Keeping the best kept secret in football secret
The Secret Footballer reckons about 30 people know for sure and plenty more have their suspicions
James Beattie: is he The Secret Footballer?
The whoosh-whip of the Skype window says it’s time. “Hiya mate, my name’s Chris,” comes the voice behind a blank screen. “I’m here with The Secret Footballer. I’m just going to check that the voice disguiser app is working. This is my normal voice . . .”
“Soo nooow it shooould be something akin to what Frank Bruno sooounds like.”
Ha! Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what it sooounds like.
“Okay, so the next voice you’ll hear will be TSF.”
“Good awwwfternooon . . .”
Thus spin the hoops that have to be jumped through in order to interview the English soccer player who since the beginning of 2011 has been writing anonymous columns under the byline of The Secret Footballer. They ran in the Guardian for a couple of seasons and now appear on his own eponymous website every weekend.
An antidote to the everyday and the prosaic that fleshes out many soccer columns in newspapers and on the web, TSF’s signature idea was to lift up a few rocks from around the game and let the world see what the creepier crawlers underneath got up to. So popular were his frank tales that he has parlayed them into a couple of books, the second of which – Tales From The Secret Footballer – has just come out.
His anonymity allows him to tell stories that lay bare a level of venality so grim that a combination of omerta and libel laws wouldn’t allow him to tell as himself. Like the club he was at where the wives of the players were in charge of running fundraisers for two charities each year, to be chosen by two different wives from season to season.
One year, a friend of TSF got a phonecall from a team-mate about a charity auction they’d been to a couple of nights previously where the player had bid for and bought a Manchester United shirt. “The people have been in touch to tell me to pay the money into a personal account,” he said.
Turned out what had happened was that this was the season when the club’s chairman called a halt to testimonial games, deciding that the players were wealthy enough anyway (as TSF puts it in the book, “I guess nobody should be rich except him”). So to make up for missing out, the club captain and his wife hijacked that season’s charity drive and diverted the proceeds into their own bank account. When the ruse was uncovered, the captain was shunned by the rest of the squad and the club went into freefall.
For these and other sins, a decent man’s patience with the game and the world spawned by it can only ebb. TSF is still playing, albeit not at the Premier League level that he once did, but as the years have rolled his wish to be someone else entirely has grown. Only up to a point, mind.
“I found that I had enough by the time I was about 27. I couldn’t get out because I was on a fortune, a huge contract. It made me feel like a complete mercenary and made me hate the game even more. It was a cycle that I had made for my own back. It was a really awkward position to be in.”
Where his first book was part-exposé and part-sop to the prurience of the public with its nose pressed against the glass, his second more reflective. His on-pitch career is coming to an end and his next step is a question he doesn’t have an answer to yet. His wife writes the book’s foreword and includes the bracing line: “He feels as if he’s wasted the last 15 years of his life.”
We should note that this is a wealthy man by general standards (if maybe a little strapped by footballer standards). At one point in the book, he goes for a walk on the beach in Ras al-Khaimah and comes back £210,000 lighter and the proud owner of a luxury villa looking out on the Arabian Sea. If he has wasted the last 15 years of his life, he has wasted them better than most.
“It sounds a bit ungrateful I suppose,” he says. “It isn’t meant to come across like that. It’s basically quite deep-rooted however. In my family, even though they’re very proud of me for having had a football career, it’s almost as if you’re not using your brain to go and do what I do. You’re not really maximising your potential as a person or as an achiever. It’s almost seen as a sort of easy way out.
“That’s a feeling that I actually have inside me where I think maybe if I had actually used my brain, which I’m not too bad with, I could have actually achieved something. Rather than just being paid to play football. I always say this to my father. He was a builder and he can walk past houses that he built and he’s incredibly proud of that.
“Whereas with my own kids, I can’t show them where my work is. It doesn’t exist. The only thing they can see is stuff on tapes that nobody really cares about. And so it’s the kind of thing where I’m thinking, ‘Well I haven’t really made a worthwhile contribution’. I’ve always had the sense that, as Alan Bennett says, the best has been and gone.”
It’s arguable of course that if the feeling goes that deep, it will take more than a column and a couple of books to assuage it. He is still playing the game, still picking up a cheque, albeit at a lower level. Ask him if, knowing what he knows, he’d have made the same choice at 15 years old to go for a career in the game and his reply is vague at best.
“Well I don’t think I’d wish what I know on any 15-year-old. I always wanted to be a footballer. My father taught me to be cynical about the world – not just in football – and perhaps he’s succeeded a little bit too well.
“But I’m happy to say that I play football, that I had a crack at it. I suppose the best way to look at it though is, ‘Would I encourage my kids to go into it? Or someone else’s kids?’ And the answer is probably no.”
This oscillation between infatuation and unease is at the heart of what makes the column. Like all good ideas, he robbed it from someone else and made it his own.
“When I first read The Secret Agent column in the Financial Times, I knew straight away that it would be great to have a footballer version of it. It was brilliant stuff he had in it.
“He was a high value real estate agent in London selling premium property and just some of the insider nuggets he had were amazing to read. Stuff about these Arabs coming over with enormous entourages, a very specific sort of mews he had to find with £10m to go and find it. It really appealed to me.”
Thus, the little details that he couldn’t rightly include if his face stared out from atop the page are his strongest suit. Like the time he lent £20,000 to a friend playing for a team who just got relegated because he couldn’t meet his mortgage payments. Or the poisonous battle he had with one chairman whose club was going under and who wanted the players to defer their wage packets while the club sorted out its financial problems.
When he started, he presumed his identity would leak out eventually. If and when it did, the idea was to find some punditry work off the back of it. Now, though, he reckons that there are a handful of lawsuits waiting for him if he ever admits to being behind the column.
“The reality is that my lawyers are telling me now that if I do reveal who I am, I need to be prepared for legal letters, court challenges and so on. And as you read in the books, financially, that’s far from easy to solve. It’s not a place that I really want to find myself in. So I’ve kind of made a rod for my own back now. It’s something I do worry about to a certain extent.
“I am aware that I now have to take this somewhere. I’ve taken people’s money to build a business. We have the website, we’re building new columns – Secret Wag, Secret Agent, Secret Manager. We’ve other people coming to us and saying they’d like to do Secret Rugby Player, Secret whatever other sport. We’re hoping to franchise it and make a business out of it.”
For now, he remains hidden. The website Whoisthesecretfootballer. com is dedicated to informed guesswork, taking their clues from bits and pieces of his career arc revealed in the columns and books. Dave Kitson is the name that tops their poll, followed by the likes of Danny Murphy, Kevin Davies, Phil Neville and James Beattie.
He reckons about 30 people know for sure and plenty more have their suspicions. Mostly, though, people are oblivious.
“I’ve had a lot of players say, ‘You’ve got to read this book’. When my first book came out, there was a player on the team bus reading it. and he turned to me and handed it over and said, ‘You’ll really like this – just read the first chapter’.
“And I remember taking it from him and opening the pages and going, ‘Aw God, I can’t read this again. I spent a year writing the bloody thing – I can’t bear to go through it again’. So I just stared blankly at the page and then handed it back.
“There was a player in the dressing room at the club I was at when it was in the Guardian who would quote passages of it without having any idea that it was me. But as it went on, you could see him gradually piecing it together and he definitely had his suspicions. So I got into the habit then of putting on my best poker face and saying, ‘I’ve heard it’s this guy’.”