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Brutal, but not brave

Jon Sutton reviews 'The Secret Footballer: Access All Areas'; plus exclusive extract.

12 October 2015

'The Banksy of the beautiful game', proclaims the cover of this, The Secret Footballer's fourth book. But there's little beauty to be found in these pages: TSF has been brutalised by an ugly, corrupt and cynical beast. He's been chewed up and spat out after a 'gloriously average career', and now in turn he will 'cough up a few memories and anecdotes from every club in the Premier League' and then tie them to themes running through professional football… 'Twenty hairballs'.

This is apparently the book that TSF's wife wanted to read. I can only assume they enjoy the security and 'what the hell' attitude that comes from a very long-standing relationship, because he doesn't paint a particularly sympathetic self-portrait. He's prickly, all elbows. TSF clearly delights in his own contrary, contradictory nature. It's a book of sharp edges and fine lines between, say, self-belief and arrogance, between standing up for what you believe in and petulance.

It's also a book where ego can inflate unchecked. The cloak of anonymity can become the Wizard of Oz's curtain. Read some of the tales in this book and you would be forgiven for thinking that TSF was a superstar, '50-ft tall', '100,000 people lining the streets and roads into the stadium', 'king of the city'. Sure, he's been a Premiership footballer, something I may have given my right foot for (I'm bloody useless with it anyway). But when you Google it and find out who in all likelihood TSF is, let's just say it's a bit of a disappointment.

Each successive anecdote makes it harder to maintain his anonymity, and I think TSF realises this and isn't that bothered. But it leaves me wondering who the Secret Footballer moniker serves now. I can see he's attempting to avoid the bland, media-trained anecdotes of the average footballer's memoir – who cares if Steven Gerrard thought Mario Balotelli was a risky signing – but that doesn't make it a brave attempt. Many of the acts that play out here would be more illuminating if we knew the characters, and it is entirely possible to write an open and honest football memoir (see Garry Nelson's 'Left Foot Forward', Tony Cascarino's 'Full time', even Sir Alex Ferguson's).

All we can assume is that anonymity is a self-preservation mechanism, and to be fair that insight doesn't pass TSF by. He says that he doesn't have a history of rejection at least in part because he never puts himself in a position where rejection can occur. 'Maybe it's why this very pseudonym exists? Interesting' he ponders. In a fascinating section on former Manchester United and England international turned Sky TV pundit Gary Neville, TSF opines that Neville is 'scared of failing', before writing 'Oh, and by "Gary", I mean "me". But you got that.' (Which briefly left me hoping, against all odds and evidence, that TSF was actually Gary Neville, writing about himself with heartbreaking honesty).

That awareness and sense of his own ridiculousness is TSF's saving grace, although you suspect that there remains a large gap between his dreams (taking over a 'sleeping giant' of a club and installing himself as chairman) and the reality (which may well be helping out at a non-league club and acting as agent to a few kids).

'Access all Areas' is most interesting, for our audience of course, when TSF tackles the mental side of the game. In the Gary Neville bit there are hints of avoiding the Dunning-Kruger effect: 'He is a smart boy. I think he might be smart enough to know that he isn't smart enough.' There are mind games, and those such as Roy Keane who 'saw through all of this bullshit with Fergie and Mourinho a long time ago'. There's those like former Newcastle United manager John Carver, whose naivety in the face of these masters of manipulation makes him something of a figure of fun. And there's a very persuasive few pages on Arsene Wenger: 'He is waiting for the football world to come around to him again. He is waiting for beauty and thinking to be the things that matter.'

There's also honest considerations of race and sex in the game, plus a skewering of the idea of the dressing room as a 'band of brothers' forged by banter (see exclusive extract below). But the overriding taste I was left with was one of bitterness. TSF feels cheated, wronged, and he delights in distancing himself from anyone and everyone. The only warmth is for his talented young prospects (who he is developing in order to send away), and for 'Scott', 'the mate who very nearly made it through the madness and the bullshit and never asked for a fucking thing in return.' Scott, TSF confesses, 'had reached out and I was nowhere to be found.' Scott killed himself. 'For a subject such as depression – something that I know rather a lot about – I was a fucking disgrace in helping Scott.' Standing on the station platform and on the brink of a real connection, TSF pulls away: 'I just couldn't deal with it - it was too much… I think about the difference between the expectation and the reality of life, and how out of sync they can sometimes be, and I use the time to draw a comparison between the West Ham fans and my friend, because in the time it takes me to do that, the train has passed.'

Who is The Secret Footballer? He begins to confront that question himself, but then hides behind banter and banners. If he's brave enough to clear all that away, he could write a truly great book rather than a 'gloriously average' one.

- The Secret Footballer: Access All Areas is published by Faber on 5 November. Reviewed by Dr Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist. See also his review of TSF's previous book, plus extract.

The following extract is from the chapter 'The Inbetweener', and is reproduced with kind permission of TSF.

"No wonder retired footballers have such a bad time of things. Statistically, there is a 33 per cent chance that I will be divorced within a year of retirement. There is a 40 per cent chance I will be bankrupt within five years… then an 80 per cent chance of osteoarthritis. And odds that I don't like to look at concerning addictions.

Still, I talk cynical but try to live better.

