his team, for example, for forgetting his iPhone charger. He shares a pet hate of mine: captains who put the captain’s armband on the wrong way (it’s totes not that hard!). He’s also had bizarre experiences of people following him around the supermarket to see what he put in his basket and thinks he may be responsible for a ‘mini boom’ in the sales of a breakfast cereal with the frankly unappetising name of Frosted Shreddies.
He details some on-the-road fun, including a ‘skate off’ on a hotel luggage trolley that included trying to ride it through revolving doors (admittedly that one didn’t end so well). There was also a drinking game that involved one of the players being dressed as Where’s Wally‘s Wally. The player in question would go missing approximately once an hour and the rest of the team had to find him with the last to realise he was missing having to drink.
The book’s peppered with plenty of game-play insight too, sating us readers’ appetite for expert detail. These include the four reasons why ball possession is integral (which I’ve paraphrased below):
- When you have the ball, your opposition can’t score.
- Ball possession means your opponents exhaust themselves trying to get a turnover and, when they do, they’re too buggered to do anything useful with it.
- Possessing the ball means you can draw players out of position to find an opening
- Holding the ball equals recovery—a new favourite concept is ‘rest in possession’.
Another is an explanation of positioning to defend corners—something every armchair expert has a misinformed but strongly held opinion on. ‘We should have a man on the post’ gets bandied around often but, The Secret Footballer tells us, being positioned on the six-yard line will see a player clear hundreds more corners in a season than being positioned at the post. I’ll remember that next time someone bandies that man-on-the-post criticism around in the pub …
I couldn’t begin to guess who The Secret Footballer is, although I’m as desperate as every other punter is to know. I recognise, though, that much like The Stig, the appeal’s in the mystery rather than the reveal (I mean, how much did the whole ‘I am the Stig’ thing deflate once Ben Collins came out?). On the upside, and a solid reason for maintaining the anonymity, is that as long as The Secret Footballer remains secret, we can likely look forward to more crackingly good books and blogs.