So come to where I've worked for the last 14 years or so. Remember this is us at work. There shall be no mention of what we do with our spare time and easy money. This is the world we eject from when we retire.

People say to me that, being retired, it must be great to catch up with so many of the great names and characters I shared a pitch with? Those friendships, forged in dressing rooms from League Two all the way to the Emirates, they are for life, aren't they? Those friendships are what it's all about at the end of the day.


I mean, for a young lad setting out on the road of the professional footballer. He knows that he will be part of some merry band whose loyalties to each other are beyond question?


It's a brotherhood, isn't it? You played together and then you stay together. You shared a dressing room and forever you will walk the earth like a band of brothers?

No. That's sentimental bollocks. You make the same number of friends in football as you would have if you spent the years working in Carphone Warehouse. You are left with some good buddies, and you know a huge crop of tossers.

And before you ask, no, I don't play golf. I'm still sexually active.

People argue these points. Footballers are rich and room together and holiday together and are always having the banter. Surely they retire and go and live in gated communities together and play golf every day while their wives lunch for charity and get group rates with plastic surgeons?

The truth is that on the outside nobody really understands the banter inside the changing room. Banter is our lubricant. It's how we mingle at the cocktail party of professional sport. It's the madness that stops us from going completely mad. If we are obnoxious enough to each other then we can't dislike each other for being obnoxious. Because it's banter.

That's all it is, though. It isn't brotherhood. It doesn't translate out into the real world. Within those four dressing-room walls anything goes. I can be as racially abusive, homophobic, sexist and generally revolting as I want to be.

The only thing that will happen is that other players will either laugh or they won't. Nobody will tell anybody on the outside. First rule of banter? No talking about banter.

Aside from the most degrading kind of banter, if that's what you want to call it, the changing room can be a very witty place where sharp minds and acid tongues joust for position. But, after 15 years, I'd totally had enough. I was ready to move on to solids and try some grown-up conversations.

Jimmy Bullard's brief stint on the TV programme I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! gives us a great little window on to this changing-room mentality that others just cannot grasp… People looked away from their TV sets in horror when they thought that Jimmy was bullying some talent-deprived lump from Rotherham while they were stuck in the jungle. Eating crocodile anus with cockroaches was entertaining and not at all demeaning, but Jimmy was bullying the beefcake.

It wasn't bullying, it was bantering, Jimmy said in his defence.

If you thought that Jimmy Bullard was bullying people then you'd have no chance as a youth team player in a changing room. Think of that before you send your darling son to work down the football pits.

When Jimmy began telling people that he'd never heard of them I can guarantee you that every footballer watching that was laughing. The crux of changing-room banter revolves around being able to subliminally point out the pecking order to somebody who is weaker than you. 'Who are you, mate?' 'Never heard of ya, mate.' Or even, 'Have you paid your dues?' Sound familiar?

It's just the bog-standard daily banter of football. Jimmy Bullard isn't a bully; he's just struggling to understand why this sort of banter doesn't translate outside of the training ground, the only place that he has ever known.

If the first rule of banter is no talking about banter, the second rule is never lose at banter. To do that, you have to pick a topic where you can win. Then you hammer it to death and it becomes your calling card. In the dressing room money is the obvious battleground. I've got more than you, and I earn more than you. Therefore you are shit, mate.

The easiest example I can give you is when one of our players drove into training in a brand-new Audi TT. He was very pleased with himself, and when the lads came out to have a look he happily showed it off. One of our older professionals, an England player no less, asked if he could drive it around the training ground and, naturally delighted that an England player was showing such interest, he tossed him the keys. Our England man drove off like the Stig and after a couple of circuits he pulled up, back where the lads were standing, and jumped out. 'Mate, that is really nice. I like that a lot. Where did you get it?' A new Audi TT and now this. The dog's golden bollox. The player couldn't wait to tell the Stig and the assembled company the good news: 'I got it from the guy down at Audi. He's doing deals for Premier League players, and he says if any of the lads go down there he'll sort them out.'

The England player looked suitably impressed. Nodded. 'Have you got a number for the guy?' he asked.

'Yeah, yeah, on my phone. I'll send it to you when we go back in.'

'Excellent, cheers. I'll give him a call this afternoon after training and go down there. I've been looking for a couple of these for the kids.'

Brilliant. That was the last time the Audi TT ever turned up at our training ground.

I have never been able to get my head around the players who say they miss these day-to-day exchanges. In the end your knees ache, your hips are sore and the banter gives you arthritis of the brain. I couldn't wait to get away from it. I was very rude to my teammates in the process, when asked what I thought about this car or that bird, or this watch. I just couldn't have the conversation so I removed myself from it. A curious thing happened because of that decision – the players left me alone and seemed to respect me more as somebody who had bigger fish to fry.

Banter got more and more tired. I enjoyed, at the end, a guy like Nemanja Vidic at United. I once asked him to swap jerseys with me at the end of the match. I just wanted to annoy him. 'Thanks,' I said, when he handed it over. 'I have to clean the car during the week. This is perfect. I'll text you a pic.'

'Yeah, no problem,' said Vidic. 'Same here, but I'll have to send you pictures of all my cars one by one if that's OK?' He got me fair and square but those moments were rare.